The massively wide tires began to slide out from under me, sending the 60-pound ebike down to the icy pavement, taking me with it. After sliding for about 15 feet I came to a stop, my leg pinned under the heavy white frame, my jacket, jeans and left glove torn from the vicious spill. I laid there in the parking lot of my work on an 18 degree morning for a moment, taking inventory of the damage done to my aging body. Left hand bleeding but not broken… lots of pain. Left knee and calf bleeding. Hard to stand up but still ok. Jeans shredded, hip sore. I climbed out from under my bike and and headed toward the back door of my workplace.
It was the second bad crash on ice I had experienced in the winter of 2021. While I’ve taken great pride in commuting by bike, bus, skateboard and Onewheel almost exclusively through the winters over the past 6 years, my body, still feeling those incidents, was telling me it might be time for a change. So when the winter 2021-2022 season began, I decided to buy a used car. The thought of navigating some of the snowiest roads in the United States exclusively on bike for another year was just too daunting. I really felt like a couple more falls might be the end of me. My left wrist may never be the same after the fall I described above. Maybe this sounds weak, but I feel like it was the right decision for me. While the warm weather months and ice-free days will still see me using micro-mobility, I did what I thought was best for me, my relationship, my job and my life.
With this in mind, before the bulk of the snow fell this winter, I decided it was time for this 40 year old to buy a “new to me” car. While all my friends are somehow buying $30,000+ SUVs, I opted for a $16,000 sub-compact. It’s just what I wanted for zipping around the city when the streets are full of snow and ice. And honestly, I love my little beast.
Since I purchased my car, we have had a number of vicious snow falls here in Rochester. This has caused me to take the wheel most mornings over the last month or so. And the more I drove, the more I started to notice something was different since the last time I drove regularly years ago. A light would turn green in my direction, and two cars would still fly through the intersection from the perpendicular street. Then it would happen again at the next light. Then someone would pull out in front of me, causing me to slam on my brakes. Then it was a driver that couldn’t seem to stay in his lane. Then I had a left hand turn arrow and a pickup truck blatantly drove straight through the intersection from the other direction, causing me to, once again, go hard on the brakes. And most of this was occurring on my 3 mile drive to work.
Had drivers always been this bad? Had it been so long since I had driven that I had forgotten how negligent drivers really were? Or maybe, just maybe, I was witnessing a social trend that has been unfolding over the last few years of not driving? Had drivers, in a matter of a short time, started to devolve into an aggressive, desperate community of humans?
The truth is, I had been working on this piece for a few days, initially titling it “Opinion: Drivers Are Getting Worse.” Then a New York Times story virtually slapped me in the face this morning as I sipped my second cup of coffee, causing me to remove the word “Opinion.”
I’m not going to dissect the article, but the NYT piece covers a bevy of data from countless sources that paint a clear picture: over the last 2 years, people are driving less, but crashing and dying more. The number of pedestrians killed by cars has increased at a scary rate. Auto fatalities have ballooned across the country, despite the fact that America isn’t driving as much due to Covid, working from home, and delivery services. While many experts reveled at the thought of fewer drivers leading to safer roads, it turns out the exact opposite is occurring.
The article’s explanation is truly interesting in that it attributes the rise in trends like reckless driving and violent crime to mental fatigue from 2 years of COVID-19. When people are exhausted from so many new rules, changing expectations and a life of increasing uncertainty, their capacity to follow other societal rules, exercise patience and think beyond themselves is dramatically lessened. We are seeing exactly this play out with disturbing fervor in so many aspects of city and community life today.
I’m always weary of projecting my personal experience onto the world. One of the greatest reasons for the political and social strife we’re experiencing in the US today is the inability to see beyond our front door. It is the plague that arises from a purposeful ignorance and a convenient lack of empathy and understanding. So when the NYT piece confirmed my personal suspicion surrounding the degradation of driving behavior, I felt more empowered to write about my experience.
The scary trend that is leading to record-high car and pedestrian injuries and death isn’t a veiled construct. Pay attention to those busy intersections and watch as nearly every time, someone blatantly runs a red light, sometimes several seconds after the other direction has a green. You can almost feel the frustration, ego-centrism and straight up ambivalence in today’s driver, far more than just a few years ago. People are tired, frustrated and even angry… and unfortunately for our citizens, they are expressing these feelings with their two-ton machines of steel. Be careful out there.