I often drive from the San Francisco Bay to the Los Angeles Basin. Equipped with music, optimism, and a feedbag of dried corn and rolled oats fastened to my muzzle, I cut through California’s Central Coast, past towns with names like Coalinga and Lost Hills and Buttonwillow. Not very many people live here: it’s hot and dry, and Congress has limited the amount of water that local farmers can use, which makes for a beleaguered constituency and a brand of piety that feeds on deprivation. “Congress Created Dustbowl” and “Trust In Jesus” are popular refrains on roadside placards. Mostly, people drive through here.
On the I-5, the main transportation artery going up and down the west coast, the driving is unpredictable. In the middle of the week, when the road is empty save for trucks, the driving can be very tedious. About the prettiest thing to look at between San Francisco and L.A. is the white onion skins that float from open-bed semis and dance like confetti in the wind. During weekends and holidays, however, the I-5 runs like a racetrack and feels like a video game, owing to congestion and a patchwork of cops trying to meet their quotas. The more people on the road, the hairier it gets.
Everyone has their pet peeves when it comes to driving. A couple of things get me angry when I’m driving down the I-5—not because they’re egregious, but because, in principle, they’re easy to avoid:
Camping out in the fast lane on a two-lane highway. Women seem to be chronic offenders. Some drivers decide that the right lane is passé, and avoid it like asbestos. This gets annoying when the campers are going the same speed as a 40-ton semi in the right lane, and they’re side by side, blocking faster traffic from getting around. Here’s my plea, guys and girls: please don’t lodge yourself in the left lane like a fat man hogging the jacuzzi. If lots of cars begin passing you on your right, that’s a sign that you’re in the wrong lane. Wait until all the cars have finished passing, and merge into the asbestos lane. Don’t worry: most of the Knievels in the left lane will die an uglier death much sooner than you and your moldy, law-abiding lungs will.
Passing someone by cutting them off. It’s the guys who are mostly to blame here. If passing someone causes them to brake after you squeeze back into the lane in front of them, don’t pass them. This happens a lot on congested two-lane highways. A semi, for example, decides to pass the slower semi in front of it by merging into the left lane and accelerating, albeit slowly. Passenger cars in the left lane have to slow down and wait for the faster semi to pass the slower semi; they usually form a line, as in a grocery store, because it can take a while. Meanwhile, some cankerblossom with tinted windows who doesn’t want to wait will merge into the right lane, rush up to the front of the line until he’s behind the slow semi, and squeeze back into the left lane, effectively cutting the line and slowing everyone else behind him down. This is grade-A dickish behavior. If you do this maneuver, you definitely have some selfish tendencies. Not only is this a dangerous way to drive, it also incentivizes bad behavior: all the patient cars being cut by the anonymous asshole witness a successful demonstration of the Nixon axiom—if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying—and lose all will to stay put.
Grotesque displays of rage. It’s quite certain: people will perceive insults on the road where there are none, because driving can be stressful. We’re ever eager to find emotional punching bags for our bag marriage, our crappy job, and our recalcitrant kids, and taking it out on other drivers is a heady balm. I once pulled into a parking space and a lady in the adjoining space—a business type—yelled at me viciously for not letting her pull out first. Whatever someone else does, try not t0 take the bait. You’ll feel worse, and the other person will start to feel better; that’s not what you want! Stay stoic, focus your eyes on the road, and pretend that you’ve been given a heroes welcome after liberating Europe from the Nazi pox—just don’t get caught up in the fantasy too much. Similarly, when someone does something nice for you, revive the antique practice of showing thanks. A wave of the hand will do. I like to flash my emergency blinkers quickly and pretend that my car is winking in gratitude.
Honorable Mention: Prius owners. (Not easy to avoid.) California is rabidly devoted to the Prius. California sells more Prii than any other state, trails only hippie-magnet Vermont in per-capita Prius ownership, and boasts more hybrids, by far, than any other state. And so a Mad Max-like tribalization has occurred, with Prius owners banding together in dystopic fashion, duking it out with normal slobs who don’t ever manage to save gas or retrofit their vehicles with recycled parts. Now, not all Prius drivers are incorrigible incompetents. But I see too many Prii driving feverishly fast. I understand that its light frame and quiet motor make it easy to go fast, but that doesn’t give Prius owners an excuse to do Senna impressions on clogged roads. And when they’re not speeding recklessly, they’re trolling around obliviously, slothfully, talking on their phone, keeping turn signals on for miles on end, signifying nothing. Make no mistake, Prius drivers: in my book, you start the game with several demerits. If I can’t bounce a quarter off of your impeccably made bed, I’m sending Toecutter and Mudguts after you.
If you’re a cynic, you probably believe that the act of driving reveals an inner brutishness roiling beneath our civil exterior. If you’re an apologist, you probably believe that driving turns otherwise nice people into monster; you cite Freud and love talking about the Death Drive and the partitioning of emotional feedback from technological innovation. If you’re a realist, you probably don’t think there’s much difference between the two. Whatever your allegiance, let’s raise a toast to safe driving, solidarity, and the continued reëducation of Prius owners.
What are your driving pet peeves?
1 What a bad pluralization of “Prius.” My vote went out for “Prium.” “Prii” has the misfortune of looking bad in addition to sounding awkward.