Everything You Need to Know about Life You Learned While Driving on the Interstate

One inescapable aspect of modern life I think many people don’t want to think about—and, therefore, don’t—is how often they put their lives in the hands of others when they step into a car, train, plane or any vehicle of considerable mass and velocity, as a driver or passenger.

This occurred to me one morning, turning onto the road that led me into work, because there wasn’t anyone else on it, because it was a federal holiday, and I realized I was relaxed, recognizing that I probably wouldn’t be jack-knifed, rear-ended, rolled-over, nose-dived, steam-rolled or any other quasi-sexual term for being killed in a transportation wreck that day.

And, since death is an inextricable part of life, and danger in life is everywhere, and all being in a vehicle really does is speed the whole realization up, subconsciously, what better place to acquire the metaphors for living than being on the road?

In between my time as an undergraduate and before I got into med school, I drove a big rig. After obtaining my commercial driver’s license, I was over the road for about three years, all over the country, as part of the seedy, nomadic, generally lawless world that is the American trucking industry.

And saw some shit.  Which brought me to realize how much you can actually learn about life just from driving a vehicle on a really long stretch of road.  Such as the following:

You Don’t Always Need to Obey the Rules, You Need to Obey *Your* Rules (Although Sometimes You Need to Obey the Rules)

Why is it, in regards to driving, that those who are doing it “legally” are, almost entirely, the ones driving at the actual limit of what is legal?  Sure, there are some (few) people in America who consistently drive under the limit, but most people who want to be “legal” or “safe” about it accelerate to and then steadily maintain the legal speed limit.  Nearly every time.

It’s like if everyone decided to drink volumes of shitty beer every night and then drive (and about as many people as have driver’s licenses do, trust me), continually monitoring their blood alcohol levels, and every time it dropped took it right back up to .07 for that maximum buzz, and to make the world seem like it’s going as fast as it legally can, zero tolerance laws notwithstanding.  Of course, no one actually does this.  It’s stupid, financially wasteful and would jeopardize one’s health over time.  But is it that much different than obeying the speed limit when you drive?

Why are certain speed limits set on certain roads?  Does anyone know?

Because legislators make them up. It’s totally arbitrary. Even on a residential, suburban street with a school on one block, old-folks’ home on the other and one of those pay-for-peek, bikini slut coffee kiosks in between. It’s not because, say, there are more accidents on a particular stretch of road than others. That’s what a safety corridor is for, and all you need to do in one of those is turn your headlights on during the daytime.

You’re driving “safe” or “legally” if you go exactly 35 miles per hour or under in an arbitrarily (not scientifically) determined 35 mile per hour zone. Okay, so, for all actual intents and purposes here, no one universally or morally has to “go the speed limit.” Everyone can go as fast or as slow as they need or want to. Because human free will is, realistically, a bitch to contain. Especially when people who have no real expertise on the matter are telling it what to do. Most drivers, you’ll find—or if you’ve driven half a million miles and watched people do it—go under the speed limit on a really long stretch of road only if they absolutely have to. And why would they have to?

Because they see a cop.  And don’t want to get in trouble. 

So, what does all this say?  That you’re going to push it to the limit anyway, if given a limit, and that you’re only going to get in trouble going over that limit if someone catches you.  So, the lesson here is: Where’s your moral compass?  That’s all.

In life, what’s your moral compass?  There’s the lesson.

Do you obey the rules only when the authority figures are watching, or have you personalized your actions in a particular setting or situation, and have recognized that you can do what you want to as long as you’re still operating within the limits of what you know is manageable for your own competencies and you haven’t compromised your own decision-making process in the process?

That’s important.

But sometimes, so are rules: Wear a mask in a viral pandemic, go slow in a work zone, don’t do a cannonball off that bridge just because bikini sluts are watching from their coffee kiosks.  Because, in those moments and others, you’re not perceptually aware of what the situation is and, therefore, can’t functionally and realistically deduce what your own limits and competencies are, regarding it.  Nothing can be made sense to a rational, sober human mind without a context.

If you can’t see the airborne virus particulates, if you can’t see around that bend ahead and the twenty cars already stopped, or that paver going 5 miles an hour with six people standing around it holding shovels, if you can’t see what’s in the river at the base of that bridge (or are unaware of the bone-crushing qualities the surface tension of water takes on when you hit it at certain velocities), you need to just use your head and be safe.  That’s evolution.

It’s not about you, it’s about Everyone, of which you’re just one little mote of a person within the vast, dust pile of humanity.  And, if you’re going to kill yourself, it’s about not taking anyone else out in the process who doesn’t want to be.

Pay Attention to What’s Going On around You

You see this a lot on Interstate 5, in my home state of Oregon.

Say there’s somebody driving in a left lane on a four-lane highway—two lanes going one direction, two lanes going another.  Now, a lot of the time you’ll see people in the left lane who don’t grasp the concept that the left lane is actually for passing.  You see this in basically every small town west of the Rocky Mountains.  But here, in this case, let’s say someone kind of does, and is.  Kind of trying to.  Pass somebody in the right lane.  A truck.

But then here you come, blazing down the road like a log chucked into an icy sluice, still driving safely but speeding like hell, and your brain does the calculations to realize that this person in the left lane is going considerably slower than you.  You’re about a quarter of a mile away, in the right lane, just barreling down.  And the truck they’re trying to pass is in the right lane, too, coming up in front of you.  And that “passing” car is about ten car lengths behind that truck, obviously anticipating passing it sometime in the near future.  But you’re coming 5, 8, 20 miles an hour faster.  And so you pass that first car trying to pass that truck, in the right lane.  And then you get left, and you pass the truck.

