Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Right of Way

I learned to fly before I learned to drive. This means the first right-of-way laws pounded into my head at the helm of a motorized vehicle are based on naval shipping and physics. It is also enforced by nature - in aviation, most collisions are deadly to one, if not both parties. I understand that on the road, with its lack of falling, airbags, crumple zones, and often lower speeds of impact, accidents are usually far less deadly (though the total number of drivers per year means a smaller percentage of deadly accidents results in far, far higher numbers of deaths, every year.)

As on the sea, in the air, the biggest and least maneuverable thing wins. This means that hot air balloons, having no ability to steer, win over everything else. The equivalent on the road is: the broke-down car with its flashers on or road flares wins, no matter what you're driving. Also, trains win EVERY TIME. Because if it can't get out of the way, it WON'T. And, no, that combine isn't going to pull over to let your happy butt past. It CAN'T. So sit back and enjoy the farm road at 7 miles an hour, because you're on a farm road, and this is a known hazard here.

Second, the jumbo jet always wins over the small airplane. Because massive airliners take miles to turn, while small airplanes can get out of the way faster. Also, no Cessna is ever going to win an argument with a 747. While this may not be enshrined into road law, there are two practical aspects: the first is that nobody has ever yet won an argument with a semi, a dump truck, a school bus, or G-d forbid, a concrete mixing truck. They're going to take longer to get up to speed, and longer to stop, and massively more amounts of room, in the case of semis, to make a 90 degree turn. So prudent drivers will give them room to do so, not wanting to end up as a bumper decoration.

Most especially, the difference in stopping distance between a car and a bicycle... look, I commuted by bicycle. It wasn't because I was a happy eco-warrior, it's because I was spending all my money on flight lessons and college tuition. (Cars are expensive!) And from that experience, I hate bike lanes. I don't think cars and bikes should be on the same roads at all. I adore bike trails that segregate bikes from everything but pedestrians. I hate "bike paths" that consist of taking a chunk out of the road that put bicyclists and drivers into conflict every turn lane, and MOST especially bike paths on city streets that put the bicyclist in the arc of every parked car door being opened. 

As every motorcyclist and bicyclist learns, many to their scars and sorrow, cars and trucks have big blind spots, bigger stopping distances, even more mass than that to launch you down the road, and worst of all, they don't expect to see anything but cars, so even if their eyeballs register your presence, their brain will often fail to see you in time to avoid being hit.

And if you think it's bad as a bicyclist, honey, don't wear dark clothes in the night and jaywalk. Don't wear light clothes at night and jaywalk. In fact, stay out of the road, and as far off on the shoulder as you can, if you must be there. As millions of deer, moose, and elk can attest every year, not to mention coyotes, dogs, armadillos, skunks, and other furry critters, if you're moving at a walking pace in a busy road, you're roadkill. Even if you're protesting and your cause is righteous, well, whose to say the deer didn't think his cause was righteous, too?

And you poor darlings, at some point when you think you're brightly lit because you have the flashlight app on in your cell phone, walk over into the glare of parked headlights, and point it at the driver. Can he see it? Only from so close it's too late to avoid. Little glowstick necklaces and bracelets? Those are for ravers, not traffic. (Except when trick-or-treating, in which case, I'm going to be creeping along at three miles an hour and frantically looking for any sign of movement shorter than the bumper, and those help. But at normal traffic speeds, no.)

The second is that the car with the least insurance wins. I've driven flashy things, shiny and brand new, and observed other drivers let their asshole flag fly a lot more often than if I'm driving a beater that I can identify from any angle in the parking lot by its unique wrinkles and dents. Just like the guys with the fight scars on their knuckles and the level dead stare get a lot fewer men shoving them aside at the bar than dorks do, the beater car says it's a very bad idea to try to cut in at the last second of a merge by aiming at my front quarter panel and revving your engine while making eye contact and lifting your middle finger. Don't pick fights you can't win, eh?

Third, the ones with clearance win over the ones without clearance. This is all throughout road law, with its stop signs, traffic lights, yield signs, etc. Know it, follow it, avoid getting t-boned because somebody else expected you to follow the law.

Speaking of road law, it's not uniform. After almost a year in Texas, Peter and I got into a debate yesterday over whether a car was following traffic laws or not. Turns out, he's totally legal in Texas, but not in Alaska, and while arguably legal in Tennessee, he's also breaking the law in Louisiana. (Hazard light use, for those wondering.)

Yeah, that one surprised me, too. Pro tip: if you move to a new state, pick up their copy of the DMV booklet and read all the way through. It's the little things that get you, and that's not just whether you're required to have a front license plate or not - it's also whether or not the traffic around you is expecting you to do that thing you "always" do, or if they have different "of course" expectations here. 

Fourth: emergencies have right of way over everything else. If you're really enjoying some Tocatta And Fugue in D Minor, or anything else with lots of high notes and bass, take the time to check your rear view mirror for flashing red lights more frequently. Because Ambulances, Fire Trucks, and Police running with their lights on have right of way.

And, you'd think this'd be obvious, but any vehicle out of control has the right of way. If the wind is roaring across the Palmer flats hard enough to pick a semi up and drop it four feet over in my lane, I'm not going to pass him. Because I don't want to be next to him if a gust does that again! If the side of the semi in front of you disappears in dust and haze with a loud bang or two and exploding chunks of tires are flying higher than your vehicle, GET OUT OF THE WAY.

Similarly, if you _think_ a vehicle is shortly to be out of control, you can argue that you were legally right, but physics will win. So if you see a car with a tire that's wobbling very badly in and out, a truck with a load that looks about to depart the pickup bed, a semi on a downhill with one brake locked up and leaving a thick trail of smoke, or a perfectly sound vehicle that's weaving across all lanes... now is the time not to argue. It may be the time to call 911 so a nice officer with flashing lights can help fix the hazard before it becomes an emergency, but it's also time to just let that one have Right of Way.

Last but never least, if you encounter angry people who look like they're going to swarm your vehicle and injure or kill you - drop it into low gear, add gas, and drive on. People intent on hurting you do not have right of way, okay? Call the cops when you're at least several miles down the road, somewhere safe, where their angry friends who also wanted to injure or kill you even before you escaped can't wing you with a bullet.  That's a situation where the only way to survive is not to be there, so Move On, because Your Life Matters.

Stay safe out there.


  1. Good points, every one. And we probably don't want to know what set off this particular rant. A little common sense would go a long way, but it has become so UNcommon that it barely deserves the moniker, if at all.

  2. Common sense... Sadly lacking in a lot of folks these days... And yes, 'noise avoidance' DOES include not hitting other airplanes! :-)

  3. Any particular set of happenings set you off on reminding people of the laws of nature and custom?

    The number of idiots out there is amazing, and some of them are drunk or on drugs. And some are trying to deal with a crying child or a fight between kids in the back seat. Others are having a medical problem. Many are late.

    I almost got mown down at night, using a walker, with white pants on, in a MARKED zebra crossing with lights in a 25 mph zone in the middle of Princeton, NJ., a town known for its happy policemen who enforce those speed limits. It would have been very messy.

    Slow down for the people who have trouble walking! It's not as if we can speed it up on command and are just doing this to annoy you.

  4. If one wants a quick tutorial on what NOT to do on the road, no matter where you are driving, take a look at any of the Russian dash-cam videos on u-tube. A collection of excerpts would make an excellent training class for driving.