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.
One driver told me I had not signaled, while the teenage bochur in the passenger seat insulted me. I was certain I had signaled. The driver told me my light did not work, while the son continued to use some very loud and rude language. I checked my signal lights when they drove away, wondering why a parent would allow a bochur to talk that way. The lights worked. I bet they are still laughing at me.
I stopped talking with drivers after the incident where a young driver screeched to a stop, then blared the horn at me. Apparently, the distraction of holding the phone and conversing on it prevented my reversing vehicle from being detected soon enough to prevent the young lady from stopping short. As an unsecured youngster climbed back onto the rear seat, I asked the driver if her parents approved of talking on the phone while speeding down a residential street and endangering her brother’s life. She began crying, so I did not wait for a reply. I do not know exactly what my unlucky friends and relatives felt after causing dismemberment or death while driving, but I am certain it was an extremely bad experience with long-lasting effects.
I have a new parking procedure – start to signal, slow to a crawl, pause next to the parking space to make the car behind stop, pull forward while angling to prevent the car behind from passing and tearing off my mirror, ignore the aggressive honking and rude gestures, back into the space. Perhaps an old bear can’t be taught to dance, but I have learned to park my car in Boro Park.
There was a time I regarded rubber bumper mats as something reserved for extremely fussy people who were entirely too protective of their car’s finish. After being assessed $1,600.00 for damaged inflicted by others on my leased minivan’s bumpers, I learned why people drive around with $100 worth of ugly protection. My new car was delivered on a Thursday night. I bought the rear guard on Friday morning, the first time I drove the car. Friday night I emerged from shul and saw a car parked behind mine. It was unsuccessfully attempting to be far enough from a hydrant by pressing solidly into the rear of my brand new car. The mat prevented damage. My only disappointment was that the other car did not receive a parking ticket.
I now know the value of bumper guards, but I can’t understand why someone would risk a $150 fine (and five points) for holding a cell phone while driving instead of investing in a $2 headset. I am still waiting for a response from economists contacted regarding this mystery. Maybe they thought my question was stupid, but based on the number of drivers I see, there must be some extraordinary value in holding the phone. Perhaps these drivers are texting their stockbroker or investment banker for solutions to their excess money dilemma. Whatever the reason, on an average weekday I see enough people to fill a small auditorium holding and using cell phones as they drive. It is usually easy to spot them as they drift towards the sidewalk with their heads down or hold up traffic when the light changes. These people are obviously doing something very important, for which we would easily sacrifice our own time and safety, so it is not a problem.
We all fail to be the best driver possible on occasion. Sometimes we are in a rush, distracted, or just not aware of an inconsiderate action. That sort of thing is forgivable up to a point, but often it seems that driving is some kind of selfishness contest. Have you seen drivers mindlessly block traffic to load or unload passengers and cargo while a huge parking space is only a few feet away? In many places, launching across oncoming traffic to make a left turn as the light goes green might cause a collision. It works in Brooklyn, because we have come to expect unsafe, illegal, and rude driving habits.
Should the same people who pay such meticulous attention to mitzvos bein odom l’Makom drive this way? Is it proper for someone on his way to bake matzos for the seder or buy the most mehudar esrog to navigate as if he is the only one whose Yom Tov preparation matters?
Drivers are not alone. Pedestrians are also prone to thoughtless behavior. Rushing across the street on a red light in traffic is not wise or polite. Using a baby stroller as a traffic detection system is downright insane.
The potential to create a kiddush HaShem exists every time we go into the street. Free choice gives us the ability to do the right thing and accrue reward in this world and the next. We can be charitable and allow someone to exit a parking space instead of passing by as if he was invisible. We can wait for pedestrians to finish crossing safely, and not fear the horn of the driver behind, who can only see that the light has changed. Pedestrians can check for traffic by looking and waiting for the light to change instead of jaywalking or sticking a stroller out into traffic and putting an infant in harm’s way.
We can pay attention to mitzvos bein odom l’chavero and avoid becoming sad statistics. Sure, many people consider me insane for having these opinions and backing a losing campaign to bring civil behavior to public spaces. In truth, there is no need to drive me crazy. I can walk there from where I stand right now. All I need is someone to give me a brake.
If this article made you smile or shake your head, you may be crazy enough to join me in this radical cause. All you need to do is take a moment to consider that your being late does not actually obligate others to help you make up the lost time. After all, they may also have hit the snooze button just one time too many this morning. Instead, take pity on the other poor souls on the street and choose one courteous driving habit to be your own. Start small and be prepared for setbacks, but keep at it and you might make a tiny difference in someone’s day. You might also make a difference in your day. There is the outside chance you could save the life of someone you really care about, but it will probably go unnoticed.
About the Author: Boruch Wahrhaftig resides in New York when not visiting China, Israel and South Africa. His writing on culture, science, and personal well-being is published in the USA and globally. Books on inspiration within nature and edible science are under construction.
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