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Bad driving just one sign of growing incivility in U.S.?

(Editor’s note: Jeff Benziger was on vacation and didn’t have time to write a new column. This one ran in November 2016 and was updated).

“Where did you get your driver’s license, from a box of Cracker Jacks?” So goes the old insult, with variations including cereal boxes, offered up to people who drive recklessly, dangerously and carelessly.

Judging by the way I’m seeing people drive on the freeway in Stanislaus County, I’m wondering if it was Fruit Loops or a Captain Crunch box they got their licenses from. Then I wonder if they even possess a valid driver’s license. Years ago our late advertising manager, Bill Sanborn, was driving down 99 to Ceres and somewhere in the vicinity of the Tuolumne River Bridge somebody rear-ended his pickup. Bill got out and the man who hit him spoke no English and handed him some money. He had no license or insurance.

If people had a license or would have taken the driver’s test, or received some sort of training, they would know that slower traffic keeps right.

The local traffic world would go so much smoother if people followed that common-sense law. Traffic should always run fastest in the left lane and slow traffic always in the right lane. Medium speed traffic belongs in the middle lane. It’s really a no-brainer. Traffic flows so much smoother and faster that way. More and more I am seeing speed demons using all lanes of 99, like it’s a video game of dodging in and out of any lane.

Let’s say you’re on southbound 99 between Ceres and Keyes and Mr. Joe Pokey is blocking traffic in the #1 lane because he’s going too slowly. A big-rig is rumbling in the center lane. Because Joe has his head where it doesn’t belong, the impatient 20-year-old - in the car his Mommy bought for him is running late to work because he doesn’t manage his time well - is accelerating past the big-rig in the slow lane. The driver of the tractor-trailer rig might want to duck back into the slow lane because, well, he’s big and slow. Meanwhile, Mr. Impatient is also leaving no clear path for cars entering the freeway in the slow lane. The car coming on the freeway has nowhere to go and is ran off the freeway and crashes, mostly because Mr. Pokey didn’t clear out of the #1 lane and let traffic flow around him.

Joe could be our self-righteous driver who dominates the fast lane and won’t budge because he’s going the maximum speed limit and, by God, and he doesn’t feel obligated to free the path for anyone speeding past him. Not only is he not a traffic enforcer, in doing so he’s jeopardizing those around him.

There is a graphic on that shows two scenarios and how traffic flows so much better when the #1 lane is occupied only for faster moving vehicles.

I also routinely see the “speed up to beat the yellow light” driver. In fact, it happened to me on Friday morning driving south down Mitchell Road. I was approaching Fowler Road and the light turned yellow for me. I had enough time to make it, given my speed and how close I was to the intersection. However, the young lady behind me punched it to make it through the yellow. I know because she came very close to kissing her front bumper with my rear (which has no bumper). I shook my head as she backed off the accelerator once she sailed through the intersection and turned left onto Dale Avenue.

Hey drivers, yellow does not mean speed up and beat the light. You either brake or you go the same speed if you can make safely. You can get a ticket for pulling that stunt. Yet I see it all the time.

Driving is a matter of inconsideration. If drivers are considerate people, they will drive considerately. If they are inconsiderate people to begin with, their driving will reflect that.

People also tailgate because if you dare leave ample space between you and the car in front, somebody will swoop in and hog it.

The problem of bad drivers is only growing worse with distracted driving. The National Highway Safety Administration tells us that 3,450 people were killed in 2016 in the United States due to distracted driving. The number of fatalities involving cell phone use while driving was at 476 in 2015, up 17 percent from 2014 numbers, according to the same agency.

Instead of saying people are just becoming worse drivers, maybe we should look at the bigger picture. You might arrive at the conclusion that people, as a whole, have become uncivil, uncaring and lack a depth to their character. Indeed, character doesn’t seem to matter much. 

I can be hard on others and be lulled into thinking that somehow our generation has the corner market on dastardly deeds. Then I come across a Turlock Journal article from 103 years ago and realize wow, there were creeps on the road even in 1913:

“Nov. 27, 1913

Auto Damaged Two Buggies

The driver of a small run-about automobile was responsible for the complete demolition of two buggies and severe injury to the occupants about 8 o’clock on the state highway between Modesto and Ceres. In both cases the reckless driver crashed into the rear of the rigs, and extricating himself and his machine from the wreckage of the vehicles, drove away hastily without offering any assistance. In one buggy were Mrs. M. Mustoe and little daughter of Waterford and Mrs. H. Tyre of Ceres, and the other Ad Giller of Modesto. The reckless driver was headed toward Ceres, and the local officers in adjoining communities and cities are on the lookout so an arrest can be made.”

A hit-and-run accident from 1913 doesn’t excuse law-breaking today but it does serve as a reminder that maybe we are no different than those who came before us in terms of larceny operating within us. Impatience, running from responsibility, indifference to others and corrupt driving habits have been around a long time. But perhaps it’s time that we moved over, quit being in such a hurry and stop being so inconsiderate and rude when it comes to guiding a two-ton vessel on our roadways. When we stop thinking of others, we really degrade even our own value as human beings.

How do you feel about this? Let Jeff know at