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That driver you zoom past is me; here’s why


A few politicians start talking about raising the speed limit and I’m magically transported back to a beautiful summer night on U.S. Highway 65. There’s a pickup truck stopped in front of our house. In the middle of the road. Upside down. The intermingled scents of beer and gasoline create a heady atmosphere of intrigue, and the drunk inside the wreck beseeches me to drag him out.

But I don’t. I figure a few more minutes in there will work wonders for his character.

Me, I’ve always been a cautious driver, even though that’s about as manly as driving nails with a pink hammer. The tendency got locked into place by the great Chicago L train crash of 1976. Not that I was driving the train – although I was putting just about as much thought into it as the motorman, apparently – but a nice, loud train wreck quickly fills in any gaps in your physics education.

Lots of weight, high speed, collision of solid objects: Not good.

Then 10 years of living alongside the diagonal highway did even more to turn me into a seat-belt fan. We met accident victims at roughly the same rate as Katie Couric meets grieving family members. When your little boy has an impressive collection of automotive parts gathered from the roadside, you start to wonder whether cars are the best possible mode of transportation or were intended more as a high school science project.

One night, there came a knock at the door at 1 a.m., and I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. When I turned on the porch light, I beheld the kind of blood-covered face you see in horror films, only without the music (which was kind of disappointing). This guy had managed to leave the road and land upside-down in a field. I brought him in, sat him down and said, “It’s just a small cut behind your ear,” with the quiet medical confidence of a guy who’s hoping not to faint.

I came home on a Friday evening and found that someone had plunged down into the ditch and sailed up over our driveway before calling it a week. Like a majestic religious ritual, the following Friday brought another wreck at the end of our driveway. I spent the next seven days thinking one more Friday event would definitely be a sign; but then, nothing, and it was back to Taoism.

There’s no proof that high speed had much to do with any of those accidents, but they still left me feeling that it would be a much safer world if cars were built to stay under 35 or 40 miles per hour.

Instead, we have drivers who not only ignore the speed limits that we do have, but also chat on cell phones, sport an eerie Dale Earnhardt “3” on their rear windows and buy cars based on how cool they look sliding sideways on TV commercials.

It would take a good-sized war to kill as many Americans as our driving traditions snatch away every year. There’s no need to accelerate the process.

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