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Here and there

Over the recent holidays, I had the unpleasant chore of driving to a sprawling metropolis in a neighboring state. Sharing Christmas with family was great, but trekking on the interstate and navigating congested city streets was definitely not. I believe drivers have exhibited worsening skill, decreased consideration and heightened recklessness over the past decade or two. I attribute this largely to the rise in distraction with smartphones—often with visual confirmation of my suspicions.

The pandemic has apparently accelerated this trend, as drivers have more often taken to the road in angry and/or worried mindsets, perhaps with less consistent time behind the wheel to stay in practice. Traffic speeds on highways have increased markedly. Whereas it used to be common for folks in my area to exceed the posted limit by 10-15 mph, it’s now routine for some contingent to aggressively double or even triple that margin with utter disregard. On my holiday trip, I was tailgated numerous times at 20-plus mph over until I got out of the way, regardless of whether I was in the left, middle or right lane. Obviously, I was already speeding, yet I was simply matching the general traffic flow. I witness near-misses on a regular basis now, whereas such heart-stoppers used to be extraordinary events. I also see evidence of less lucky individuals, whose accidents clog traffic and litter the roadside. When I ask friends who spend much more time on the road than I do if they’ve noticed such phenomena, they all concur. Corroborating statistics were also easy to find on Google, so this isn’t just me becoming a slower, grouchier, more nervous driver as I approach senior citizen status.

Dodging maxi-size SUVs swerving through traffic at triple-digit speeds and other vehicles coasting down to 40 mph as their drivers conversed on messaging apps, I couldn’t help but recall a sharply divergent experience I had several years ago.

Imagine a world where drivers are skillful, orderly, considerate and thoroughly well-behaved. They’re not preoccupied with their phones. They don’t create traffic snarls, then honk angrily. They park neatly between lines, close to curbs and only in designated areas. While in motion, they exhibit a level of consistency and predictability that seems coordinated by some invisible external overseer, like a hidden supercomputer preventing collisions and maintaining movement, no matter how dense the flow. Enhance this impression of remote control by removing almost all signage along with any visible trace of law enforcement. Now add to this utopian dream billboard-free, meticulously maintained roads featuring sparkling clean rest stops stocked with fresh, healthy, inexpensive and genuinely delicious foods.

If this sounds too good to be true, you haven’t been to France. When I visited Paris, Le Mans and the Loire Valley—even with all the breathtaking attractions competing for my attention—I was constantly amazed by the contrast between driving there and what I’m accustomed to in the US. It was truly an alternate reality.

Readers viewing any critique of America as treasonous will insist I go live in France if I think it’s so great, but I feel compelled to relay my observations in hopes of inspiring higher expectations on this side of the Atlantic. We’re definitely not the greatest country on Earth in how we conduct ourselves on the road and how we treat our infrastructure. Only a small minority of Americans have traveled internationally, so most of us have no other reference points by which to judge our standards, or even ponder what might be possible. If those with exposure don’t share what we’ve seen elsewhere, others have no option but to remain ignorant. I can’t say how representative my observations were of the rest of Europe, or even the rest of France, but I’ve heard and read so many similar accounts over the years, I’m sure what I saw wasn’t just a fluke.

Paris is a huge, tightly packed city with a population over two million. At a mere 41 square miles, it’s much smaller than our New York City (303 square miles, population: 8.6 million), but its vast spiderweb of heavily traveled streets is still seriously intimidating. Said streets are remarkable in several ways. First, they’re incredibly numerous and intersect in every conceivable configuration—I lost count of how many can converge in one spot. This alone would seem like a recipe for sheer chaos, or at least a situation requiring all sorts of external controls to avoid total mayhem. Secondly, these streets are not only crammed full of cars and trucks (delivery, not pick-up), but throngs of motorcycles and scooters constantly filtering through ever-changing gaps between larger vehicles, and pedestrians regularly pour across intersections like swarms of ants. Third, far fewer traffic lights exist than what you’d expect, and those that do are almost imperceptible to eyes trained here; they’re tiny compared to ours and positioned discreetly to the side on streetlamp poles. Signs dictating traffic behavior are extremely sparse, and I never saw a single police officer/vehicle during my ten-day stay. It sounds like a setup for frequent vehicular collisions and foot-traffic fatalities.

I also never witnessed an accident or traffic jam. Car drivers respected and mingled with two-wheelers sans drama. Vehicles of all types merged and moved gracefully, literally inches apart and often at considerable speed through complex mazes. Everyone accurately anticipated what everyone else was going to do, and they all successfully planned their moves accordingly; like GP racers, their skill and rationality made them predictable to each other. It was as though they’d all received identical advanced training and then maintained flawless technique after graduation, no further supervision required! I never once saw a driver on their cell phone—shocking all by itself. Even more amazing, Paris devotes copious parking to two-wheelers. Motorcycling heaven!

