Last Friday, I went out to run a work errand, with the intention of stopping at the grocery store on the way home. I left home, drove down Stokil Drive, and stopped at a red light at the intersection with Beaverbank Road. When the light turned green, I moved forward in anticipation of making my left turn and slipping in behind the car opposite me that was turning right. The driver stopped, in the middle of his turn (on a green light, mind you), forcing me to hit my brakes (did I mention that the light was green?) and proceeded to wave at me to go ahead of him. Fine. So I went. I drove no more than 30 to 40 metres when a fire truck came speeding toward me, with red lights flashing and sirens blaring. Naturally, I put on my 4-way flashers and pulled over. The idiot from the intersection, who was now behind me, proceeded to pass me, in the process, crossing the centre line into the lane with the oncoming fire truck. I blew my horn, to no avail, as he passed me and simply waved in my direction. So now, I’d been on the road less than two minutes, and already I was extremely tense. When the fire truck had passed, I proceeded on my way. My next stop was at the intersection of Beaverbank and Sackville Drive, where I entered the left-turn lane, behind four other cars. When the light changed to the green arrow, and after the requisite wait for the lead driver to figure out what the green arrow means, I watched as three of the four cars in front of me made illegal left turns into the far right lane on Sackville Drive. I rolled my eyes as I made my perfect, proper left turn into the left lane and signalled my lane change, did a quick shoulder-check (not a mirror check),and moved smoothly into the right lane without any difficulty or delay. I proceeded down Sackville Drive, negotiating my way through the speeders, lane-jumpers, tailgaters and assorted other hazards, until I reached Sackville Cross Road, where I stopped at a red light, checked, and proceeded to make a legal right turn. As I was making my turn, I observed a female driver stopped at the green light at the top of Sackville Cross Road, staring down into her lap (What could she be doing?) As I turned, I blew my horn, and her head shot up as if I had yelled, “Free shooters to the first girl who shows the bartender her tramp stamp!”
I finished my errand, and headed back up Sackville Drive to Sobeys. After picking up a few things, I got in the car to head home. I hit a red light at the top of the Staples parking lot, stopped, and signalled a left turn to go on to Sackville Drive. The car across from me was also signalling a left turn, so we would not interfere with each other when the light turned green. When the light changed, I started to make my left turn, but had to slam on my brakes as another car went around the car across from me and proceeded to drive straight through the intersection. I glared at the driver as she passed, and she shrugged her shoulders and held out her hands as if to say, “What are you going to do?” Then, after avoiding that head-on collision, I proceeded to make my turn, only I had to brake again to avoid another collision as another car made an illegal right turn into the left lane into which I was about to turn. I eventually made my turn, and headed home. As I turned onto Beaverbank Road, I remember saying to Jaime, “I need to get home. I need to not be driving any more. I’m going to kill someone.”
I was out maybe 30 minutes, tops. The total distance I travelled was 7.5 kilometres.
That the preceding story is true is scary. That it is pretty much typical in terms of my daily driving experience is sad.
I used to love driving. I loved everything about it. Since I began driving, I have always driven places just for pleasure. Often, I didn’t need a destination. I would just drive for the sake of driving. If I ended up somewhere, great; if I didn’t, then I would just enjoy the ride. I drove with friends. Sometimes I drove alone. I loved being behind the wheel. I loved the freedom, the control, the possibilities.
Over the past several years, my attitude towards driving has changed. For the most part, I have come to dread it. It has become, primarily, a necessity. I have found myself at times wishing that I never had to drive again. I find it especially saddening that something that once gave me such a feeling of exhilaration and empowerment could have become so repellent.
How did this change take place? Well, to be blunt, people don’t know how to fucking drive.
I often read or hear stories about dangerously reckless drivers. There are the ones who race, or drive at ridiculously high speeds. The cell phone talkers were bad enough, but now, it seems, between the texting and all the fun things on the so-called smart phones that people just can’t seem to do without now, people just don’t have time to focus on the road. And we can’t forget the impaired drivers, the pinnacle of selfish assholery. There should be a special hell reserved for these narcissistic sociopaths, one that involves copious amounts of razor cuts, fingernail pulling, and groin kicks. However, as dangerous as these may be, they are not the ones that I have the most trouble with, at least on a daily basis. No, the ones who have I have blamed for taking away my love of driving are the ones I see every single day, who do not seem to have the first clue as to what they are supposed to do once they get behind the wheel.
