Saturday, November 9, 2013

On the road

North American motorists are among the worst I have ever encountered—over nearly 30 years driving on both sides of the road in many countries spread across four continents as well as on numerous islands. I am not sure why this is so. Perhaps Americans learn to drive far too early—often at the age of fifteen or sixteen—and are held to a breathtakingly low standard, mostly using vehicles with automatic transmission. Many people freely admit that they could not possibly operate a “stick-shift,” or manual. Parallel parking is an almost complete mystery to them, for it is not part of the test. All you have to do in Connecticut is to steer your nose through 90 degrees into a vacant spot in a parking lot, and finish up somewhere between the two solid white lines. By contrast in downtown New Haven one often witnesses the comic spectacle of people making five, six attempts to parallel park, such that the end result is not parking so much as abandonment—four or five impressionistically unaligned feet from the curb, sometimes more, having for several minutes prior swooped, bumped, and zig-zagged, earnestly and longingly, in the hope of attaining eventual success. In heavily built-up urban environments they wander aimlessly between lanes, much encouraged by the extra space provided by one-way streets with three or more wide lanes, divided by lines mostly ancient but occasionally still visible. They hesitate, or suddenly change their mind in the middle of busy intersections. They ignore pedestrian crossings completely and often run red lights, as if these were merely advisory. They turn left from the right without indicating, tracing a wobbling arc that delivers them in the end to an inside lane at right angles, often against oncoming traffic, which is frequently ignored on the assumption that those of us with the right of way will intuitively, even gladly yield by braking sharply. On the interstate highway system, meanwhile, people steer their creaking old bedpans, many the epitome of un-roadworthiness—hubcaps and bodywork scraped, dented, battered, or missing; lights often broken or defunct—at 70 miles per hour and upwards when the speed limit is 55—aggressively tailgating, passing on the wrong side (a much cherished and particularly dangerous habit here in Connecticut), safe in the knowledge that they will almost certainly not be ticketed by any state troopers attempting to impose order. Motorists treat huge lorries as if they are as maneuverable and responsive as a Corvette. You see many yelling illegally into their mobile phones, and sometimes even texting at the wheel. Motorcyclists are free from any obligation to wear helmets. These lethal habits know no distinction as to race, age, or gender; they are universal. And every Saturday morning on National Public Radio a succession of callers to Car Talk (a program that runs of out of Boston), seek guidance about some 1983 Corolla that has clocked up 280,000 miles and is emitting smoke, or making an alarming noise, or conking out suddenly and inexplicably on the open road. The roads themselves, meanwhile, are pockmarked, bumpy, and shored up with dribbling lines of bitumen and stray gravel, or else clobbered and patched up in so ad hoc a manner that you wonder how the entire system can survive the punishment of another winter. The contrast between all this and the wilderness of late-model Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, and Renaults one encounters nowadays in the eastern suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, or the velvety smoothness of our freeways, could not be more stark, and provides an apt metaphor for the sluggishness and malaise in which the United States’ economy is in many sectors and many regions still immured—despite reassuring but mostly misleading noises from Washington and Wall Street. It is equally if not more worrying that many people think, in the face of all possible reason, that American drivers are, on the whole, pretty good, and that American streets, roads, and highways are as safe as can be!

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