When I was younger, I was an aggressive driver. I never had an accident, but I’m sure I made some people angry, weaving in and out, crossing two lanes to get to the fast lane, and riding too close to the driver in front of me if he or she was not driving fast enough for my taste. In short, I was your worst nightmare.
I drove like a man. I know that sounds sexist, but if you’ve ever arrived at a four-way intersection just seconds before some guy gets there, only to witness him speeding up and throwing on his brakes suddenly in an effort to make you think he got there first, well, you know what I mean. Not every man is an aggressive driver, but anecdotally I’d say two-thirds of the aggressive drivers I see on the roads are guys.
In addition to being an aggressive driver, I never wore a seatbelt. I tell my kids it was a different era, and it was.
When we were kids, my parents always stuffed the seat belts down into the crevice between the seat and the seat back, because they were a nuisance. My mother used to brag about how when I was a toddler, she’d drive with me in the front seat, stuffed in behind her right shoulder, standing up, her right elbow holding me in place, while she drove with her left hand. I used to add to her story – probably while smoking a cigarette, too, right?
When child safety seats were first introduced, I thought it was a gimmick. In the late '70s, I provided childcare to a family in exchange for room and board during college, and the father, a doctor, used to remind me to take and use the car seat when I took the kids (18 months and three years old) to daycare. I scoffed at his reminders until the day I had to throw on my brakes, and the 18-month-old went flying into the seat well. He was not injured, but I figured out how to use the car seat that day.
Everything about my driving changed when I became pregnant with my daughter. By the fourth month of pregnancy, I was routinely wearing my seatbelt. I started using my signal every time I changed lanes, and I no longer rode so close to the driver in front of me or did any of the other aggressive things I had been doing on the road for ten years.
At the four month mark, the time when you really start to see the baby physically transform your body, it had dawned on me that I no longer had just my own safety in my hands. I had to take care of her too.
In the months that followed, that attitude transformed me in other ways. Didn’t I also have the safety of the other drivers on the road in my hands too?
All of these thoughts and this history went through my mind this morning as I observed the drivers on Interstate 170 carelessly, and inattentively, putting the lives of me and other drivers at risk
I witnessed: Drivers in the right lane who speed up so they won’t have to allow cars to merge. Drivers who change lanes without using an indicator light and then throw on their brakes because they’ve misjudged the traffic flow. Drivers who come to a dead stop in the middle of the highway because they have waited too long to move into the exit lane they need. And drivers who cut off others who drive too close or too fast.
When you do something careless or unexpected on the highway, this is what you assume: You assume that the driver behind you didn’t just receive a distressing phone call from a sick relative. You assume that the driver doesn’t have a teenager in the car stressing out over a difficult teacher. You assume that the driver isn’t holding a cup of hot coffee. You assume the brakes on the driver’s car are working as they should. In essence, you assume that the driver is not in any way distracted and that his or her car is in great working shape. These are huge assumptions to make.
When my kids were old enough to start noticing how I drove, I became an even more attentive driver. I explained why I did things, took responsibility for bad driving decisions and talked about why courtesy is the first rule of the road, or at least it should be. If you make every driving decision with courtesy in mind, I told them, safety will follow naturally. If you see the human lives inside the cars around you rather than just the cars, you will always make the courteous, safe decision.
Both of my children are now driving themselves everywhere. I can only hope and pray that my words and actions affected them as much as my daughter’s growing life in those early months of pregnancy affected me.