[APAK logo] Issue #70, November 22nd, 1996

Zen Driving
by Jae Leslie Adams

Ted White's column on aggressive driving left me with the plaintive inquiry, where would he have us non-aggressive drivers confine ourselves? His driving ability is a good thing, but not available to everyone, as witness that pile-up of drivers he was able to thread his way through at high speed, those who had unfortunately not been able to avoid the hazard. We might suppose they would have liked to, if we look on them as persons rather than as objects in a maze.

The machismo in our driving culture is widely complained of but like the weather nobody does anything about it. As a devout Pedestrian I find it a challenge to even notice how I am being suckered into the universal hostility on the road, the competitive street racing. Is it the machines themselves that train the people operating them to act like automatons? As a rule I try to drive my husband's rusting 3/4-ton truck gently, but still it is hard to resist testing the excellent acceleration of its 454. It aggrandizes me to be fastest, even for a block. It feels good. We have generalized from each one's natural self-centered emotion, that one's own vehicle should be foremost and everybody else should get out of the way. This Is What Would Happen If Everybody Did: Hamburger On The Highways.

Without question, the roads must be utilized to their design limits, the machines must run as fast as possible, and we are all expected to function at the extreme limit of our ability. The insanity of this struck me in Portland one day last summer when I was heading for the ocean and got stuck for an hour or so in a slowdown, four packed lanes of drivers matching all their individual speeds to the bumper in front of them, at a huge expense in individual attention, for miles and miles, in a colossal daily waste of human energy and productive capacity.

When I was driving a rental car across Washington and Oregon last summer it was a bit confusing to be from out of state and not know exactly what the local customs were. If I followed the posted speed limits I was one of the slowest vehicles on the road, passed by everything else except a few heavily loaded campers and semis, and holding up traffic. So I followed along at the prevailing speed, in a zenlike state of attention to the present moment.

I can understand Ted's argument that driving well is partly an innate ability. But I have to quarrel with his equation of speed and skill. Driving skill includes higher-level functions besides reaction time and visual acuity, which can be summarized as judgment and luck, and a good reaction time won't make up for excessively poor judgment. Some people live more in the body than others, and everyone uses different configurations of the senses to find their way along. Those muscle-memory reactions which in Ted are apparently on a hair-trigger are considerably slower in many of us. Not all of the fast ones are men, and not all of the slow ones are women. It depends on what kind of car you drive. Is fast better?

I happen to be wired in a kind of slow-firing way myself. I know my spatial perception on the road doesn't take any prizes, so I take my time. It is better than being a nervous wreck.

That doesn't mean that I think about driving in a ponderous cerebral way. Learning to drive is precisely that process of getting the metal skin connected to our consciousness. Like many overly imaginative people I came to driving late and with difficulty. I've been driving for only 10 years, but having conquered a long-standing phobia I enjoy driving as much as anyone. This is, I enjoy driving on winding country roads at comfortable speeds, faster than my mom would like but slower than, well, than the people who pass me, but I do not much like other drivers, particularly when road conditions are bad. Ted describes a familiar sense of release when the car in front speeds up, and believe me, there is an equally physical sensation in being tailgated by a logging truck on a wet night.

I feel a visceral discomfort when my husband, as is his habit, follows traffic too closely. In spite of my confidence in his driving skills (he was a racer) I find myself hitting the imaginary brakes on the passenger side, but they don't work, and after a while I complain. Why should I have to be tense and uncomfortable as a passenger? On the highway, I match speed competently with vehicles in front of me, but leave a big comfy space in front of me so the hell-for-leather drivers can have some room to come in when they pass me. And you know, we all get there at more or less the same time.

What I go for in my driving is consistency, to be completely predictable for the other drivers on the road. I use my signals compulsively, but I will miss an exit rather than cut off another driver. I allow others to merge. The thing that no one seems to expect is that I yield.

The afternoon I drove up from Portland to Seattle I found a camper traveling at just around 70 mph and followed its lead a long comfortable way. Traffic flowed around and past us, like two stones. Then I found myself following a small cattle trailer of Holsteins, leaking cow fluids out the back, which spattered my windshield at 70-mph trickles. I accelerated toward 80 and passed and maintained a speed around 75, pulling far enough ahead not to annoy the driver I had passed. On a windy day the small rental car I was driving did not feel particularly stable at high speed. The cattle trailer accelerated and passed me very fast, showing off its larger cubic displacement, and came back into the lane directly in front of me.

The drips were still hitting the pavement at speed and splattering high, and if you thought about it they were staying pretty much where they fell as the traffic that followed drove through them. So I slowed, and hung back for a while, way, way back, ran the wipers again, and watched Corvettes (etc.) approach the trailer and wait powerfully and impatiently in the splash zone for their chance to pass. Finally the trailer exited, and I found my camper up ahead again. I wondered about that trailer driver, though, what she thought was going on. It certainly wasn't the cows fault. I guess some of us are just oblivious to the spray we leave behind.

In the future, I'll thank you not to cook my wife!

[APAK logo] Issue #70, November 22nd, 1996

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