How the world became a better place on US Highway 19.

Not 30 minutes after I wrote my last post, I sat in my car in the far-right turn lane of a set of three turn lanes, each lined with cars waiting for green arrows so we could make lefts into each of the three southbound lanes of US Highway 19.

Any set of left-turn lanes makes me anxious. This is because in any set of left-turn lanes, there is at least one self absorbed driver who — bereft of awareness of anything that isn’t inside his or her vehicle — does not know his or her turn lane is part of a set. So if this person is, say, a guy in a green Mustang in the middle turn lane of three, he may, for instance, turn from the middle turn lane into the highway’s right lane. If there are no cars in the far-right turn lane of the three, his lack of awareness is both no biggie and reinforced: he’ll have done something he shouldn’t have, and without consequence.

But what happens when he turns into the right lane from a middle turn lane when there are cars in the far-right turn lane whose drivers are turning into that lane, too?

Sometimes, a crash. Other times, like today, the world becomes a better place.

The red arrows turned green and all three lanes turned left. The guy in the green Mustang, bereft of awareness of my car next to his, turned from the middle turn lane into the right southbound lane — my lane. The young woman in his passenger’s seat, whose window was down, saw my car. While he ran me off the road, she screamed. He swerved back into the middle, quickly enough that I could merge back into traffic.

And as I did, the young woman and I made eye contact.

Which is when, with such clear compassion, she apologized.

Twice now in two days, I’ve encountered people who’ve behaved in ways that so exceed my generally extremely low expectations of the general public. My blood pressure and I have needed this.

A challenge.

For those of you who have sat shotgun in my car, or who’ve talked with me on the phone while I am driving, odds are good that you’ve seen or heard my impatience with people in action. I confess — both in those moments and now — that loving people from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle kind of  has been a challenge since my driving instructor Walter and I walked out of the DMV the day I got my license nine years ago.

Pretty immediately, I traded in phrases like, “Seatbelt? Buckled.” and “Hands at 10 and 2? Check.” (I know — nerdbomber!) for ones like, “Is this person kidding me?,” “How does this person sleep at night?” and “Dude, pick a lane!”

How easy it is to hurl harsh words when I refuse to acknowledge that behind the wheel inside the bubble that is the car moving at 35 in a 55 …is a person.

A person deliberately created by the same God who deliberately created each of us.

A person Jesus says I should treat in the way I wish to be treated (“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you …” [from the book of Matthew]).

A neighbor I have been instructed to love (also from the book of Matthew).

Maybe, when another driver’s decision doesn’t cater to me, I can say thanks to God for keeping us safe instead of shouting. I can say, “Everybody makes mistakes.” instead of judging. I can choose to love.

Back seat driver.

It dawned on me the other day that I am a “backseat driver.”

I am the kind who doesn’t mind (and even prefers) that the driver is the one in control of the car. But even as the person not behind the wheel, I sometimes find it hard to forsake driver-like vigilance. I like to see what’s coming.

There are two kinds of this kind of backseat driver. Both watch out for what goes on around the car. But one is compelled to warn the driver about what he or she sees coming, and the other isn’t. I have been both.

The one who warns the driver doesn’t want to control the car. But he or she also doesn’t trust the actual driver — not wholly, anyway. He or she may want to trust (because goodness knows it is a relief to relax, which is a passenger’s privilege). But he or she may not trust because of a bad past experience, or narcissism (“I can see better than you can [because I am better than you are]!”), or because his or her particular driver isn’t a good one. This kind of backseat driver is also annoying, frankly. No human wants to be this person’s driver. And most drivers take this person’s commentary personally, unless the driver knows the root of this person’s distrust and is able to empathize with him or her.

The backseat driver who isn’t compelled to warn the actual driver also doesn’t wholly trust the driver (if he or she did, he or she would not, in fact, be a backseat driver). This kind definitely wants to trust the driver. This kind also would like to cash in on his or her right to revel in the relief that comes with knowing you are in good hands. So while his or her driver-like vigilance wavers — sometimes he or she trusts, other times he or she doesn’t — this kind remembers to reflect on some things.

Like the fact that as a passenger, whether you do or don’t trust the driver, you still are going to end up where ever the driver takes you.

Or the fact that as a passenger, it is not your responsibility to tell a good driver what to do.

Or the fact that (ideally), you wouldn’t be in this car with this driver if you didn’t think this driver was good.

