Wednesday, September 21, 2011

4-3-2-1- ... STOP?

I think the last time I took a written driving test was in June of 1990, just a week or so after my then-husband and I had steered a 15-foot Ryder truck across the country. Having moved two cats and all our earthly possessions from one coast to the other, we’d begun the process of settling in. First, an apartment. Second, a used car (they were “used” back then; not “pre-owned.”) Then came the job searches and simultaneous to that, the commitment to residency through the acquisition of California drivers licenses.

I went through the process at the DMV, and it was unnerving for me to surrender my New York license. What if I failed the written test? Given the shortcomings of L.A. mass transit, it’s likely I would have had to camp out at the DMV for a few days.

But I passed, thank God, and the happy smile on that first CA license photo is an indication of my great relief.

I remember one of the questions on the test, and I remember it because I feared it was a “trick question.” I cannot share the exact language with you, but having just visited a website where current questions are publicized, I can at least cite the one that comes closest to that which I thought had stumped me. Here’s how it goes:

You drive defensively when you:

(a) Always put one car length between you and the car ahead.
(b) Look only at the car in front of you while driving.
(c) Keep your eyes moving to look for possible hazards.

The answer, of course, is (c), and although I chose the circa 1990 equivalent answer and I was therefore correct, I still felt doubtful. Perhaps I was envisioning one of those bobble-headed animals that used to be prominent on the back shelf of sedans. Their equally bobbly eyes – eyes that were definitely moving – hardly seemed capable of defensive action.

(Maybe I just read too much into words.)

Anyway, yes, that’s how I drive. I look ahead, and I look to the sides. I look ahead of ahead, and I look ahead of the sides.

… And about seven or eight years ago, an ostensibly helpful new tool was introduced at intersections, and it immediately started messing with my driving.

I’m talking about the crosswalk countdown. That indicator that tells pedestrians how many more seconds they’ve got before the light changes.

Because I keep my “eyes moving to look for possible hazards,” I quickly discovered that the crosswalk countdown IS a hazard. And so I have had to keep reminding myself: it’s not for me!

It’s for the walkers, not the drivers.

Still, though, when I approach an intersection, about four car lengths from the light, a “2” tempts me to slow down. (After all, TWO is quickly followed by ONE and then ZERO.) And because of this temptation, I have really come to resent those crosswalk lights. For, you see, as I also have come to learn, getting to zero is not the same as getting to yellow and red. Sometimes, getting to zero comes directly ahead of an entire new round of pedestrian approval beginning at, say, 14 seconds. (Which is to say, the light stays green for the drivers.)

… Several weeks ago, the Los Angeles City Council decided that it would no longer utilize cameras at intersections. I can’t recall when those cameras began showing up, but they had become rather plentiful. They had become a sort of reminder that you, the driver, are never safe from being caught for the slightest infraction.

(And for me – what with my eyes moving about as they do – the cameras rarely went unnoticed. I felt myself being watched, constantly. As if I were taking a 24/7 behind-the-wheel test.)

The Council’s decision was accompanied by news reports on our local NPR station that indicated the City simply could not afford to enforce those tickets that were issued as a result of cameras catching red-light-runners. Apparently, in fact, they never were able to afford enforcement, and anyone who had ever received such a citation in the mail could have disregarded it with no bad results. (I wonder if my friend, who paid her camera-issued ticket, who then took online driving school and went through all the other motions – to the tune of $700 or so – heard this news. I’m not telling her… Besides, I would have done the same thing.)

And here’s the interesting thing that has happened in the weeks since I learned of the City’s decision: I am less frequently influenced by the 4-3-2-1 of the pedestrian crosswalks. Sure, they still throw me off from time to time, but mostly, I’ve returned to trusting my instincts. I’ve returned to receiving my guidance from the venerable color code of green, yellow, and red.

I like it, I guess, that I no longer feel I’m being observed so consistently. Seriously, between those countdown crosswalks and the cameras at every corner, I was as good as the gal taking a typing test with the temp agent hovering behind her.

I hope never to make an automotive typo at some L.A. intersection. And I do all that I can to avoid such a circumstance.

I also know this: I do my best when I don’t feel that I’m being watched, judged, or timed.


Green Monkey said...

...watched, judged, or timed! HA!!!!! yes, I so get that!

and yes, that so was a trick question. I would have wanted to answer "all of the above" I freak out when I have to take a test.

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

When I moved to Nevada from New Hampshire back at the end of '79 I picked up the driver's manual to study. My then boyfriend (now husband) told me not to bother with all the "points" information on the first three pages. After all, what does knowing how many points you lose for DUI have to do with the actual act of driving? I took his advice and it is the only driver's test I've ever failed. About 90% of the questions related to points, and I didn't know a one. I crammed for two days, re-took the test, and passed; but the second test didn't have even one points question on it. *sigh* The points info is good to know, but wouldn't they rather confirm that I'm clear on who has the right of way at a four-way stop, or under what conditions passing is allowable?

We don't have the countdown deal here in Atlanta; at least I've not seen it. Thank goodness. It would throw me for a loop.

Cheryl said...

The cameras would have driven me crazy. The pedestrian countdowns are so prevalent, I don't even notice them.

I just read Lisa's comment. When I moved from NH to Maine for awhile, most of the DMV questions on the ME test were DUI or points related. I knew everything in that damn manual cover to cover. They're sneaky in Maine, doncha know?

worddreams said...

I didn't know they didn't enforce those tickets. I don't get tickets anymore--used to for speeding--but good to know just in case.

cj Schlottman said...

Katie, I am your typical hands at 10 and 2 driver. I take my driving seriously because hardly anyone else in this town does. We have those count-down crosswalk things, but I only pay attention to them when I am actually on foot at a crosswalk. Give me the old green-yellow-red light any day! I love this post!


Lanita said...

In my neck of the woods, there isn't a single stop light in my town. I only have to worry about deer and turkeys darting across the road.

Andrea said...

Really good post, Katie. I remember learning how to drive and thinking wow, there's so much to remember to do and not do. Now the traffic and the countdowns and the bobbly eyes and everything else add to the challenge. I love my Subaru, so that makes it all bearable.

Deb Shucka said...

Driving must have been so exhausting for you! I love the last line of this post - words of wisdom that apply to so many of us in so many situations.