Lately I have seen a resurgence of a phenomenon that I first noticed about eight years ago, while I was living in Uniontown, PA. It is now occurring here in Crozet, the small community in central Virginia where I live, even as it did years ago in Pennsylvania. I remember what prompted my ire those many years ago. While driving through Uniontown first thing one morning, I came to a four-way intersection. As I approached this intersection with the intent of turning left, I encountered another motorist approaching from directly in front of me. We came to the intersection at almost precisely the same moment: I, with my left turn signal on; he, with no signal, indicating that he was coming straight through. Now, I am much older than I was when I first started driving. Indeed, I have spent a good portion of the past 3+ decades behind the wheel of an automobile. But I do not tend to suffer from either early dementia or vehicular amnesia. I still remember the basic rules of the road. For instance, in such a situation as I have described, the car that is going straight has the right of way. I, the lefty in this situation, must wait and yield the right of way. Simple stuff.
However, as I dutifully waited for this other car to proceed through the intersection, nothing happened. We both just sat there. After a moment of hesitation and wondering, I saw that the man across from me was beckoning for me to go ahead and turn. I wondered… why? There was no line of cars behind him. Indeed, we were the only cars at the intersection, or even in sight, for that matter. Waiting for him to go through the intersection was not a great hindrance to me. It meant waiting perhaps an additional two or three seconds. So why was he motioning me through?
Aahhh… I hear you sigh the answer… he was being nice. But was he? Perhaps. I could not read his mind or divine his motives. I only know that he irritated me. In fact, totally oblivious to what he was doing, he had stumbled upon one of my very worse pet peeves. He was giving up his vehicular right of way.
“So, what’s the beef?” you say. Indeed, why do I feel so irritated by such a gracious gesture. Well, I plan on telling you.
What this man did had become a common practice there in Uniontown, even as it now is in Crozet, Va. I don’t know how it is in other parts of the country, but in our neck of the woods there is a virtual epidemic of people playing around with the traffic laws regarding right of way. It began a number of years ago, and has been increasing ever since. People come to intersections, hesitate, wait, and finally someone (it seems to usually be the person who actually has the right of way) motions for someone else to move.
This really bugs me. I know that this trend probably began as a matter of kindness on the part of some person or persons. But it has evolved into a troublesome problem. It has become so commonplace, that people seem to have forgotten what the rules of right of way were in the first place. If several cars approach an intersection at the same time there is a mild sense of tension that immediately arises. No one knows what to do. People wait. They look around. Some freeze in fear. Sometimes one person panics and bolts through the intersection. Chaos!
Now, we have all probably been kind to someone and let them go ahead of us in these kinds of situations. I have myself been at an intersection facing another car where I knew it was difficult to make a left hand turn. I have then waved that person ahead of me. You’ve done it too. Understandable. Kind. A Good Samaritan act. But when this is done unnecessarily, and repeatedly, it does indeed produce chaos. When drivers repeatedly begin to act outside the rules, making their own rules as they go, then everyone suffers. Instead of knowing what to anticipate as you draw near an intersection, you are confronted with uncertainty, apprehension, maybe even fear. (Think I exaggerate? I have looked at the faces of some fellow drivers and seen panic. They are terrified because they don’t seem to know what to do, what is currently expected of them at an intersection.)
This phenomenon has become so widespread that it is becoming a real danger. I have seen several near accidents because two or three people were hesitating, then moving, then hesitating again, and then all moving again at an intersection. I have also seen situations where some people have come to expect that they will be allowed to go first. If you lawfully, reasonably, and rightfully proceed through an intersection in your turn, obeying the right of way laws, you may be placing your life in jeopardy. Someone else thinks they should go first, and they seize the right to proceed.
Yet, the traffic problems caused by this growing trend are not what bugs me the most. It is not what makes this matter one of my latest pet peeves. Rather, it is the underlying rationale that I think is operating here. Traffic flows in an orderly fashion when all drivers obey the laws of the road and each person operates within the parameters of mutually understood rules. But when people began to function according to individual rules and personal expectations, instead of group norms, there is disorder, even danger. It is the same way with society as a whole. When citizens of a nation perform the tasks of life within the confines of established laws, understood mores, and common rules, society functions in a safe and orderly manner. But when each individual begins to make up his or her own rules, and operate accordingly, then you never know what to expect. And this is the situation that is happening in our country today.
I have a feeling that not observing right of way traffic laws is only symptomatic of a much larger social ill. In our amoral, “each to his own” culture, societal norms and social rules are considered antiquated or passé. And worse, ordinary laws and long established morals are viewed as unnecessary. They are certainly not be considered binding (at least not on “me personally”). They are at best silly, and at worst constricting and enslaving. So say the postmodern prophets of chaotic freedom. Each man chooses for himself how to drive, where to park his car, when and how to turn… as well as, what is sexually moral, what constitutes legal marriage, and if it is okay to take another life (pre-born or post-born). In such a world, a la Sartre, it is equally moral and acceptable to give another man the right of way at an intersection, or to pull out a gun and kill him for taking the right of way for himself. Conventions about kindness, or killing, don’t matter any more. I can kiss you or shoot you, the choice is wholly mine… and society’s rules and laws are irrelevant.
I am afraid that we have become a nation of overgrown kids playing dress up. We don the external garb of sovereigns, and think we individually have the right to live as we please, make our own laws, and expect everyone else to dance to our moral tunes. We crown ourselves with self-delegated authority and assert our autonomy regarding God, the church, ethical behavior, social expectations… and reason. Masquerading as the 21st century lords of misrule, we forget that “there is a way which seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” In our puerile posing, we forget that we are attempting to usurp the place of the One who is sovereign, and who does rightfully give us laws and moral commands to follow. We have blinded ourselves to the fact that self-enthroned moral dictators will one day have to answer to the Judge of all the earth, and respond to His just and righteous demands. And our end will then be sic simper tyrannis.