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Jewish World Review May 30, 2003 / 28 Iyar, 5763

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

We are a busy people | Boy, are we driving badly in America, but there's a reason.

According to a recent poll conducted for Volvo, AAA and Partners for Highway Safety, most drivers admit they routinely speed, eat or read while driving. Now I know this is not the safest way to operate a 2,000-pound hunk of steel, and I certainly don't condone it, but it does say something about who we are as a people.

And we are a busy people.

While our friends in Europe take long morning breaks to sip their tea and read the papers, we're hard at work boosting the nation's output. We aren't able to carpool to our 9 to 5 jobs like Europeans do. No, we are one of the most productive nations on the planet because we work long hours. And because we "multitask," a uniquely American activity that we begin as soon as we jump in our cars.

The Washington, D.C. beltway is clogged every morning with single-occupant cars in which people are doing things we never used to do in cars: applying their makeup, working on their computers, and participating in phone conferences in which, I imagine, political types are concocting new strategies to fleece the American taxpayer.

And, yes, we Americans do break the traffic laws. We have a strong sense of individualism in America, you see, which means we like to do as we please. We tend to view speed limits as suggestions, particularly on the beltway. When the traffic is flowing, most folks are going 10 or 15 mph above the posted limit, and you better pick it up if you don't want to get pushed out of the way.

While I admit we are driving badly in America, some countries drive worse than we do.

I visited my high school friend Ayresy in Italy in 1987. He picked me up at the airport in a Saab turbo and took me on a ride that still fills me with horror. You see, Ayresy's motor skills were always suspect when we drove through, and wrecked into things, the suburbs of Pittsburgh as lads.

But in Italy, I was in fear for my life. We jetted out onto the highway at a high rate of speed. We were going about 90 mph - I think we were going that fast, but it's hard to convert kilometers to miles per hour when you're screaming - when somebody rode up on the driver's side bumper, which is the way Italians signal they want to pass. We moved over and he ripped by. This went on for a while until Ayresy started doing it to other cars. It's lucky for him his passenger seat was vinyl and not cloth.

But we were talking about bad American drivers. It is true that our multitasking and bad driving is a key contributor to numerous fender benders on our highways, as well as a growing number of road rage incidents. But Scott Gellar, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, offers a solution.

Concerned about the rudeness of American drivers, Gellar has patented a special light that drivers would put in their rear view window to communicate positive messages to other drivers. Instead of just cutting in front of someone, a driver would flash them with a "can I cut in front of you?" signal.

I guess Gellar's idea makes sense, though it seems to me Americans already have an efficient way of communicating with each other on the roadways. It's amazing how, in the middle of eating breakfast and reading the paper, a driver is still able to use a simple hand gesture to express his unhappiness with another driver - the guy clipping his toenails - who attempts to merge abruptly without showing any kind of respect.

In any event, it is true that we are driving badly in America. The poll respondents believe that at the same time our cars have gotten much safer, drivers have grown more complacent and, ironically, have been encouraged to drive much worse. They also believe that other drivers are much worse drivers than they are, which is certainly how I look at it.

Though I'm certain, as I weave in and out of traffic, that the other drivers respect my high level of skill. If I wasn't such a good driver, I ask you, then why are so many other drivers always gesturing to me that I'm number one?

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05/23/03: Liar, Liar
05/16/03: Laffer all the way to the bank
05/09/03: My mother's house
05/02/03: Teaching the Iraqis how to protest
04/25/03: Iraqi TV
04/21/03: Explaining Democracy to the Iraqis
04/11/03: Major increases to the beer tax? That's a cheap shot right to the beer gut
04/04/03: War humor
03/31/03: Dolphins, PETA and the USA
03/21/03: Traffic Wars
03/14/03: Ronald Reagan's St. Patrick's Day
03/03/03: My Family's Tragic Secret: We're French
02/21/03: I'm worried about my people
02/14/03: George Washington Makeover
02/07/03: Making quiet sacrifices
01/24/03: "Gimme the, goo-goo, gah-gah, remote!"
01/21/03: "Misunderestimated"
01/10/03: Republican night life
01/06/03: Exercise pills
12/31/02: They provide unending joy to those who are wise enough to let them in
12/13/02: Hurried Man Syndrome
12/06/02: In DC, snowstorms have important ramifications --- or, at least, they should
11/26/02: Police advertising
11/15/02: An Interview with Osama
11/01/02: How to vote in America
10/25/02: On edge in Washington, D.C
10/11/02: Giving new meaning to "selling your body"
10/04/02: Bush's Angels
09/27/02: Conservatives, Liberals, Dick Armey and Barry Manilow
09/20/02: Are SUV drivers are the new GOPers?
09/13/02: Bubba is Dubya's man
09/06/02: The Freedom to Picnic
08/16/02: Ah, the $izzle of anti-terrorist pork
08/09/02: Vacationless prez and gutless Americans
07/26/02: Study gives women permission not to hide their emotions
07/15/02: Patriot food
06/28/02: Eavesdropping on a San Fran classroom
06/21/02: The crowded skies
06/14/02: Contemporary Father's Day: A conversation for the ages
06/07/02: Legal rights for animals?
05/19/02: Advice for prom goers this year: Hold onto your money
05/10/02: Don't take her for granted
05/03/02: Letter to the parents of a tubby teen
04/26/02: Zacarias Moussaoui gets expert legal advice

© 2002, Tom Purcell