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Friday, January 23, 2009

On the road

Americans don't know how to drive. Now that's not a completely horrible thing, because really no one knows how to drive, no matter where they come from. But is it really any wonder? Most of us are freely given the helm of our parents' Thousand-Pound Battering Ram of Death before we can even grow a respectable moustache. Any given 16-year-old male is far more concerned with what the girls at school think of his hair than he is with checking his sideview mirrors. Unless, of course, it's to fix his hair.

And these same strains on the teenager exist in other cultures as well, they're just different haircuts: Norway's got the greased-down black metal bangs, Colombia with its foofy soccer afros, and who could forget about Japan's gravity-defying spikey/swoopy things that can only truly be fully realized within episodes of Cowboy Bebop. With all the time the world's adolescents spend worrying over their hair, it's no wonder they can't pay attention when they're being taught how to drive. Of course that's a misnomer in itself. The actual teaching of the mechanics of driving are pretty basic: push this down to go, press this one to stop, turn this thing whichever way you want to aim. Explaining it like that just now makes it sound like directions to operate a missile. Fitting.

What we teach our kids behind that wheel the fateful day they turn fifteen is not about how to drive. They've already been running down pedestrians on their PS2's for the last six years if you're any kind of parent at all (seriously now, it'll keep them off drugs). What we're teaching them is what the United States Air Force calls "evasive maneuvering," and has nothing to do with driving itself and everything to do with the fact that no one knows how to drive. No one in the world. We get behind the wheel with a cell phone in one hand, a cheeseburger in the other and a box of fries between our legs as we try to suck soda out of the cup in the dash cupholder and read the newspaper on the passenger's seat. Substitute items with falafel, Neo Geo Pocket, and the Book of Mormon and we've pretty much covered the entire globe (and part of outer space). It's less driving and more Narrowly Escaping Certain Death at Every Turn. The only difference between America and the rest of the world is that American's actually think they're really good at driving.

When I was in New Zealand, I saw the exact same kind of boneheaded mistakes I see all the time on the road here at home. In fact, I was making more than my fair share, trying to get used to driving on the left in a manual transmission courier van with the gearshift on the opposite side. But I thought nothing of the drivers there until we talked to Bryan Crump at Radio New Zealand National in Wellington and he asked if we'd had any run-ins with the "terrible drivers" that populated the country. I said no, that the drivers had been, if anything, definitely more considerate than the ones we regularly came across in the States. He was surprised and told us that Kiwis generally thought of themselves as some of the worst drivers around. Here in America, you'd never hear such a thing. We could easily hold our own against Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the priss. We're regular Arctic adventures in the snow as long as our massive, top-heavy SUVs have the Holy Grail: "Four Wheel Drive."

And that's what makes us so much more dangerous than all any of the rest of the world's drivers, no matter how old, female and/or Asian they might be. As with most things that we do, we're the best, and nobody better tell us otherwise. We have the most car accidents of anywhere in the world per capita, the most drunk driving offenses, and the most vehicle-related deaths. Want to know how shockingly real those statistics are? I just completely fabricated all three of those claims, but you didn't even bother to question them because you know damn well that they're true. You see it on the road all the time. You're probably even part of the problem. That's not to say that I don't; I know I make stupid mistakes myself when I'm on the road (Jess reminds me of it all the time, usually in screaming tones as I slam on the brakes right before a red light I wasn't paying attention to). I am not, however, one of those Type A (is for "Asshole") Personalities who proudly brand themselves as "aggressive drivers" (I like to think of myself as an "offensive driver," slipping in and out of crowded highway lanes not in rage but in efficiency), behind the wheel of their trucks with bigger cabs than towing beds (that means you didn't need a truck in the first place, you fucking twat).

I'm also obviously not a "defensive driver," in either of its two most common forms: the garden-variety Frightened Old Lady Who Has to Sit on a Shoebox to See Over Her Steering Wheel, or the definite worse of the two, the Good Samaritan. That's the one that got my knickers in enough of a twist tonight to inspire me to sit down in front of my computer and bang this whole rant out. When I was leaving Jess' house tonight, I pulled out of her development onto the well-traveled main drag that cuts through the center of a number of small towns on my way home. As I waited for the two cars on the road to pass so that I might pull out safely, I noticed the front one--a minivan, of course--slow down. I stayed still, waiting to see if he was going to turn into the development before a leapt out in front of him, a bit irked that he hadn't put on his turn signal. Then he stopped completely, in the middle of the road, prompting the car behind him to slam on its breaks. I looked on in utter confusion until the minivan's headlights flashed.

OH THANK YOU GOOD SAMARITAN OF THE ROAD! I COULD HAVE NEVER WAITED ANOTHER TWELVE SECONDS FOR YOUR CAR TO PASS ME! IT'S A WONDERFUL THING YOU STOPPED IN THE MIDDLE OF A BUSY STREET, RISKING THE SAFETY OF THE DRIVER BEHIND YOU WHO WAS OBVIOUSLY AS SHOCKED AS I WAS AT YOUR CHOICE OF ACTIONS SO THAT I COULD BE ON MY MERRY WAY! LET ME WRITE DOWN YOUR LICENSE PLATE NUMBER, I WOULD LIKE TO REPORT YOU TO THE POLICE AND HAVE YOU AWARDED THE KEY TO THE TOWN. WHAT IS YOUR ADDRESSS? LET ME PUT YOU ON MY CHRISTMAS CARD LIST!

No. Fuck you. Are you an idiot? The guy behind you was not at all prepared for you to stop in the middle of the road for no reason whatsoever, and could have easily buried his front end into your back. And then you probably would have sued. Of all the people on the road, these idiots are the worst. At least aggressive drivers admit they have a problem. They might totally get a boner over the problem, but at least they know it's there. These Good Samaritans think they're doing a service for the rest of us, letting us go out of turn at 4-Way Stop signs, fucking up the whole flow of things, and causing more accidents than cell phone use does every year. Again, a statistic I did not take the time to look up, but that's beyond consequence here. You are the bane of the road, the worst of the worst. You go home and tell your spouses about all the good deeds you did today, while the rest of us wish we could figure out a way to get your license revoked. You are the epitome of the American Driver, always knowing what's best for everyone else, and proud to be doing just that every time you get behind the wheel.

Well, I've got news for you, Good Samaritan. Have you ever read that whole parable in the Bible? At the end, the eponymous hero of the tale gets brutally raped and stoned to death by all the people he's pissed off. Once more, information that I did not bother looking up, but it sounds right. Food for thought.

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