Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Learning Curves

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a car wreck. Seen plenty of metaphoric train wrecks in the last couple of years, but no real-life auto collisions. So this post isn’t inspired by anything tragic. Actually, it’s inspired by a post from a buddy of mine who just managed to squeeze 500 relevant words out of a snowboarding collision. That’s why I think he’s a good writer.

Thing is, his post is about trying to predict the patterns of people around us, trying to compensate for them in order to progress in life without stepping on each other’s toes—or in his case, knocking them off a mountain. Now I can’t relate too well with John’s snowboard expertise; I would be much more likely to be the obstacle in that context. But if you transpose his metaphor to the highways, specifically, the highways of Utah, NOW I can relate.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about the Utah Driving Experience in the sixteen years since Coach Jones leaned against a white Chevy Corsica and initialed my high school driver’s test. Much of that thinking has been employed in an effort to resolve one central conflict: it FEELS like Utah drivers are the worst in the country, but after spending time on the highways on the east and west coasts, I’m not too sure. Coastal driving definitely seems faster, but my Beehive State commutes still seem more aggravating.

But I think I’ve figured it out. Sometimes people want to equate crazy driving with speed, and though that works in some cases, it is not universal. For example, after the time I’ve spent driving back east and on the I-5 in California, I would definitely agree that coastal driving is faster. But the thing is, everyone is driving fast. You don’t have any slowpokes. People may be hustling, but they’re still yielding the fast lane and paying attention to their surroundings. It may be crazy to someone unaccustomed to accelerated speeds, but it’s consistent.

Many of these types of drivers are also found in Utah. I’m one of them. When I decide to go somewhere, I want to get there. I’m far from perfect, but I still try to pay close attention to what is going on around me. But sadly, not all of my Utah counterparts do. Whereas a large part of the Utah driving population could be considered attentive or even aggressive drivers, the thing that makes Utah driving so maddening is the generous population of slowpoke oblivious drivers. And it is this philosophical clash that makes Utah a truly hellish place to commute.

I broke down the various types of Utah drivers on one of my old sites years ago, so I won’t repeat all the details here. Let me just say that people generally fall into one of two categories, attentive and oblivious, and the latter has been driving us in the former crazy for years on end. If someone wants to take their time driving, that’s fine. But that’s what the slow lane is for. And incidentally, even if you’re in the slow lane, you still should be paying attention to the people merging onto the freeway and adjust your speed accordingly—and that doesn’t mean slowing down to 50MPH so everyone can get ahead of you, even though you would pass the merge zone well in front of them if you just continued your previous speed.

But I digress. It’s an easy thing to do with this topic. It wouldn’t bother me so much if it didn’t involve occasional life-threatening situations. Take this, for instance: in the last few years, Utah has welcomed the addition of several roundabouts in certain strategic spots along the Wasatch Front. I think they are awesome; I wish we had more. But my fellow drivers don’t seem to understand how to use them, namely, that when you enter a roundabout, you yield to the left instead of the right like at a traditional four-way stop. It’s not rocket science, but it is annoying.

A couple of months ago, I was approaching the roundabout just south of my home in Bountiful. I was first into the turn, and should have enjoyed the right of way. However, as I made my way through the curve, I saw a pickup truck speeding towards the roundabout on my right side, and he didn’t look like he had any intention of slowing down. I slammed on my brakes as he flew through the roundabout without so much as tapping his brake, and he didn’t even glance over at me as I leaned on my horn. If I had continued on my previous path, I would have plowed right through his driver’s side door and most likely killed him. But luckily, I’m not one of the oblivious people.

Sometimes I think that I spend too much of my time stressing about things other people don’t bother with. That my life would be a lot easier if I didn’t take myself so seriously, if I wasn’t so neurotic about the details. I’m not Jason Bourne. I don’t have spies shadowing my every move. But for one day at least, I’m glad I was one of the attentive ones.