Today's Paper Latest Coronavirus The Article Core Values Story ideas iPad Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive

OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Wreck on the highway

by Philip Martin | March 28, 2021 at 8:47 a.m.

ON THE ROAD TO BENTONVILLE -- There is a line of trucks, each separated by a couple hundred yards, strung out in the right lane over the next quarter-mile or so. They are all moving at about the same 75-mph pace, about five miles over the posted speed limit for trucks, within the margin of grace believed allowed by state troopers and highway patrol people over the entire continent.

We are in the left lane, flowing with the light-to-moderate interstate traffic, running about six miles over the posted 75 mph speed limit for passenger vehicles--maybe outside the safety zone, but protected (we believe) by our numbers.

The plan, undiscussed but obvious to all participants, is to skirt this line of trucks as quickly as can safely be accomplished, then to fall back to whatever highway driving speed we favor. Some people are comfortable pushing the envelope; I like to rock back in the right lane with a good front door.

It's pleasant when a plan comes together. And it's interesting to observe human beings cooperating in this way, all of us seeming to instinctively understand both the overall strategy and the specialized tactics of the maneuver. We're going to pass these trucks as efficiently as possible, without requiring anyone to tap their brakes or exit cruise-control mode. Just a little extra pressure with your right foot for a couple of miles ...

Except what is this Land Cruiser doing on my right rear quarter panel? He's neither speeding up to pass nor slowing down to merge into the passing lane, just hanging in what would be my blind spot if I didn't assiduously check my mirrors. He can't stay there; he's closing on the back of a Covenant Transport Freightliner.

For a moment I'm stubborn; it's up to him to either accelerate past or drop in behind me. I have a right to the 82 mph reading digitally on my instrument panel.

He's going nowhere. He's smoking a cigarette. He's completely oblivious to the situation. This is ridiculous; it's like I'm in a game of chicken with a guy who hasn't noticed my oncoming headlights. Now, with less than 50 yards between him and the truck, he finally decides he's going to pass me. Slowly.

He creeps up even with me and I size him up. White male, full head of enviably curly white hair, gold aviators, old-school burner with an inch of ash between the first and second fingers of his left hand. There's no malice there; the guy hasn't thought about me or the grand plan. He's just in his own bubble, he's not seeing the world from 40,000 feet. He didn't get the memo.

He just doesn't know how to drive.

And he's running out of time and space. If he wants to get around me, he'd better punch it now. Now.

Now comes and he doesn't--he barely inches ahead. OK, it's time to yield. I press the button to release the cruise and lift my right foot off the gas. It allows him the daylight he needs to cut in front of me, so he does, probably giving no thought at all to how he attained his privileged position. It's just how things always seem to work out for him.

Most people wouldn't notice the deceleration. But even half-asleep, Karen does. She shoots me a look that causes me to start to explain what just happened, because she understands. Some people just don't know how to drive.

Or they think driving is pointing a vehicle in the direction they want to go and going, stopping when they have to and when they get where they're going without hitting anything en route. Our society regards driving as a basic skill, like walking or writing. This is despite the inherent danger that attaches to driving, likely the most dangerous thing any of us do in a given week. There's a lot of potential energy pent up in a 3,300-pound Toyota Camry moving at 70 mph.

There aren't many people who think of themselves as below-average drivers, but logic says some significant portion are exactly that. This isn't Lake Woebegone; we can't all be above average. It stands to reason that some are better at driving than others.

(And, knowing what I know of the Dunning-Kruger effect, most of the worst drivers think they're pretty good at it.)

But, as inherently dangerous as it is, driving is nevertheless a routine activity, something that we've done a lot over the last 100 years or so to try to make safer for everyone. Most highway lanes are 12 feet wide; most cars are about six feet wide. The average pickup is about 80 inches wide; the average semi is about eight and a half feet wide. Highway shoulders are approximately eight feet wide.

So the typical two-lane highway will be about 40 feet wide, allowing plenty of miss 'em room. The average interstate can accommodate four semis rolling abreast, with about six feet to spare.

We put up guardrails, we install rumble strips to remind the distracted where they are, we threaten those who might drive impaired with jail and prison, and we try to make the vehicles compensate for the failures of their pilots. And we've reduced the number of people killed on our roads over the years even as we've accepted a certain level of carnage as part of the cost of doing business.

Two out of three drivers are involved in an injury accident over the course of their driving careers; because you can't control other people's driving, even the best drivers can expect to be involved in an accident every 10 years.

We just don't think about it. We don't even consider whether we're good at it. Nobody (well, almost nobody; the Bondurant High Performance Driving School--which last week changed its name to the Radford Racing School--will charge you $6,000 for three days of performance race car instruction) takes classes to improve their driving.

About 10 minutes after the guy in the Land Cruiser passes me, traffic slows to a crawl. We inch along for about 40 minutes before we come to Knoxville, where blue lights divert us onto an exit ramp, past a couple of ambulances and a mangle of what looks like three white SUVs, then back onto I-40.

In the rear view I can't tell if there's a Land Cruiser involved.

The only news report I could find on it (from the website of the CBS affiliate in Fayetteville) reported "possible injuries." We saw a news helicopter circling, but they probably didn't use the footage.

Nobody died.



Sponsor Content