Over the course of my over a quarter of a century as a driver, I have concluded that there are two types of turns which a large number of drivers seem to be unable to execute: left turns, and right turns. Seriously. Not a day goes by that I do not personally witness (and often have to avoid being hit by) drivers who do the following:
- Make wide right turns and swing over onto the other side of the road;
- Make sharp left turns and cut across the lane on the other side of the road;
- Fail to go deep enough into a turn when cornering left and cross the centre line into oncoming traffic;
- When turning right onto a street with two same-direction lanes, turn directly into the left lane instead of turning into the right lane and then changing lanes, and;
- When turning left onto a street with two same-direction lanes, turn directly into the right lane instead of turning into the left lane and then changing lanes.
I would swear that a lot of drivers don’t know what some of the equipment on their cars is for. They’ve mastered the ignition, the gear shift, the wipers, and the steering wheel (the last only functionally, see: turns, two types, and the drivers who suck at them). Lights are another story. Judging from my experience, quite a high percentage of drivers would be surprised to learn that they should signal before making a turn. An even higher percentage would be astounded if told that lane changes should be signalled as well (and for the love of, well, whatever, would you all start doing shoulder checks instead of relying on your mirrors, pretty-goddamn-please?). Headlights and taillights are important, too, as they allow other drivers to be able to see you. It never ceases to amaze me how many people fail to turn on their lights at times of poor visibility, like when it’s raining, snowing, or foggy. Hell, some people I've seen don’t even turn them on at night.
As a result of years of having to share the road with drivers who have obtained their licenses based on a system which I can only surmise must be far too lenient, I have reached a point where I have become too focused on the shortcomings of others. I have often found myself behind the wheel, thinking wild, irrational things. Many is the time that I have said to my wife that I would love to go out and buy a really old, really big car, and get in traffic accidents as a hobby. The accidents would never be my fault, you see. I would just refuse to avoid the avoidable, and allow negligent drivers to hit me. I have developed a terrible case of road rage; I actually get angry at other drivers who do not seem to understand that driving is not a right, but rather, a privilege and a responsibility in a civilized society. I have a problem. I recognize it. I acknowledge it.
The problem is me. I have to change.
I have good reasons to change, and they are very reasonable and rational. My demeanour when I am behind the wheel, and my reactions to what I am experiencing, are unhealthy and unsafe. The stress is killing me. My behaviour produces undue and undeserved anxiety in my family. My physiological response to my driving experience impairs me.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand my first two reasons. Being constantly put in stressful situations is not healthy, and it’s not hard to imagine how difficult it must be for my wife and kids to have to be in the car with me when I am in an absolute lather because someone just cut me off. The physiological part requires more explanation. My therapist told me that when humans are put in stressful situations, and the brain goes into “fight or flight mode,” as she described it, one of the natural physiological responses involves a narrowing of the vision. Our vision naturally becomes more focused on what is in front of us, but at the expense of our peripheral vision. This is the natural response that occurs in predatory species when they are hunting. I extrapolated this idea toward my driving, and came to the conclusion that when I “drive angry,” I am impaired, because my peripheral vision is diminished. For all of these reasons, I decided that a serious change was in order. I needed to approach driving in a different way. I knew what I had to do.
Those of you who know me well might be surprised by my new approach, but I have embarked on a program, which I have dubbed "Driving School," whereby I employ some very simple and natural thought processes each and every time I get behind the wheel. I am endeavouring to view other drivers with patience, tolerance, and empathy, and I am taking responsibility for my own feelings about driving.
I have come to realize some important things about myself, and these apply to my driving. I have complete control over myself; my actions, my reactions, and my feelings. I have no control over the actions of others. I cannot control what other people do. I do not know their feelings, their situations, their motivations. I can only control myself. I am an excellent driver. That has to be good enough.
For the past few weeks, I have been teaching myself how to drive. Or, more accurately, I have been teaching myself how to continue to drive in reality, as opposed to the fantasy world of perfect drivers that does not and will never exist. Before I get behind the wheel, I remind myself that I am in control only of myself. When I am driving, and I feel myself starting to slip into a dangerous mindset, I have a physical cue that I use to remind myself to be patient and to remind myself that I am in control. Already, I have noticed a change. I feel a lot less stress. I am more patient. I feel more aware. I am taking responsibility for my contribution to making our roads and highways safer. I have accepted the fact that I cannot control what other drivers do, and that I must be ever vigilant. I feel better.
I will never accept fully that there are drivers who do not know, or do not care to know, that they share the roads and highways with other drivers who depend on their ability to negotiate their travels with respect, awareness, and competence. I will never fail to notice when another driver violates the rules of law and civility, and I will always comment on this. I am by no means fixed or cured of my inadequacies. But I do care. I will strive daily to be better. I will control how I react. And, most importantly, I will continue to be an excellent driver. You can count on that.