Do you remember when it was fun to drive an automobile? I do… In the months leading up to my getting a driver’s license at age 16 in 1972, I watched the calendar and counted the days. I couldn’t wait.
That was 48 years ago.
I vividly remember the moment when I took the wheel of my first car—a 1960 Valiant – all alone for the first time. No adult to supervise my driving. I could do as I wanted. There was a huge rush of euphoria. I was a free man.
Free to roam.
However—not free from the consequences.
The summer before I took my driver’s test, I took Driver’s Education at my high school. I learned a lot about motor vehicle safety and the do’s and don’ts of the road. When you are young with a freshly-minted Maryland driver’s license, driving a car is intimidating. You are fearful of having an accident and having to explain it to the parents. You are conscious of the risks of driving and what happens if you are careless and break the law. You understand that—at 16—a speeding ticket can cost your driving privileges. Maryland motor vehicle law in those days made it abundantly clear for young bucks you better not step outside the line. The county and state police were out there to remind you just in case you felt cocky and invincible.
Then—I had my first accident. Paying very little attention to what was going on around me after dropping my sister off at junior high, I made a U-turn in front of a school bus and got clobbered. I was hit so hard I knocked a large tree over—to which students laughed and yelled “Timber!!!” I wanted to hide under a large rock. I was so shaken by the accident I left the scene on foot to get my father a few blocks away. Right off the bat, I can think of at least two rules (and laws) taught in Driver’s Ed I violated—failure to yield and leaving the scene of an accident.
The police were waiting when I returned.
My father taught me well. I thought I’d just pay the fine and learn from the accident. My ol’ man wasn’t going to let me off the hook that easily. I was going to appear before the judge, explain myself, and listen to what the judge in his majestic black robe had to say. Six months into licensed driving, I’d had my first accident. It was a bitter pill to swallow. However, it taught me something about responsible driving.
I had a long way to go.
I can tell you I’ve been young, careless, and stupid at the wheel. That first accident wouldn’t be my last. There would be other accidents—and tickets—just to remind me to be more careful at the wheel. The school of hard knocks taught me how to be a better, more responsible motorist.
I’ve discovered a disturbing trend on the road in recent years and it is surely frightening. At first, I thought it was a Los Angeles freeway issue exclusively until I started traveling more around the country. There’s a dangerous element on the roads these days. Young people and distracted dangerous driving. Video games. Video cell phones. Texting and emails. Preoccupation with everything and anything—except driving.
One morning, I was on Southern California’s 14, the Antelope Valley Freeway and noticed a young woman eating a breakfast sandwich, applying makeup, and yacking on a cell phone while steering with her knees. She was all over the freeway—oblivious to everything going on around her. She was drifting close to every vehicle around her. Horns were honking and she paid none of them any mind, except to flip them off.
Over the years, this has only grown worse. There’s virtually no police presence on California freeways anymore when there used to be radar traps and a solid police presence. The Chippies were out there waiting for would-be speeders and reckless drivers. That presence is gone. I presume due to budget cuts. Whenever I see crazy circus stunt driving, such as passing on the shoulder at 130 mph (when I am doing 80) and treating the freeway as though it were a racetrack, it is always a young millennial with not a clue of what a sudden stop into the back of a semi at 130 means.
I hasten to remind these young studs the freeway is not a video game. You don’t get to start the game over when you crash into someone. You get a free trip to the ER or the morgue. Your parents and loved ones get the visit from law enforcement that you are dead from a violent car crash. They get to grieve, cry, and want to die themselves because the news is unbearable. No one should have to go through it.
Although street racing is nothing new, it has become more dangerous. Higher speeds and greater amounts of power. Surface streets blocked off for the festivities to where the police can’t even get near the action and arrest the offenders. Shelby Mustangs, ZL-1 Camaros, Hellcat Challengers and Chargers, Turbo Z’s, Buzzy Hondas and Toyotas, even pickup trucks with insane amounts of power become weapons.
When does this level of insanity end?
We fantasize about the raw power of our classic musclecars – the “rumpity-rump-rump!” Chevelles, Mustangs, Torinos, Roadrunners, and the like. They were fast for their time, but don’t hold a candle to what kids are roaring around in today. I speak from experience. In my senior year, we lost at least two from my graduation class. I’ll bet you can say the same. I had a friend killed right in front of his house.
A buddy with a new 2015 Mustang GT said boldly, “Jim, I want a thousand horsepower…” I had to tell him good luck. It takes cubic dollars to make a thousand horsepower. It also takes knowing what the hell you are doing at the wheel. Not many people can handle 500 horsepower let alone 1,000. They leave the dealer high on the emotional roar of a powerful V-8 – only to wad the damned thing up at the first traffic light demonstrating their masculinity. They could have done that lifting weights and working out at the gym – and lived to walk away from it.
I’ve been a young person and I have been careless at the wheel. I was never mean spirited. Today, there’s a mean spirited demeanor out there on the roads across the generations. Tailgating. Drifting from mirror to mirror with the high beams on. Passing and cutting each other off in the heat of anger. Even one jackass who installed blazing LED aircraft landing lights on the back of his pickup. The person in front of him was going too slow to suit him. He passed them and flipped on the lights blinding all of us who were behind him. What kind of moron does this?
It has become quite dangerous out there—which has taken all of the joy out of driving, which used to be a favorite national pastime. You can’t even find a stretch of road where someone isn’t all over your back bumper. Not only is there no such thing as respectful disagreement in discussion anymore, no one knows how to be respectful at the wheel either.
I will tell you where I learned something unpleasant about myself and my contribution to dangerous driving. I was coming onto the freeway and some crazy in a Ford truck tried to run me off the freeway. Furious, I went after them and chased them to my exit off the freeway. As I came onto the exit ramp, they attempted to block my exit. I went up onto the curb in a fury. My mirror clipped their mirror doing no damage. Point is I contacted another vehicle in a fit of rage. That’s when I found I was a huge part of the problem. If you’re not the solution, you are the problem.
That one experience changed the way I saw myself as a motorist. I was unsafe at the wheel—at 60 years old. There’s no road rage feud worth maiming or killing anyone, including loved ones in the car with you.
I had to come to terms with myself and that’s never pleasant. It cooled me off.
That said, please drive safely.