Between cities, traffic speed on major highways (usually three lanes) was—without exception—staggered sensibly: slower on the right, moderate in the middle, faster on the left. This facilitated continuous flow, removed stressful uncertainty, and allowed drivers unfettered freedom of choice regarding their pace; take your pick and enjoy, without hinderance or bullying. In contrast to the many (well-maintained) cobblestone streets of Paris and rural towns, all pavement everywhere I drove looked like it had been laid down yesterday. The countryside was legitimately beautiful, but no more so than many areas here in the States. The striking difference was the complete absence of obnoxious billboards and repetitive, gigantic road signs. Regularly spaced rest/fuel stops were uniformly immaculate, offering elegant sandwiches on freshly baked baguettes and countless other delectables.

After I returned—and this was pre-pandemic—riding and driving were extra-frustrating, knowing it didn’t have to be this way. Immediately upon emerging from the airport, I watched with confused disdain as drivers haphazardly double- and triple-parked at crazy angles, completely unaware or unconcerned about the effects on others trying to pass through, or simply wanting to depart with their recently collected passengers—it was an absolute nightmare and absolutely unnecessary. Blame the quintessential American attitude, a caricature of cowboy culture from the lawless Wild West of Hollywood: “By God, nobody’s gonna tell ME how to drive my car/SUV/pick-up truck!” Yet the resulting straight-jacketed, horn-blowing pandemonium actually decreased EVERYONE’S freedom of movement tremendously, not to mention how it inflamed tempers and provoked impulsive, lurching, collision-inviting attempts to escape confinement. Already, this was the polar opposite of what I’d just experienced overseas, including at the titanic Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

Throughout the following year, our crumbling, pothole-ridden roads seemed positively post-apocalyptic compared to those in France. I’d certainly noticed their sorry state before, but they became all the more deplorable with this stark contrast in mind. Pit stops required re-entry into the old, familiar world of filthy, disgusting restrooms, and choosing the least evil from among the junkiest of foods. My mind was repeatedly forced to shift gears violently, without a clutch.

Eventually, I recalibrated to American norms, albeit with grave reluctance. I got worn down by highway drivers strangling traffic with three-wide blockades, inexplicably going 10 below the limit, while others wove through already speeding traffic at twice the legal pace. At any given moment, any lane might be the fast lane or slow lane, and multi-mile backups were again frequent occurrences, wasting untold man-hours, costing fortunes, and inciting fury and/or despair. Reckless drivers, darting blindly and erratically with zero logic or warning, defied prediction and patrolling authorities. Hypervigilance was required for survival, and not only on two wheels. Considering the frightfully large percentage of drivers dividing their attention between driving and their phones, I was astonished there wasn’t even more carnage. Not only did distracted drivers pose threats in motion, but they also infuriated others waiting for them to move on at traffic lights that had long ago turned green. Then came the increased irritability and reactivity due to pandemic restrictions and ever-fiercer political strife.

Forgive my rant; my holiday trip stirred up too many good memories. I realize it would be self-destructive to cling to my outrage about every annoying aspect of life on US roads. Indulging such feelings only makes us more miserable, distracted and edgy. However, having witnessed a superior version, I’ll never be able to view our way as I once did. Yes, I realize European drivers pay much more for fuel, many of their highways have tolls and they endure higher taxes. However, I doubt I’m the only American who’d be willing to chip in more for better conditions. We already pay dearly for damage caused by potholes and errant drivers, whether in repairs to our own vehicles, bodily injuries, rising insurance premiums, or the consequences of chronic stress. It’s unfortunately another common American attitude to insist on getting something for nothing. Despite widespread bipartisan agreement on the need for infrastructure spending, it keeps not happening. We maintain extremely lax requirements for the privilege of driving. Self-discipline is something many praise and demand in others, yet rebelliously refuse to exercise themselves. As a country, we’ve made a mess of travel.

I don’t know how the French reached their high level of motoring sophistication. Perhaps it’s a function of being a much older, more mature culture. They’re by no means perfect, but they make us look like clueless, barbaric children on the road. A society so infatuated with our vehicles should aspire to a far more adept, civilized approach to using them. It can be done; I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

Until we collectively wise up, which seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, I’ll leave you with Sgt. Phil Esterhaus’s closing line from every briefing on Hill Street Blues. Though endlessly repetitive, he always managed to say it with penetratingly fresh urgency: “Let’s be careful out there!”

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.