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Life in the Slow Lane? It's Saner, but She'll Pass

Still, an L.A. driver finds that speeding doesn't really get you there any faster.

November 18, 2003|Diana Wagman

An old boyfriend once told me that I drove like a guy. At the time, I was flattered. Now I think he meant that I drove like a jerk. I speed, I switch lanes constantly, I ride too close to the person in front of me, and I flash my brights demanding the right of way.

And I love it. I once went 134 mph in my big sister's '67 Austin Healey 3000. I wasn't driving and neither was she. Her roommate, Bob, asked to take me and her classic car out for a spin. I was in high school and I fell head over heels in love -- with speed.

It makes sense that I eventually moved to Los Angeles, car capital of the world. Unfortunately, once here I found that life behind the wheel in L.A. drives me crazy.

It's not the traffic. I don't hate driving in traffic. I like being in my temperature-controlled cocoon, listening to my preferred music, searching for the lane that's moving, the truck I can cut in front of, the older man who will let me in if I smile and wave.

What bugs me are all those other drivers who must have missed driver's education class.

They go 55 in the fast lane and talk on their cellphones. They should get over in the right lane. That's what that lane is for, driving the speed limit, talking on the phone, preparing to exit.

The fast lane is the fast lane, the passing lane. Because you're supposed to use it to pass other cars.

And then there's the carpool lane. I spend a lot of time in the carpool lane -- there have to be some perks for driving with a car full of kids under 10. If you have a friend in your car and you're chatting it up and sauntering along with the regular traffic, do not use the carpool lane. The carpool lane is for feeling superior to the sad solo commuters stuck in traffic -- it's for leaving them in your dust and thumbing your nose.

Finally, when you go around a big curve on the freeway, it's not necessary to put on the brakes. It's banked. You can go the speed limit. At least. Drivers can take that curve where the 134 west joins the 101 at 85. I know, because I did it once at 2 a.m. when there was finally no one stepping on the brakes in front of me.

I realize there is a lot of stress in driving like a jerk. I get honked at, usually for no reason. I'm always on the lookout for cops. I occasionally experience a close brush with death. And I feel it's my civic duty to yell at people as I go past -- "Get out of the fast lane!" "Hang up and drive!" -- which doesn't make them like me.

On the other hand, I always thought that I arrived places much earlier than slower drivers. My husband disagreed.

I offered to do a study. For one week I'd keep a record of driving times at my regular breakneck pace. For the next week, I'd be a model law-abiding driver and keep the same record. I figured I'd show him.

I drive about 350 miles a week. I live in Echo Park. I carpool to and from my son's school in Pasadena and my daughter's school in Eagle Rock. I teach in Westchester, in Westwood and in Valencia. My son belongs to a tennis league in Monrovia, and my daughter rock climbs in Arcadia.

Week No. 1. I zeroed my odometer. I drove the 11.2 miles to my son's school in the record time of 14 minutes. Average speed 80. The freeways were mostly empty, and I flew.

Trip home, same thing. I crossed the double yellow line twice to get out and back in the carpool lane (to go around a saunterer) but I made it to our first stop in 16 minutes.

And so on. One way to Westchester, 21.5 miles, at rush hour took me 48 minutes. That seemed good. A minivan honked at me once and a young guy in a Toyota gave me the finger, but I wasn't really anywhere near him. I did a lot of swerving on the 10 west, and the 405 south was a parking lot, but I only slid along the shoulder for a car length or two.

Week No. 2. The week of not driving dangerously. My son's carpool. It was surprisingly hard to obey the law. The wide empty expanse of the 2 Freeway beckoned, and I had a full tank of gas and no one in front of me. I could have gone 90 easy, but I resisted. I told myself I could stand anything for a week, so I drove the speed limit. I stayed in my lane. I sauntered. Sixteen minutes. Only two minutes slower than my fastest time the week before. An anomaly, I decided.

But the next day, the same trip took 17 minutes and I was driving so slowly I thought I'd fall asleep at the wheel. Then the trip to Westchester at rush hour took 44 minutes -- less time than during my week as a jerk. I slowed to let somebody in. I got to class early.

My husband was right. For each trip, the times differed by less than five minutes. In my entire week of proper driving, no one honked at me, and I banged the steering wheel only once -- when all four lanes were blocked by people driving 40.

But it's not as much fun to drive the speed limit. I was antsy. I dialed National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation," but then I hung up. I had time to notice the faces of the drivers going past me and discovered they looked like nice people, most of them.

I haven't managed to maintain my good behavior, but I know I can, if I have to.

And also that I can arrive at my destination relaxed, feeling positive about my fellow man and without the sweat beading on my upper lip.

Diana Wagman's most recent novel, "Bump" (Carroll & Graf, 2003), chronicles the aftermath of a three-car pileup in Beverly Hills.

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