Scaring the hell out of that person in the left lane in the process.  The trucker?  He could give less of a shit.

Now, what this “passing” car was doing, even though they were in the left lane preparing to pass, was not actually passing anybody by the time you got there.  They were, also, not considering the decisions that other people present, or soon-to-be-present, were making or going to make in their general vicinity.  Even though they, technically, may have been doing the “right thing”—they weren’t holding things up, weren’t slowing things down—they were still fucking up progress.  How?  By not paying attention.

They become just like a log chucked into a sluice, just doing what chucked logs will do.  Deet-de-dee. 

Which is bullshit, because if everyone adopts that mentality and you turn all cars on a highway into sluice logs, you get the world’s quickest, most pissed-off, inflammable logjam.  And you turn anybody with any sensibility into a river pig—those guys who used to jump into a jam before it ever became a localized dam.  Which used to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the entire world about 150 years ago.

In making a decision, that decision almost always has far-reaching consequences—mostly psychological, sometimes physical— that are going to affect other people.

I don’t even need to give any real world examples.  No matter how old you are, you’ve realized, retrospectively, at least several things you’ve done in your life have impacted other people negatively.

And if you really, really think I’m wrong:  Take a look at everything you own, right now.  Then take a look, economically speaking, at how it all came to be.

Make a Decision or Don’t Make a Decision, But Get the Hell Out of the Way

Quick question—who would you blame in this scenario, occurring on a four-lane highway: a.) someone clogging up a passing lane, with, literally, 25 cars behind them, unable to go the speed they desire, b.) the people who witness this, in the other lane, and don’t speed up to create an opening or c.) those who do finally see an random opening appear, in any lane, and don’t use it? Or d.) a little kid riding a Big Wheel down a street 15 years before, smashing into a street lamp?

In World War II, the French had a resistance.  The Polish had a resistance.  Everybody had a resistance.  If they hadn’t, would more people have died?  Likely.  Would the war have carried on longer?  Maybe.  Do you need a resistance?  No.  Is it the right thing to do?  Against Nazis?  Well, yeah.

You can criticize fascists.  They’re always going to exist.  As will selfish, inconsiderate, senseless drivers.  But you can’t criticize the innocent people who the fascists just roll all over.

Well, actually, you kind of can criticize people who the fascists just roll all over.

It’s their choice.  It’s all a choice.  Live fighting or die trying, if personal freedom, cultural freedom, social, civic or national freedom is your goal.  Yours, that is, and other peoples’.

But, Nazis aside, when some wrong emerges, and you witness that wrong being perpetrated on others in your daily life, and all you need to do to remedy that—to allow people to continue to go about their lives just as they were before, unmolested, unburdened, unpersecuted—is to make a decision to act. And if you don’t, well, you become just as blameworthy. I’m not talking about being handed a sub-machine gun. I’m talking about either braking for an extra few seconds, or flipping your turn signal on, applying slightly more pressure to your accelerator and enough torque to turn your steering wheel to move into another lane. So people around you can be unburdened by your life decisions.

That’s nothing.  I mean almost literally—nothing.

No one’s stopping you from being free.  But, in being free, in that moment, you are preventing others from being just as free.  And, if that’s ever the case in life, get the hell out of their way.

And don’t blame nonlinear dynamics for your own shortcomings as a motorist.

How to Avoid Getting into a Jam

This is going to be useful regardless if any of the other stuff I’ve said makes sense.  Like, with your husband, wife, your colleagues, kids, friends—the steps you take here can seriously keep you from getting your figurative genitals caught in an industrial centrifuge.

So, this is how to undo a traffic jam.  I’ve done it over one hundred times as a long-haul driver.  And so has nearly every trucker who’s put in as many miles.  Whether they remember it or not.

So, the first thing you need to know is that once you hit a jam, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change it.  Accept it.  Don’t fight it.  Unless you’re one of these assholes who’s going to try and pass everybody on the shoulder.  In which case, Hell has a special place waiting for you, buddy.  Which, hopefully, you’ll get to sometime before you’re able to sleaze your way back into traffic.

But the one and only thing you need to do, upon finding yourself at the back end of a traffic jam, is start creating space.  That’s it.  What causes a traffic jam is not the presence of too many cars, trucks, buses or motorcycles trying to enter into an area of limited space at a single time. This slows everybody down, but it doesn’t cause the jam.  It’s the people who won’t let them merge before they’ve come to a complete stop.  Multiplied by the hundreds.

All you need to do is slow down or start shifting lanes whenever you see the opportunity. Believe it or not, the latter creates instant, sizable space for others and is the one time—according to Galileo’s law of projectile motion—you won’t necessarily have to decrease your speed.

Look, eventually you either let them in, or you make someone behind you let them in.  It’s going to happen.  Those people are going to enter your personal space.  But what I guarantee you don’t realize is that if everyone attempted to do what you’re doing—i.e. be an asshole—it would lead to the greatest possible amount of time needed to unclog whatever size jam you’re experiencing.  And make everybody the most pissed off they could possibly be.

The real world lesson here is easy.  Stop being greedy.  The system is built to do what it’s going to do.  If you want a healthy, properly functioning system, for you and for everyone, you need to give a little.  Stop thinking that because you live in a “free” society, you’re more entitled to everything it has to offer and that everyone else is either too slow, stupid or not privileged enough from the get-go to obtain it.  It’ll never work.  You know why?

Because you are everyone else, too.

Sure, you may feel like you’re benefiting.  Got rich.  “Made it”.  But that’s all in the short term.  You’re actually fucking up the system for everyone else in the long run by making it all about you.

And so is everyone else who acts like you.  And everyone, including you, will suffer the consequences for it.