Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Existential Highwayism

I came within inches of being involved in a nasty wreck Saturday night. Had it not been for driving the speed limit, my habitual use of side mirrors, good reflexes and even better brakes on my 06 Prius, I d have found myself scrunched against the guard rail of the southbound Marquam Bridge
      Like all traffic accidents or near misses, this one seemed to develop in a split second. A glimmer in the passenger's side mirror made me swivel in time to see a green SUV bearing down on me from three lanes over. I fought the impulse to crush the brake pedal, which would have sent me into a death spiral and make me a target for every car behind me. Instead, I let up on the gas, put heavy but steady pressure on the brakes and said a dirty word  As I slewed toward the guard rail, the SUV was on top of me in a nanosecond. Luckily, the driver chose to accelerate at the same time I slowed and his rear end cleared my front fender by something approximating width of his walnut-sized brain.
       Notice I used the words his rear end. Unfair, since there was no way of gauging the sex of the reality-challenged yahoo behind the wheel of the SUV. I couldn't see the driver through the tinted windows. Besides, it's irrelevant. But I'll use he, for convenience sake in the rest of this blog.
      He sped away. I said another, much dirtier word and leaned on my horn. Several other drivers joined in venting with me.
       I reached Lovejoy Fountain, where I was performing for the final time in the Portland Actors Ensemble production of TheTempest without further incident.  As I prepared for the show's opening, I found myself wondering what the driver of that Utility Vehicle had been thinking when he made that multiple lane change and nearly hit me.
       Was he drunk? Texting a restaurant reservation in? Playing charades with the other occupants of the car? Was his thinking limited to the simple realization "I'm over here, I need to be over there?  Did the concept that there might be another car in the space he wanted to occupy even cross his mind? Did he think the other car (me) had a lot of nerve being there.
       How about the aftermath of the inches-from-disaster incident. Did he realize how close he came to causing a freeway tangling multiple vehicle crash? What did he think the hallelujah chorus of car horns chasing him down the 405 was about? Did he try to laugh it off and try to rationalize it to his white-knuckled passengers?
       Living in an urban environment and driving in the worst examples of Portland's gridlocked morning and afternoon traffic for 16 years, I've witnessed numerous incidents of what my wife calls "Existential Highwayism."
       People back out of driveways into the flow of a busy four-lane street without looking, taking it on faith that the other drivers will stop for them. Texting pedestrians step off a curb and into the path of onrushing vehicles without glancing up. "I'm in a huge hurry" types tailgate at eighty miles per hour while checking their voice mail.
       Let's be honest. All of us, at one time or another has let our attention waver and have caused or nearly caused an accident. But the lack of focus behind the wheel seems to have grown to epidemic proportions.
      Blame technology. With all of the distractions built into today's lifestyles, we've become a society that believes it's own hype about multi-tasking. Focusing on one thing and performing it to the best of our abilities is "so day before yesterday." This would not only explain the actions of the driver who nearly T-boned me, but the driver I saw playing a ukulele and reading the funnies at a stop sign the other morning.

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