A young man from Brooklyn came to his rav seeking a tikun. Desperate for attention, he had been vandalizing his neighbors’ vehicles. He loosened taillight bulbs and even removed turn signal arms from the steering column. “Rebbe,” he cried, “in the past three weeks I have destroyed the turn signals on hundreds of cars, vans and trucks in the neighborhood.” The rav asked the young man if he had stopped doing these things. “Yes,” the young man replied sadly, “because nobody noticed.”
The story is fiction, but exposes a wry truth. Repeated surveys show that 80% of drivers regard themselves as better than average, and consider themselves less likely than others to cause traffic accidents. While it is impossible for 80% of drivers to be better than the remaining 50%, most of us seem able to fudge the math.
I regard my own driving as superior. Family members, however, seem to have devoted themselves to pointing out my nonexistent poor driving habits. My wife has spent over thirty years telling me about exits and turns I was never really going to miss. My sons are very reluctant passengers, citing what they call my hyper-cautious habits. They disagree with my assessment that if you are able to lean forward and adjust the radio of the car ahead, you are not really maintaining a safe following distance. They also complain when I fail to change lanes after going three car lengths in a straight line. Their criticism may not have made me a better driver, but it has certainly improved my ability to drive while being showered with negative comments.
The boys grew up in Los Angeles, where driving courtesy habits might be considered neurotic behavior by New York standards. Signaling the intention to change lanes on a crowded freeway usually results in the other driver slowing to create an opening. Traffic on busy streets halts in both directions to allow pedestrians to cross, even in the middle of the block. On Shabbos, visitors are cautioned to wait for a lull in traffic before approaching the curb so drivers won’t brake on their behalf. Sure, shots are occasionally fired on Los Angeles freeways, but such incidents are offset by 15-mph police chases. Overall, I found driving to be a tame sport suited to little old ladies who view the road through the tiny gap between the steering wheel and the dashboard.
Things changed when we moved to Brooklyn. Honking horns, once heard only in cases of extreme danger, supplied the soundtrack to all driving. It quickly became clear that New York City has a very good reason for not allowing right turns on red lights: traffic still flowing long after the green light changes to red would be delayed by someone slowing down to turn. On this matter, authorities seem to understand the public’s needs.
It took some time, but I adapted to Brooklyn driving. Because our street is one of few that cross local railroad tracks, there is a lot of traffic. Our house is about 12 or 13 car lengths from the traffic light at the corner. At first, parking the car at home was a challenge. Traffic behind me would race for the light, even when it had been red for a while. I would signal and slow down, but drivers whizzing by prevented me from backing into the space. Since they were speeding toward a red light where traffic was already stopped, I have often had time to approach such drivers after I parked. This led to several unpleasant encounters.