There was a 40-vehicle pile-up on U.S. 31 near Muskegon last month. Police blamed the usual suspects: speed and stupidity.
“You’ve got to take it slow,” a local police chief said. “When people get on the highway and the speed limit is 70 miles an hour, people think they can drive 70.” Which is a stunning quote considering the freeway was covered with snow and ice, from the photos I’ve seen. Were people really driving 70 in those conditions? If so, holy cow, people! What’s wrong with you?
Afterward, my friend Rick posted a question about people and winter driving: “Are advancements like all-wheel-drive and anti-lock brakes making us too confident behind the wheel?”
Safety features and vehicle size, I think, can be contributing factors to foul weather accidents, because they convince some drivers they’re more in control and invulnerable than they really are.
I call these drivers “Masters of the Universe.” They’re usually (but not always) male, and almost always drive SUVs and pickup trucks the size of aircraft carriers. Because their vehicles are heavy and usually have all the gizmos Rick mentioned, Masters of the Universe tend to drive more aggressively, especially in cruddy conditions. Woe to you if get in their way, for they love to tailgate, zoom past you on icy roads, and flip you off as they go by because, after all, they are Masters of the Universe and you, apparently, are not.
I recently experienced it first-hand. Despite dodgy weather, I drove my son to Grand Rapids on an ice-covered, two-lane road with traffic creeping at 35 mph, at best. A powerful, easterly wind kept trying to shove my little vehicle off the road. It was a white-knuckle drive, for sure.
Sure enough – despite conditions, every few miles, a Master of the Universe with “4×4” painted on his tailgate or quarter-panel would zoom past the quarter-mile string of lesser cars, including my own, that was in his way. Each time, I struggled to stay centered on the narrow strip of blacktop that was visible through the twister of snow kicked up when he passed me. It was nerve-wracking! And this is from a guy who grew up in the Upper Peninsula and is, if I do say so myself, a fairly good winter driver.
The odd thing is, I’ve never met a Master who thinks he’s a Master. They think their behavior is normal and everyone else is the problem. It doesn’t occur to them that people might drive more slowly in crappy conditions because they’re not piloting aircraft carriers with four-wheel drive and snow tires. Or they might be driving, as my daughter does, a 20-year-old Honda Accord that isn’t great in the snow.
It also doesn’t seem to occur to them that other drivers might not be as gifted behind the wheel as they are. They might be young, for instance, and nervous about driving in the snow. They might be older, or have disabilities. Or maybe they’re ill. Or maybe, they’re on the way back from a funeral and not really focused. Or bringing a new baby home.
Masters don’t seem to care. To them, the rest of us are obstacles, not human beings. Getting to where they’re going a few seconds faster matters more to them than anything else, including you or me.
They aren’t the only ones, of course. Most of us drive like them on occasion. We all have a little Master in us, me included. But the older I get, the more conscious I am of how fragile life is. So, I’m trying to do a better job of remembering there are people – living, breathing human beings – in every one of those tin cans out on the road.
And every one of those people means the world to someone somewhere.
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