Some years ago, Radley Balko, another Libertarian, writing a piece for Fox, coined the term “Oblivions.” He did so as a designator for those socially oblivious people, who, with arrogant self-centeredness, create unnecessary irritations and frustrations for the rest of us. He listed party- biddies inevitably gossip-clustering in the hall leading to the only restroom, ignoring other guests clutching their lower tummies and bouncing pathetically, the woman who parks her shopping cart sideways whilst standing with multiple spawn in the rest of the aisle and never so much as looking up at roadblocked shoppers. Mr. Balko listed others, of both genders, so adroitly and perceptively he had this reader nodding in agreement while laughing ruefully. It was a fine piece of word smithing, and The Grumpy Libertarian has treasured that word and employed it with great enjoyment on all-too-numerous occasions. It’s satisfying to have such a precisely tailored tool available; one that’s pronounceable in public, to boot.
Whilst composing this article, I tried to come up with some variation on Balko’s species designation, like one of the popular corollaries to Murphy’s Law; a word specifically applicable to the life-threatening idiots on the roadways of Sacramento. I tried “Obliviasses,” but that wasn’t strong enough. These creatures are exhibiting donkey-like stupidity, yes, but are not just ignoring the convenience of others; they are blatantly disregarding the threats they pose to human life. So I tried “Oblivievils,” which had too many I’s in it, and several others of such scatological intensity I don’t want to put them on this page. Children or readers with sensitive personalities might see them and stop reading me. So I’m announcing a contest. Comment on this column with a suggestion, and if it is good, by my totally subjective judgment, I’ll send you an autographed column on fine white paper. (In the past I’ve mentioned that being grumpy is not particularly remunerative, and this reward level reflects that.)
My bonafides on this subject: in former incarnations the Grumpy Libertarian was a professional driver: not just of various species of taxis and limos, but of long-haul buses and multi-ton cargo trucks. Confused by a detour, I’ve mistakenly taken a forty-five foot bus from the top down California Street in San Francisco, screaming the entire distance to the Embarcadero, driven a six-by in the coastal desert of Chu Lai, where snipers were among the road hazards; driven in snow, rain, on ice, and over crumbling mountain roads. I have never been so frightened as I am driving in Sacramento. I take classes at Asher College on Howe Avenue. I hold an article of faith that the gas stations on Howe sell meth with the gasoline. It’s the only possible explanation for the speeds and actions exhibited there! Only the excellence of the institution could induce me to drive to and from and in Sacramento on a regular basis.
My father, who taught me to drive, had himself learned on the first automobile to come to Santa Barbara. Pavement then was rare, signs and lights non-existent, and emergency medical care usually distant. So safety and road courtesy were essential. He passed those essentials on to me.
Originally, there were some simple rules, enforced by necessity and common expectation as much as by law enforcement. Passing on the right was forbidden, as well as mostly impossible. That shoulder to your right was your refuge if you blew a tire, much more frequent back with tube tires. There wasn’t anywhere else to go; all that stood between you and oncoming traffic was a white line. Then in the fifties we got two lanes in each direction some places, and passing on the right was still not only very dangerous but forbidden by law. The second lane was now the passing lane, and you weren’t supposed to occupy it longer than necessary to pass vehicles in the outside, slow lane. That lasted until the advent of three, four, and sometimes five-lane freeways. While passing on the right isn’t much less dangerous, it has become terrifyingly common. The “slower” lane to your right is still your fallback in emergency, blowout, fuel runout, or just a place you must go to reach an exit. And I find I am most often passed on the right in Sacramento.
I commute into and out of Sacramento from Davis at least three times a week and estimate I have a near brush with death at least twice every week. Most often it has been someone coming up from behind to my right, as I am beginning to change lanes, ignoring my turn signal, and passing me on the right before I have even registered their approach. And this typically occurs when I’m moving faster than the speed limit. I’ve now lost track of the times when all that has kept me alive has been a reflexive yank on the wheel, keyed by peripheral vision before I was conscious of the threat.
Now, typically, freeway traffic moves significantly faster than the speed limit. That’s what you’d expect from a population trying to minimize commute times on well-maintained roads, and driving modern machines. Most of us have other things to do than sit in a metal capsule. On the fifties and eighties, speeds in excess of seventy are common. The problem is not the speed, though of course that exacerbates the potential lethality of accidents, but the behaviors. Every day I see drivers changing lanes to constricted openings without signaling. At least once a week I see a driver with a powerful, expensive car repeatedly changing lanes without signaling, weaving from side to side of the entire multi-lane roadway at speeds frequently fifteen or twenty miles an hour faster than the fastest-moving other car on the road. This is someone putting the lives of many other people at the mercy of their reflexes and the outer limits of tire adhesion. Often such behavior so unnerves other drivers that traffic flow is interrupted while hearts calm a bit. But obviously these sociopaths could care less about that incidental. Hmmmm. “Obliviopaths?”
Risking others’ lives on your reflex level is the core terror of another distressing common road rudeness. Tailgating, whether because the driver of the following car simply does not understand the physics of stopping a couple of thousand pounds of metal and fuel, or as an imperative to force a pullover. Back before there was a passing lane, courtesy and law required that you stay back a safe distance if a car was blocking the road, and blink headlights high-low to request a pullover at the next opportunity. That carried forward to the era of passing lanes, though then used to ask for a lane change of someone going too slowly in a passing lane. Now, while I still see this courtesy in big rig operators and other drivers of large commercial stuff, it is almost absent in the general horde of metal pushers. And often, drivers employ this tactic at such a sickening approach speed, relative to the forward vehicle, that fright is obviously intended. I have even seen cops use this method of pass-demand. About twice a week a woman in a gray Ion tailgates me at one tiny car length when I’m doing a safe seventy-plus westward but keeping a good hundred yards back from the car leading me, matching its speed but keeping space to stop. I’m typically going faster than the traffic in the next rightward lane, but she tries, every time, to force me to pull over, though my speed doesn’t seem to be her concern. She seems to be offended that I am not using my safety interval to speed up and drive closer to my forerunner in the lane. That Oblivilady is an extreme example of a behavior I see all the time. Distance from the vehicle in front is treated as an affront, rather than as life insurance.
As you know, the grumpy one usually offers advice in this forum. So I’m going to take a swing again, trying to be, myself, oblivious to the anarchy out there. In the past dangerous driving trends have resulted in a call for law enforcement crackdowns, and on the surface they do work. I say on the surface, because more cops require more money, and fines become necessities for the enforcement efforts, leading, even when trends have reversed, to that automatic addiction to governmental funding streams I warn about so often. Many of you have read about notorious speed trap towns here and there, or remember the recurring scandals here in California over ticket quotas. Let’s try a free market approach. The vast majority of drivers are rational, survival-oriented persons. So make that a plus. Keep good interval, at least a car length per ten mph of speed. Where that is simply impossible, like the area of the fifty passing fifteenth street at rush hour, keep what interval you can, honor turn signals by holding interval rather than closing off the lane change. Use your lights to request a pass; refuse to pass on the right yourselves. When some speed bunny sniffs your rear bumper with their front one, tap your brakes to flash the nice little red lights and then, if the sniffing persists, slow down considerably, using brakes rather than cruise control, so those little red critters can do their work. Some of the time that will get you passed on the right, with the bonus of the one-digit signal. But if the tailgating behavior becomes widely ineffective, that behavior can be changed. We can use a combination of good example and refusal to be intimidated, and force the trend to return to better road manners and safety.