KENT WARD

Our exalted opinion of our own driving

Posted March 30, 2012, at 6:33 p.m.

In the midst of the recently expired winter, a down-river friend sent me two newspaper clippings. One was a photograph of a pickup truck perched atop a substantial snowbank as two good ol’ boys — the befuddled male driver and his passenger — stood by, presumably trying to figure out how to get the vehicle back on the highway.

The other clip, yellowed with age, was a news story about a Gallup Poll conducted some years ago for U.S. News and World Report magazine and the Cable News Network concerning driving skills of American motorists.

The survey had led pollsters to two conclusions that likely ring as true today as when the poll was conducted. The first was that when it comes to assessing our driving skills we are quick to toot our own horn in praise of our proficiency. The second was that men have a more exalted opinion of their driving abilities than do women of theirs.

My pen pal had highlighted the paragraph about the researchers’ findings, circled the image of the truck atop the snowbank, stapled the clippings together and shipped them to me with a succinct note in which she wondered how that esteemed-male-driving-skills thing was working out.

The poll found that seven of 10 of us consider ourselves better drivers than most others on the highway and nearly half of us rate our aptitude behind the wheel as excellent. Considering some of the competition on the open road today, who wouldn’t?

“Excellent”’ is a relative term, of course. But you could be the rawest rookie in driving school on your first run with your instructor riding shotgun and still be several skill levels ahead of the modern menace to mankind that often approaches, cellphone to ear or tweeting apparatus at fingertips, his attention focused on anything but safe operation of his vehicle.

And who among us would not feel superior in driving ability to the impatient driver — late for work and riding our rear bumper up close and personal at 55 mph — her eyes on her rearview mirror as she combs her golden tresses or fusses with her makeup? Near cardiac arrest one might be, perhaps, in anticipation of the imminent rear-ending and the resulting whiplash injury. But superior-feeling nonetheless.

Likewise, what of Ma and Pa Kettle, out for a leisurely Sunday afternoon back-road gawkathon in their 1954 Chevy that has yet to break the 35 mph crawl barrier? Can there possibly be anyone holding a valid driver’s license who on his worst day would not consider himself to be in a different stratosphere, driving abilitywise, than this deadly duo that has traffic snarled for miles behind?

The Gallup Poll showed that 36 percent of Americans had routinely driven above the speed limit in the past year, although 91 percent who did so hadn’t been busted for speeding. The statistic brings to mind the old story about the fictional Yankee motorist who raced a freight train to a railroad crossing, and lost. The consensus at the man’s wake was that it’s exciting to go one-on-one with a freight train and win the contest, but hell when the game ends in a tie.

Pollsters found that the national share of motorists who possess dubious driving skills hovers around the 30 percent mark. Most drivers with any appreciable time behind the wheel likely have encountered their fair share of the species.

In addition to the Tweeter, the Cellphone Addict, the Slowpoke, the Congenital Speeder and the Glassy-Eyed Tailgater, the Yellow-Line Road Hog is certainly a hazard to navigation to be reckoned with. As are others, including the Spur-Of-The-Moment Lane-Changer, the Excruciatingly Slow Turner and his first cousin, the Turn-Right-By-Way-Of-Topeka Geek.

The latter breed is indigenous to The County. His signature move involves a grand drift leftward to get lined up for a sudden right turn into his driveway, occasionally taking with him some poor sap who — believing the impending turn to be to the left, rather than to the right — attempts to pass on the right before the maneuver is completed.

When executed properly, The County Turn is a thing of beauty. But if an unwitting trailing motorist should get faked out by the process and make a hash of things, well, that’s why God invented tow trucks.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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