Road rage

Note, December 20, 2017: Due to time constraints, I was unable to edit this posting when I initially published it. That editing is now complete.

I need to begin this with the trivial; road rage isn’t the product of any single provocation, but rather of myriad ‘micro-aggressions,’ which accumulate beyond a breaking point.

Case in point: I was driving through Sebastopol today. Traffic has gotten worse in town lately, and yes, traffic can and often does drive me nuts. But today really and truly was nothing unusual.

I was stopping at my mailbox place, where I have a private mail box that I use as my primary mailing address. The parking in front was mostly full. I could probably have parallel parked but opted instead to turn into a driveway that leads to parking in back.

And of course, even in a Prius, parallel parking between two sloppily parked cars can be a hassle. So with my decision, I was choosing an option that obstructed traffic less.

Apparently that wasn’t good enough. Somebody had to honk at me.

I mentioned this inside the store and they said it happens all the time. Even when people are just pulling into a space in front (for various reasons, this space, when available, is super easy to pull into).

I should explain that I write here as one who is insured for 70,000 miles per year and is warily watching the prospect of having to raise that. I have been driving, almost entirely within California, for well over three decades. I do most of my driving in the North and East Bay areas, sporadically as far as Santa Cruz, Sacramento, or Arcata, and much more rarely, beyond that. I see a fair amount of traffic. I see a fair amount of traffic constrol stupidity (or malice).

Further, this is only from my perspective, pretty much exclusively as a driver of an automobile. I did bicycle for a short time while at California State University, East Bay, but it’s really not my thing.

Now, I should explain some background to the situation today. Sebastopol lies at the intersection of two two-lane state highways, specifically, California Highway 12, which terminates at the junction of California Highway 116. Highway 12 leads east through Santa Rosa into (more) wine country. Highway 116 here runs from Cotati to the Russian River, ending at the coast (and a junction with Highway 1).

Traffic has long been a problem. Sebastopol responded by splitting the north-south Highway 116 traffic onto one way streets. I don’t know how long ago this was, but it was probably before my mother moved into the area in the late 1980s and it couldn’t have been long after.

So, too, have pedestrian fatalities. Sebastopol has recently been upgrading its response here, fortifying crosswalks with brightly flashing amber lights that flash for a set interval after a pedestrian pushes the walk button. The simple fact is that Sebastopol has far too many drivers who are passing through, on the only available streets, on the way to somewhere else. Whatever charms the town itself may hold for these people, they have long since faded into the background. So Sebastopol and its pedestrians, unprotected by thousands of pounds of metal (and, increasingly, plastic) become an obstacle. Pedestrian safety will remain a problem at least until a bypass is built (to my knowledge, there are no such plans and I’m pretty sure there would be some serious environmental problems to mitigate).

And understand that complaints about Sebastopol traffic are relative. On the worst of days, it’s still pretty rare to see bumper-to-bumper gridlock stretched out, I’m guessing, much more than a mile. The latter happens most often during the evening commute on just one of the highways, 12, leading into Sebastopol. It also happens north of town at an intersection that was just plain built wrong, that Caltrans (I’m guessing) just changed from a fairly normal two-way plus left turns signal, into a three-way signal. (If Caltrans or any responsible agency bothered to explain, I haven’t heard. But properly formed left turns at this intersection swing too far into the paths of opposing properly formed left turns. Worse, they do so even if you follow the painted lines, which, in this case, actually aren’t that horribly far off.)

So when I say that traffic today was pretty normal, I’m talking about traffic that strains even to be mildly annoying. And I certainly don’t know the backstories of the unknown myriad drivers who honked, today at me, but apparently often enough at other drivers parking or unparking near my mailbox place.

But it had all still been too much for that unknown driver, for whom I will assume charitably this is uncharacteristic behavior. He honked at me anyway.

It’s time to highlight some microaggressions directed at automobile drivers. I’m not always going to be nice here, especially in regards to some motorcyclists. Further, I am omitting the idiocy and the obnoxiousness often displayed between drivers: Collectively, we do this to ourselves and it is our responsibility. My focus here is on aggression from or on behalf of other groups that drivers are innocent of.

First, and as long as I just mentioned motorcycles, a bumper sticker cautioning other drivers to “start seeing motorcycles.” It seems to me that motorcyclists have a choice: They can split lanes, often roaring along at something a lot more than 25 miles per hour faster than surrounding traffic, or they can be visible, stuck in gridlock like the rest of us. They get to choose one. They can’t have both.

Second, the mal-timed traffic signals, the “No U-Turn” signs, the “No Left Turn” signs, and all the controls that further punish a lost or confused or maybe even a well-oriented driver. Far too many of these seemingly cannot be justified by traffic or safety concerns. They exist for no good reason and far too often to easily ascribe to incompetence; so a falsely dichotomous evil reason is left: malice toward drivers.

There are the narrow two-lane (or less!) roads we are to “share” with bicyclists. We can accommodate both, the politicians assure us, if we are simply careful. In the real world, such caution is in intermittent and variable supply. What’s really going on here is a failure to address systemic problems of how to accommodate both bicyclists and cars. Instead and all too often, really, but more often lethally for bicyclists, we have an accommodation for neither.

There are the unending streams of pedestrians who routinely cross the street heedless of red lights or “Don’t Walk” signals. This happens a lot in Berkeley and in San Francisco’s Financial District at lunch hour. But probably my favorite example would be on southbound Powell Street, attempting to turn right onto Geary Street, also in San Francisco. It’s the southwest corner of Union Square, with a park and shopping and hotels, in a very touristy area. And the crowds of pedestrians begin to resemble cattle on a stampede. They never stop, which makes that right turn difficult to impossible.

Oh and the bicyclists who routinely flout stop signs and red lights with apparent impunity. We all (drivers but, we’re pretty damned sure, bicylists too) know what would happen to us if we behaved in such a fashion.

But we’re the problem. Whether we fail to see pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, it doesn’t matter. We’re the problem. Which of course makes us the lovely foil for the interests of those groups.

So, ahem, you, that asshole who honked at me? I feel your pain. But you’re still an asshole.

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

Leave a Reply