Drive Clueless

A long road trip can bring you in touch with, albeit anonymously, many forms of clueless human behavior. When I say clueless in reference to other drivers, I am perhaps being either overly generous or overly damning with my description. Not knowing these people or what’s going on in their vehicles, not being aware of anything that may be influencing their inconsiderate and infuriating actions, I will settle on the assumption that they are simply blissfully unaware of the reality of the situation. This, of course, does not apply to those situations in which I pass an inconsiderate driver and see them with a cell phone held to their ear. In those cases it is obvious that they are clueless. That did not happen in the events described below.

I have just completed a multi-hour trip, from Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon and back, and it has provided me with multiple reminders of how inattentive some drivers (thankfully only a few) can be. First, my own freeway strategy. On a four-lane highway such as Interstate 40 I generally put our car in cruise control set at eighty and spend much of the time in the left-hand (a.k.a. “fast”) lane. The speed limit is seventy-five, so that means we pass virtually all of the tractor-trailers and about half of the cars we encounter.

On our first day out this time the trip west was going well for the first 150 miles, until not long after we crossed the state line into Arizona. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Arizona except, of course, the state’s dominant political philosophy. The timing in this case, I’m sure, was purely coincidental. We were in the right lane at the time and coming up behind a black SUV that was following a semi. In most cases I am careful about black sport vehicles and pickups; experience has demonstrated that they often contain somewhat aggressive drivers, the type who rush up behind you on a two-lane road and tailgate you briefly, and then try to pass even where there is hardly any visible open blacktop up ahead. A few miles west of Gallup, however, this particular black SUV seemed relatively sedate, at least from a couple hundred yards back. But when I switched to the left lane to pass, it also changed lanes ahead of me, apparently deciding, right at that moment, that it was time for them to pass the semi, too. In hindsight, that should have been the first clue that there would be trouble. Unfortunately, the SUV didn’t seem to increase its speed much. So I dropped out of cruise and slowed down and followed. At this point, the SUV was not moving much faster than the truck, so it took some five minutes for it to clear the front of the semi and to move back into the slow lane.

This is a situation familiar to many drivers, I’m sure, one that most often involves two massive tractor-trailers on a long uphill stretch. Just as you approach from behind and change into the fast lane, anticipating an easy and brief passing maneuver, the rear semi decides that it is moving infinitesimally faster than the leading one and deserves to pass as well, so it also changes lanes and creates a huge two-lane wall of truck-derriere that effectively blocks any chance of going any faster than either truck for what seems like an eternity. I usually try to excuse such behavior because I realize that there must be many frustrations in pushing a load that large up a steep grade. it’s still frustrating, but I make allowances.

In the case of the black SUV on I-40 there was no such excuse. That event was similar to a double-truck wall at first, but eventually became worse. After the SUV eased past the truck it did do the right thing; it signaled and moved back into the slow lane. I resumed our previous cruise control setting and pulled past it, staying in the fast lane in preparation for passing the next semi, which was another couple hundred yards ahead. Just as the black SUV slipped behind our rear bumper, however, it suddenly accelerated and passed us on the right, then changed lanes to once again block our ability to pass the next truck. Then, of course, it decreased its speed again. So we were forced to repeat the previous slow passing scenario. My solution? This time—after we got past both vehicles, of course—I accelerated to ninety-five, hoping there weren’t any highway patrol cars nearby, and stayed with that speed until we were at least a quarter-mile ahead of that unaccountably self-centered (or perhaps passive-competitive?) SUV driver.

Not much later we came across another situation that we have experienced far too often. We had just passed another semi when another SUV, a white one this time, came up behind us, traveling fairly rapidly. I saw it coming and courteously signaled and drifted to the right lane, getting out of the way before it had a chance to tailgate our car. I do try to be a good driver, I do! There was another tractor-trailer up ahead, but given the speed of the SUV and the distances involved I knew that I would have time to slip left again, after it passed me, without cutting the cruise control. That’s what I assumed, anyway. What I couldn’t have accounted for was what happened then. The SUV quickly rode up abreast of our car and then slowed down, matching our speed and blocking our access to the fast lane. It stayed there. I looked ahead at the semi that was now getting closer. It was, by then, too late to pull ahead of the SUV and pass the truck, so I had to reduce my speed, drop back, and follow the SUV.

As I said, this kind of thing happens fairly often. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that some people accelerate slowly, without really paying attention to their speedometer, until they pass someone, at which point they realize how fast they are actually going and, suddenly reminded of the potential threat of police and prosecution and delays and hefty fines, they drop back to a rate more closely approximating the speed limit. That’s just my guess. Of course, their behavioral correction in the fast lane comes at the expense of those of us who were already obeying the law (well, approximately) in the first place and who suddenly find ourselves blocked in, lagging behind somebody who should have either remained well behind us or quickly passed and gone ahead.

As we approached Flagstaff a third event occurred, one that involved an action that I don’t remember ever having experienced before. It involved yet another SUV, this time one of those smaller crossover models, but still an SUV. I’m not ready to call this a trend, though. The fact that all three of these incidents involved a misbehaving SUV does not, for me, imply anything about the owners or drivers of such vehicles. It may simply be that so many of them are on the road these days. And I recognize that this not a statistically valid set of observations, but yes, the three clueless incidents on this one day were one hundred percent SUV-related. They were also one hundred percent in Arizona, also a meaningless statistic. Of course, they were also one hundred percent semi-related, by which I mean that there were also tractor-trailers involved in each case, but the semi drivers were not the ones at fault. In the third case below, in fact, the semi-driver was the primary victim of the SUV behavior. Okay, and I must also admit that my previously-expressed prejudice about the drivers of black pickups has also not been statistically verified.

At any rate, as we drew closer to Flagstaff we came upon a semi rapidly catching up behind a small SUV that was traveling at a rate considerably below the speed limit. The semi, understandably, signaled and pulled over into the fast lane to pass, and managed to pass the SUV fairly quickly. That is, almost all of it passed the SUV quickly. But the closer the back end of the truck got to the front of the SUV the faster the SUV began to move. I was running slightly below the speed limit behind the truck, waiting for it to return to the right-hand lane ahead of the SUV, but that didn’t happen as it should have. So for almost ten minutes there was, before me, a small SUV in the right lane hanging on to the back corner of the truck in the left lane like the second goose in a flying V-formation, but staying close enough so that the truck driver was not able to change lanes and let me pass. For more than a mile the semi was trapped in the left lane. In turn, we were trapped behind the semi. I have no idea what the driver of the SUV was thinking—perhaps she (yes, we eventually discovered that it was a she) was simply taking advantage of the shadow of the semi to shield her eyes from the late afternoon sun—but her oblivious actions kept us, and two other cars behind us, from continuing on at the speed we would have preferred. Self-centered? Perhaps. Clueless or thoughtless and/or unobservant? Certainly.

These three incidents occurred in the space of less than three hours and two hundred miles of travel. That’s not bad, I suppose, given the large number of cars and trucks we shared the road with. And our travel could easily have been worse. As we passed through Gallup earlier that day we saw an accident that had tied up the east-bound lanes, causing a virtual shutdown of traffic for miles. Fortunately for us that was on the on the other side of the freeway; sometimes we can be thankful for divided highways. And our return trip to Albuquerque three days later was uneventful, except, of course for the usual three or four incidents of slow semis passing even slower semis. The fact is, we can never really fathom the motives of other drivers, though we often try, but we can be thankful that virtually all of them are courteous and attentive, even as we recall (not so fondly) the exceptions.

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