September 18, 2003

Tire Trouble

So I got a flat tire.

It was on the driver's side, so when I pulled over to fix it I was frighteningly close to traffic. The breakdown lane was surprisingly small where I had to stop. My door definitely swung out into the lane.

I decided to put my bright yellow "emergency kit" box out about 1 foot into the slow lane and a couple of car lengths back. The yellow box would give folks a visual cue that something was up. Having it in the lane would force them to switch lanes or at least give me a wide berth. Or, they could hit the box and give me a split second warning that it was time to kiss this mortal coil goodbye. Their choice. Traffic was pretty light, but still unsettling.

Not that I needed the help, but no one (as far as I could tell) even slowed down to see if everything was OK. That didn't surprise me at all.

What did surprise me was the number of people who beeped their horns at the inconvenience of having me change my tire on the highway. I'm not talking about a friendly "toot-toot." I'm talking about folks leaning on the horn for about 1/4 mile or so as they approached.

Do you know how disconcerting it is to hear the beep of an oncoming car which is about to pass within a couple of feet of you?

Your car horn is not for registering your displeasure. It's for alerting the people around you to a dangerous situation. Like when someone starts to veer into your lane. The beep is supposed to wake them up. So I figured that people must be beeping because they were trying to get out of the slow lane and couldn't. Nope -- half the times that I did look up to check who was beeping, there was no one in the adjacent lane. Apparently, people were unhappy that I had placed my yellow box slightly in the lane. I was a little sorry about that, but I generally place considerations of my safety well above quite a number of other considerations.

The message was received. So here's a return message to all you folks who beeped at me on Rte. 195 between Westport and Fall River: next time I choose to have a flat tire, I'll choose to have it on the passenger side. And I'll check with all your schedules to make sure that none of you will be inconvenienced by it. And instead of my yellow box, I'll stick my posterior out in the lane and give you something to aim for. Look for the international sign for "moon."

Posted by James at September 18, 2003 10:51 AM
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Car horns are made to be loud enough for someone to hear them clearly while inside another car with the windows rolled up. If you're not in a car, they're REALLY LOUD (something I had a lot of experience on when commuting to work by bike).

This is a good reason not to give a friendly (or other kind of) beep to a pedestrian or bicyclist until you've passed them -- you could startle them so much they'll fall or swerve into your path.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at September 18, 2003 1:30 PM

Yes I know how disconcerting it is. It's no fun hearing people honk at you when you've just had an accident, are LITERALLY screaming in pain and can't even stand up, much less push your totalled car off the road. That's bad enough without worrying that some impatient asshole is going to send you spinning another half mile down the road. So sorry my accident inconvenienced others.

I really don't know what these people are thinking.

Posted by: julie at September 18, 2003 1:52 PM

> I really don't know what these people are thinking.

They're not.

I'm convinced 90% of the people in cars around you have no concept of the world beyond their own little glass box and the view it affords.

Driving amplifies selfishness. In the pedestrian world our comfort-zone, the zone that separates us from the rest of the world, is invisible and not clearly defined. Confrontations are up close and personal and we are inclined to be more polite and accomodating to some small degree.

I believe that for many people, things change when they get into a car. Inside a car our separation from the world is a clearly defined chassis of metal and glass, and we must devote a significant amount of attention to what is going on inside of it. This makes the things beyond it more like visuals of entities in other worlds, significant only to the extent that they affect our drive. And we seem to believe that they shouldn't affect our drive at all. The slightest amount of effort that a pedestrian, cyclist, or other motorist's presence or actions are viewed with extreme irritation, and even idignance! How dare that jerk signal his intention to switch into my lane! (As if we actually owned the lane.) I'm convinced this behavior is sort of a natural territorial instinct which we have inherited, combined with human nature to be irritable when forced to concentrate on complicated tasks. From an evolutionary perspective, humans aren't adapted to drive.

In a stand-up act Paul Rizer once summed up this concept of one's whole world being inside one's car when driving. One of the jokes was "Why doesn't this guy just GO? Just GO! If this guy would just GO, then all of the world's problems would be solved."

When overcome with this irritation, drivers have been provided with essentially two ways to communicate with the entities in other universes. One is to make rude hand gestures, but that requires visual contact, and the other is to depress the horn activation switch, which transmits an audible signal that will reach the entity's universe and register one's extreme displeasure at having to (a) pay attention to this entity, or (b) tap the brakes, or (God forbid) (c) change lanes.

George Carlin used to joke that it would be great to have a big sign on top of one's car and a keyboard inside where you could type out whatever message you want. When I was a teen in my first few years of driving, I used to fantasize about having a point to point communication system which allowed you to send your voice to other people's cars simply by dialing in their license plate number. Now that I'm more mature, I'm glad these things do not exist because they would only increase the amount of rancor on the road.

My solution to this behavior has been to force myself to think of valid explanations for the behavior of other drivers/pedestrians/etc, and to train myself to remember that they are people just like me and that they have just as much right to be there as I do. In other words I try to literally "think outside the box" of glass and metal around me. So when someone suddenly cuts across 2 lanes of traffic to get to an exit, I try to think up reasons why I might do such things: perhaps he has become very ill and needs to get to a bathroom or a doctor, or, perhaps he's suddenly suffering some dangerous mechanical failure and needs to get off the road. Etc. Etc.

When I'm a passenger now, I often find myself offering these apologetic sorts of explanations to the driver when I sense he or she is getting angry at the other people around us. Maybe his signal light is broken? Maybe he was trying to follow the person in front of him? Maybe he thought you were cutting him off? Etc.

Sometimes this has the desired effect, the driver calms down. Sometimes they have undesired effects, the driver gets mad at me... sometimes we don't want to think outside of our little box. :(

Anyway I'm rambling. Driving is weird. People are weird. Put a person behind the wheel and you get weird squared. Put them on the road with other people in the same situation plus pedestrians and you get five dimensional weirdness. Welcome to our modern world where technology has made life better.

BTW, I just bought a new car. She's a beautiful PT Cruiser and I'm thoroughly enjoying driving her.

Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.

Posted by: Chuck S. at September 21, 2003 2:16 PM

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