The Human Attention Span is Shorter than This Warning…

Truck

I’ve always wanted to write one of those pieces composed of random thoughts, connected with ellipses… a “three-dotter,” as newspaper columnists of old called them in the days before blogs. It’s an easy way to fill space without a cohesive theme, and it also appeals to the brevity of the American attention span.

Have you seen those new car commercials that practically condone distracted driving? In one, a tone-deaf driver imagines herself winning a singing contest; in another, an average guy behind the wheel daydreams of sports stardom. The ads seem to say: Go ahead and let your mind wander, because our new high-tech sensor system can recognize danger and auto-correct before you’ll get in trouble.

Now, I’m all for technology. If cars can borrow the concept of “sensors” from Star Trek and apply it to everyday life, I think that’s great… even more so if it prevents accidents. But how complacent should we be, and how much complacency should we tacitly encourage? When I’m out on my bicycle, I want the drivers around me alert, aware of my presence on the road, and not off in some private fantasy.

Sensors didn’t prevent another horrible accident recently on Route 1A between Bangor and Ellsworth. This is a deadly stretch of road. It’s also a well-traveled corridor, especially in the summer and fall, as it’s the main route between Bangor International Airport and Acadia National Park.

Over the years, this road has been periodically widened in spots, new lanes added, better signage erected… but accidents still happen, and traffic continues to increase. That highway is notorious for speeders and tales of tailgating and aggressive driver behavior. All the improvements in the world won’t change that.

In fact, continuing to expand road capacity only encourages more people to drive, worsening the problem. A more sensible plan for the corridor should focus on connected, comprehensive public transportation between Bangor and Bar Harbor, with the long-term goal of removing a significant percentage of vehicles from the traffic picture.

Maine doesn’t really have traffic… I lived in southern California for most of the 1980s and 1990s and cannot seriously apply the word to the small, temporary pockets of congestion I’ve encountered here. We do have a fair number of drivers with entitled attitudes who don’t think they should ever have to slow down for a bicyclist or a pedestrian.

As a bicyclist I can’t afford to get distracted. I have a side mirror so that I see cars behind me. At certain intersections in the greater Bangor area, I must get into the left lane so as not to impede traffic turning right. In these situations, my proper, legal move is to “control the lane” until I’m safely through the intersection. (Two examples: southbound Main Street in Bangor at its junction with I-395, and southbound Route 2 in Orono, at its junction with Kelley Road.) Drivers are required by law to follow me through the intersection before they pass. Yet many will zip around me on the right, into the other lane, rather than wait those few seconds. This creates danger for everyone involved.

Drivers are also required by law to give bicyclists a three-foot buffer space in all situations. Again, it takes seconds, not minutes, out of a driver’s day to wait until it’s safe to pass. What’s the rush?

It’s not all on the drivers, of course. Especially during autumn’s dwindling daylight, bicyclists and pedestrians have an obligation to make themselves seen, and to make sure drivers see them. But the difference is that a distracted bicyclist or pedestrian might dent a fender or scratch a paint job, but a car can kill. The onus for safety, I think, is properly placed on the operator of the more powerful vehicle.

Those car commercials are ultimately irresponsible. Driving a car is an awesome responsibility, because you take into your hands not only your own life, but the lives of everyone within the immediate vicinity of your vehicle. Because the culture is saturated with cars, we’ve marginalized other means of transportation to the point where many drivers feel that everyone on the road should defer to them.

A smarter path forward is to promote pedestrian neighborhoods, bicycle lanes and infrastructure, and public transportation. I see nothing wrong with sensors in cars, if people use them sensibly… and if people begin to come around to the idea that they don’t always have to drive.

 

Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.