Anyone who's taken their car for a spin anywhere in the United States knows teenagers are not the only ones ignoring laws that ban cell phone use while driving. They’re also not the only ones throwing common sense out the car window. I’ve traveled the entire length of I-40 several times and have witnessed more carnage caused by self-distracted drivers than I care to say. Trying to get a mere five miles down the road in any American city takes way longer than it should – and cell phone use is not the only reason.
The motor vehicle is the new house.
Women applying make-up while driving have long been the bane of reasonable women drivers, but there are also a significant number of men and women who read while driving, some arched around and facing the backseat for a variety of reasons, and — as of my last excursion — men who look into their visor mirror while shaving.
It has proven to do no good whatsoever to tell people the dangers of their behavior. Children these days have been allowed by their parents to see all manner of video and televised guts and gore to the point that Driver’s Ed films have little or no impact on them by the time they’re old enough (by state law, not my law) to get behind the wheel.
Self-distracted drivers operate under the delusion that since they’ve made it this far without causing an accident, surely the gods are on their side. Pointing out to the individual driver just how much his or her behavior impacts others on the road is for naught. This may be the crux of the issue. An entire generation of drivers, despite their age, thinks like teenagers: If it doesn’t hurt me this time, it must be okay all the time.
An almost 40-year-old friend of mine regularly uses the cell phone while driving. She is completely unaware that once she’s on the phone, her average speed drops by as much as 20 mph, even on the highway. She has a tendency to shift to the far right lane, without looking to see if anyone is there, and without use of a signal. She brakes repeatedly for no reason and hovers on or near the left edge of whatever lane she’s occupying.
Even as she looks ahead, you can tell she isn’t really seeing anything. Two or three drivers honk at her, and the extent to which she comprehends the noise is limited to her telling her caller, “Sorry, I didn’t hear that. People are honking.” She dismissed me outright when I called it to her attention.
She is hardly alone on the road (although I personally no longer accompany her now that I know her driving habits). A good many other drivers are doing the same.
By sheer accident (chance, not wreck), I discovered a way to alert a distracted driver that his or her regard for the rest of the driving world is non-existent. It’s a potentially dangerous twist on the policeman’s pit maneuver. Whereas the police use their vehicle to throw off a driver’s groove, I use my horn.
It has to be used sparingly, which is to say you will likely encounter the only conditions under which it can be ideally done once or twice a year. If you don’t know the conditions without having to be told what they are, it’s probably not a good idea for you to try it. Causing injury or death to an innocent person is very uncool.
For the record, I don’t consider self-distracted drivers to be innocent people, but their child passengers are, and they don’t deserve to be put in more danger than they already are. This is precisely why American teenagers’ leading cause of death ought to be all that’s needed to raise the driving age and require extensive driver training for every driver, regardless of age. Teenagers are not adults, and it’s grossly unfair to expect them to be — or to expect the rest of us to share the road with them. Adult passengers, though, should know better than to climb into a car with someone they know is self-distracting, or get out when they discover it.
I’ve never been one to use the horn much, because my parents taught me from a young age that it could panic a driver other than my intended (like a little old lady), and send that person spiraling out of control. I would, however, tap the horn to alert a driver who continued to sit through a green light or whom I perceived was in danger of causing harm to others.
I then spent four years in Germany, where using one’s horn is considered a most boorish driving behavior, to be used only under dire circumstances. Incidentally, I only needed to use my horn once while on German roads. While I’ve never honked at slight infractions, I developed the habit of hitting the steering wheel instead of the horn to break myself of honking at even moderate infractions. Doing so is like spanking a hyperactive child: it won’t stop the infraction from happening again, and that person might just turn on you.
Upon my return to the United States I wondered if I would still be able to hit the horn when I really needed to, and thanks to those here in Southern California who clearly do not know red means stop, I now know I am able.
My most recent use of the horn to alert another driver of her potential to create hate and discontent was accidental. I advanced up a hill in the center lane on our way to the grocery store. My daughter sat beside me. Both the right and left lanes were packed, and moving at about 45 mph. The car in front of me was moving so slowly the dead lice were falling off of it. Too, its brake lights came on repeatedly for no apparent reason. I couldn’t see the top of the driver’s head. I told my daughter it was probably a little old lady and held my discontent in check accordingly.
The left lane opened up with no other cars behind, and I took it. As we passed the slow car, my daughter looked at the driver and announced, “She’s not old; she’s reading a book!”
I slowed to let her ahead of me. Per my habit, I went to hit the steering wheel. My hand slipped and hit the horn instead. At the same time I noticed a large rock in the right-hand part of my lane, and slowed a bit more to safely get around it –- and it's a good thing I did because my honk sent the reading driver into a panic and into my lane. Her left front wheel hit the rock, which was big enough to cause her car to heave a bit and land with a thud.
Her book took flight within the car and she slammed on the brakes. Anticipating this, I already had my hazard lights on for any traffic that might have come up behind me. Even at a distance I could feel the driver’s panic as she looked around and regained a sense of where she was and what was going on around her.
She took a slow left onto a side street and parked. I came up behind her, got out, and approached her car. I gently knocked on the window. A 30-something woman was sitting behind the wheel. I asked her if she was all right. Her voice trembled. “I have no idea what just happened.” I said, “I think that’s because you thought you were at the library.”
Her expression was priceless, but alarming. Her lips moved, but nothing came out. My heart went out to her as it would for a scared child. I tried, and failed, to muster up some firmness when I said, “You were reading instead of watching the road.” She started to cry, and between the tears she sobbed, “I’ll never read in the car again, I swear.”
Mission inadvertently accomplished.
It had not been my intention to hit the horn, and only because the gods are kind did my honking and the woman’s reaction to it not cause a major incident. It helped that traffic was minimal by the time it all happened — and that will be precisely what I will look for whenever I feel the need to hit my steering wheel again. I dare not risk another slip of the hand.
I’m not saying I would take it upon myself to train untrained drivers in such a brutal tactic. That’s not my place. I’m saying that under the right circumstances it wouldn’t bother me if that particular incident happened again and again until all those drivers (driving alone), who act as if they’re home, were confined to their homes. I would prefer this by way of license suspension, but there are — and there have been — those who only learn by losing their physical ability to drive.
Clearly horns are not a lethal weapon. While some self-distracted drivers are just alert enough to dismiss the noise, it’s worth noting how oblivious some are, so much so that when someone else lays on the horn near them it can render them incapable of keeping their vehicle in check. If you aren’t paying enough attention to know whether or not that honk was directed at you, it was directed at you.
A courteous heads-up, then, to those who might be reading this as they’re out and about: assuming you made it this far into the article without causing an accident, do remember I’m not the only driver who has grown weary of those drivers who purposefully distract themselves from the task at hand — and I’m not the only driver with a horn.