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Drive Better, He Said : Once Best in the U.S., Californians Now Act as Though They're Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

December 23, 1990|HARRY SHEARER

WE CAN BEGUILE ourselves with the fantasy that so-called Important Subjects occupy our minds, but it won't wash. For a while, I can write columns about subjects like politics or sports or race and pretend that I'm dealing with what "really" matters, but, you know, I'm not fooling anyone--least of all myself. Every so often, a person's got to come clean, drop the facade and deal with the only thing that actually does matter around here: driving.

Yes, that seems like a cliche assessment, on a par with the old Newsweek articles about people baking away their brains out in Lotusland (and this was before anybody actually drove a Lotus). But just look at the most recent election returns.

We voted against spending money for schools. We voted against spending money to build prisons. Parkland? Forget about it. A new courthouse? You gotta be kidding. The environment? Let Chevron spend money to save it. We, the people, voted to spend money for only one purpose: to solve the traffic mess. If Big Green had promised to clear rush-hour traffic on the 91, it would have breezed through.

Admittedly, what one might facetiously describe as "the system" doesn't work. Hard-core Caltransophiles might argue that's because we didn't persevere with the Original Plan. Caltrans prescribed quite an impressive system in theory; as I recall, it proposed a grid of freeways no farther apart from one another than four miles in any direction. Had the early planners had their way, you could have waved to somebody driving on the next freeway over. But the dream of a Southern California map decked out in tight freeway plaid is deader than Sam the Olympic Eagle.

But given the constraints of our asphalt circulatory system, we still bear major blame for clotting it up like so many automotive platelets of bad cholesterol. We--by which I mean everybody but me--engage in such maneuvers as cruising ever so slowly in the fast lane of a boulevard for blocks on end until that left-turn pocket we've been searching for suddenly appears. We cheerfully block whole afternoonfuls of traffic by pulling into the right lane of a street and then insisting on bulldozing our way across the intervening lanes to the very next left-turn lane, out of panic that a parallel street affording a similar turn opportunity will never appear.

We wait at long red lights, and then rouse ourselves so slowly from our slumber that only one or two of the fellow drivers behind us can take advantage of that same, all-too-brief green. We act, in short, in the solipsistic manner of one whose drivers' ed class pounded home this crucial lesson: Hey, cool ruler, you're the only one on the road!

This assumes, of course, that we attended any such class. Actually, I blame the decline in the quality of local vehicular behavior on the influx of people who learned to drive primarily by watching "The Blues Brothers." Driving used to be embarrassingly good. Easterners would scoff at our polite, law-abiding ways as the ultimate proof of our hick pedigree. Conversely, I remember being amazed, on first arriving in Boston, that anyone could survive in a car there for more than 15 minutes.

The most obvious proof of our sad fall from automotive grace is the rupture of the social contract that used to govern relations with pedestrians. Woody Allen had too much emotion invested in the cultural superiority of spending afternoons in the Thalia Theatre to realize it, but allowing cars to turn right on red was, in fact, part of a coherent way of being.

Certain privileges were ceded to the pedestrian (in recognition of his rare and endangered status), such as the absolute right to cross in the crosswalk, before which all drivers must stop. In return, the driver gained equal and complementary privileges, like the famous right turn on red.

But like a chimpanzee trying to play Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," today's drivers have clumsily banged away at this stately and elegant balance. Stepping into a crosswalk now gives a pedestrian nothing more than the right to get exhaust burns on his jeans from the scofflaws speeding by. My personal crosswalk technique--shared here purely for entertainment purposes and not to encourage similar behavior, so don't sue me if you get hit--is to stare down oncoming drivers, relying on eye contact to revive the latent human impulse to not kill. Sometimes it works.

But if it's everybody for himself, then we have to go all the way. Let pedestrians jaywalk or run for it any time they can. And drivers have to give up that precious right turn on red; that brief, safe time at the intersection becomes too crucial to sheer pedestrian survival. It's a coherent system, too--the laws of the jungle, or Manhattan--and it's coming our way.

Of course, the authorities help to degrade this state of affairs further. If nobody gets a ticket for plowing through red lights any more, it's Katie, bar the door. And who empowered city officials to remove the nickel from the list of legal coinage, as far as parking meters are concerned?

But the core of the problem remains us--that is, everybody but me. Let's work on it, shall we? Meantime, outta my way, babe. I'm late.

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