Will Call: Life in the slow lane
December 1, 2016
There's nothing like the first few snowstorms of the season to remind you how dangerous driving can be.
I realize that the automobile is central to modern American culture, but it really is absurd how much we're willing to put up with for our cars.
Last year, 35,092 people died in some sort of automobile accident. That rate has actually gone down in the past couple of decades, but it's still the most likely way for someone my age to go. You probably know someone who died that way. You've probably had a moment or two when you thought you were about to follow suit.
Beyond the risk of bodily harm, we cede a significant amount of space to roads and parking lots, sink money into maintenance and shrug off environmental impacts on wildlife, air quality and more. Finally, driving is a source of aggravation for many of us almost every day.
When the subject of pet peeves comes up — which it does surprisingly often even outside of the airing of grievances at my annual Festivus party — something about driving always features prominently. Left lane bandits. Overly aggressive honkers. People who weave in and out of rush hour traffic. People who slow down to a crawl for a perfectly-at-grade cattle guard as if they've never seen one before.
I'm particularly annoyed by tailgaters, whose aggressive driving seems to me to be spoiling for an accident and encouraging me to speed up and join them in that pursuit. Less dangerous but similar are folks who scoot right up behind me at a stoplight on a hill, forcing me to rev my engine or even pull the emergency brake to avoid sliding backwards when the light turns green. I choose to believe they forgot about manual transmissions.
On the subject of intersections, I would greatly appreciate it if folks waited until there was room on the other side before bowling ahead. More than once, after waiting to turn left from a side street onto Grand, I have had the light turn green only to find a line of cars blocking the intersection. Sometimes I also get some pedestrians crossing against the light, oblivious to the concept of turning traffic.
I know this all sounds trivial given the statistics I cited to start, but it's all related. When you're already hurtling around at a mile a minute, pushing the limits or getting angry doesn't make you any safer. It certainly doesn't improve the experience, and it doesn't even get you there much faster. An extra 10 miles an hour gains you about 10 minutes on a trip between Rifle and Aspen.
The trouble is, we all do it. I've had my share of fender benders and near misses.
I'm actually pretty good about obeying the marked speed limit, which allows me to be amused when the cars around me seek to offset suspicion by going from 15 mph over to 15 under at the sight of a cop car. I am bad, however, at slowing down enough for conditions, whether it's rain or snow or just a rough road.
Perhaps a year ago, I came around a corner on a one lane road up Thompson Creek to find a truck barrelling down on me. On the edge of a precipitous drop off into Willow Park with my mother in the passenger seat, I threw it in reverse and did my best to steer backward down the windy road. I ended up more or less in the ditch, and we avoided by a couple of feet a collision that might easily have killed some or all of us. As I struggled to dislodge my heart from my throat, the guys in the truck steered past and left me with, "Nice driving, man."
My anger was dampened by the memory of barrelling through the same stretch of road as a fledgling driver with a four wheel drive years before. The speed limit isn't posted there, so it's probably technically 35, but a responsible speed is more like 20.
It's not enough to just obey the law. Having had the right of way is small comfort in the back of an ambulance. If you took driver's education, you probably heard all about defensive driving, but from what I see out there, not many of us are practicing it.
There's also the matter of how you prepare before you get on the road, particularly in the winter. For some reason, my midwestern associates are amused by the idea of snow tires, but I'd much rather throw out my summer set.
Most locals know to plan for getting stuck by packing a coat, gloves, sleeping bag, shovel and water. When I can, I try to bend to the weather and just stay off the road — particularly high mountain passes — when a storm is brewing. When that's not an option, I'm still trying to learn the lesson of leaving early to give myself the luxury of taking it slow.
I could go on, but the reality is everybody already knows all this. The trick is accepting it. This winter I plan to try, and I invite you to do the same.
Will Grandbois finds knowing most of the local law enforcement is also a motivator for good behavior. He can be reached at 384-9105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.