Or the fact that from where we sit, we can’t always see as much as the driver sees, or ever see it from the same perspective.

Or the fact that we really are free to relax while the driver takes care of the driving.

And so quietly, while this second kind of backseat driver pays attention but also reflects on the above, he or she practices trust. And at red lights and stop signs, he or she reflects on the parts of the ride that are behind them. And in retrospect, it is easier to see that, “I can trust this driver. And I do.”

The other day, it also dawned on me that this — how good at being passengers we are — might be a metaphor.

What if life is the ride?

What if God is the driver?


A few months ago, I drove south on US 19 in Spring Hill, Fla. on my way to work. At the intersection at the county line, flashing lights from squad cars and fire trucks forced all southbound drivers to merge to the right. The traffic light turned red, so I had a minute to look for whatever it was on the left that required the presence of the emergency responders.

First, I saw the motorcycle. Then, I saw the body.

Upon my arrival at work, where my colleagues pursued the story, I learned a young woman in a red truck had run the light, killing the motorcyclist as he crossed the intersection. She did it after escaping arrest for driving while intoxicated and dragging a deputy (who’d jumped on to her truck to try to stop her) across 19’s northbound lanes as she sped away. The deputy survived. A mile or so north of the motorcycle crash scene, deputies caught the driver. She has been in jail ever since.

In a recorded jailhouse call between the driver and the father of her baby, she says some of the following, through tears:

“As far as the deputy, she jumped on the truck. It’s not like I hit her. She fell off. It was her decision to jump on the truck … what was I supposed to do?”

“I didn’t run (the motorcylist) over on purpose.”

“It was a car accident.”

Really? An accident?

Earlier this year, I interviewed Tom Vanderbilt — the brilliant author of the brilliant book Traffic — and in the essay about driving in which I quoted him, we came to the following conclusions:

Calling a crash an accident “implies there’s no way this could have been prevented, that it was unforeseeable,” Vanderbilt said. Phrases like “drunken-driving accident” are most egregious, he said.

The word “accident” enables negligent drivers. It lets a person create conditions in which vehicles are likely to collide and call it unpredictable after it happens.

The belief that it’s all right to call all car collisions “accidents” is not limited to the jailed driver from the crash scene I saw in May. Read a newspaper. Eavesdrop while you people watch. It comes up a lot. I am of the opinion that it has to stop.

When we call a crash an accident, we permit the person responsible for it to relinquish responsibility. We admit what happened is bad, but minimize the incident because — after all — the driver didn’t mean to.

What we don’t consider when we call crashes accidents is that premeditation is not a prerequisite for responsibility. You don’t have to plan out something for it to be your fault. But if we call crashes “accidents,” we perpetuate that belief, which lets a lot of bad decision makers off the hook. It becomes easy to live like “I didn’t mean to!” means “I’m not responsible!”

But when we call a crash what it is — a crash or a collision — it’s something worth dissecting. It’s something that, when dissected, is actually pretty predictable.

I am 100% certain the driver who ran the light that morning at County Line Road did not get in her truck that day with intentions to use it to kill someone. But she decided to use drugs. She decided to get in the car. She decided to escape police custody — after she was already in handcuffs — and flee in her truck. She decided to drive more than 70 miles per hour with a deputy hanging off her vehicle. She decided to blow a red light.

You can say the same about somebody who decides to text and drive. Somebody who decides to speed in the rain. To weave in and out of traffic. To dig through the console. To drive while you’re really, really tired.

When something happens while we do those things, it’s not an accident. It’s negligence.

– – – –

Click here to listen to listen to the driver’s jailhouse call and to read the story.


I live 20 miles from work, 40 miles from school and more than 40 miles from any good beach.

So I do a lot of driving. And for years, I’ve driven the same car: the Spence Mobile if you knew me high school, the Motha Ship, if you knew me in college.

I used to think there is something about the deep cranberry pearl color of my car that made it difficult for other drivers to see. Why else, I thought, would drivers try to change lanes while my car’s in the way, or not stop when my car is clearly not moving at all in front of them?

I’ve learned, however, that it isn’t the color of my car that causes the near misses and the fender benders. It’s the way we (Americans, maybe humans) drive (as well as live). And since honking the horn and flailing my arms around about it at other drivers doesn’t really work, I wrote this column:

Distracted driving puts all of us at risk on U.S. 19 and beyond

Online now, in print Sunday, May 1, 2011. I hope you enjoy it.