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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Honk if you’re reading this

    Last weekend, Tucsonans reeled at the news of a 12-car pile-up that left two people dead less than a block from the UA campus. Drivers on Interstate 10 regularly witness car fires, semi-truck accidents and traffic delays lasting for hours.

    With the dangers of roadway driving fresh in many Tucsonan’s minds, however, we must be careful when pinning the blame. While many are quick to bemoan Tucson’s congested roadways, snowbirds in Crown Vics or aggravating construction on I-10, road conditions and the elderly are far from the most dangerous elements on the road. In reality, most road risk comes from careless or alcohol-influenced drivers, the vestiges of a James Deansian culture. However, careless behavior behind the wheel among college students reflects a widespread disrespect for driving that goes beyond teenage rebellion, and the solution is not just more defensive driving. In becoming accustomed to the luxury of driving as an integral part of our national lifestyle, we have lost sight of the automobile as a piece of dangerous machinery.

    Each year, more than three million people are injured and nearly 50,000 killed in the United States in car accidents. Here at home, our beloved Old Pueblo ranks fourth nationally in collisions caused by red-light runners. While it has been long known that car accidents are the No. 1 killer of teenagers in the U.S., studies have recently shown that teens who drive with other teens stand a greater chance of having a fatal accident than those who drive alone. Something is clearly missing when drivers today get behind the wheel.

    In the face of Hobbesian roadways, the sage advice of my high school driving reverberates in my head: The only way to avoid accidents is to drive defensively. But, lately, I’ve been beginning to suspect that in today’s vernacular, “”defensive driving”” means defending one’s honor more than defending public safety.

    Most advisory agencies group defensive driving into two considerations: attentiveness to one’s own driving and cautiousness of all other drivers. In other words, drive the best and assume the worst. However, most drivers become overly judgmental of other drivers, become dangerous themselves or are completely unaware of other drivers.

    We interact so regularly with the road that we approach driving with the same half-attentive attitude as brushing our teeth. One night, late, as I was changing lanes, flipping through radio stations and trying to answer my cell phone, I heard a sharp horn from behind me. A driver I had not seen in my rear-view mirror whizzed up to my left and began wagging her finger didactically, staring me down in an icy glare. I leaned back, hoping the tinted windows prevented her from seeing me. As my embarrassment morphed into offense, I quickly sped ahead of the other driver, trying, irrationally, to prove my competence by driving faster. The bizarreness of this reaction only struck me later after the engine and my head had cooled. I saw how clearly we like to pretend that once we are behind car doors, we feel free from the social respect and mores most other person-to-person interactions warrant. We do not feel guilty in advance when carelessly talking on the phone or singing to music but feel personally attacked when endangered by other careless drivers.

    The car, in American culture, is more commonly viewed as a status symbol than respected as a useful tool. This attitude can be seen in the carelessness by drivers when they enter the road: Drivers focus more on their passengers than the task at hand and perceive traffic threats as direct attacks on their ego. Any visitor to less-developed countries would admit that while drivers seem more aggressive and more risk-taking, drivers confront problems immediately when they arise. The horn is a communication tool, not a form of punishment.

    The answer to American carelessness is not just “”defensive driving.”” This popular slogan is no longer effective because it is based on an assumption of incompetence of other drivers that too commonly morphs in vigilantism. The answer is a shift in our cultural mindset toward forgiving driving. With construction on the I-10 guaranteed to continue until spring 2010, UA drivers would be well advised to have a little humility on the road. Remember that defensive driving is not about defending your honor but respecting the attention and courtesy that driving entails. Friends don’t let friends drive distracted.

    Matt Rolland is a junior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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