Friday, June 09, 2006

Sunday Night Journal &mdash May 28, 2006

Speed Bumps and the End of Civilization

There’s a lot one could say about the publication by National Review of a list of what they consider to be the top fifty conservative pop songs. I find this in general to be an odd thing to do, but one thing that struck me as significant was the inclusion of the Sammy Hagar song “I Can’t Drive 55” (lyrics here). I’ve only heard it once or twice but it struck me as not much more than an anthem for louts in cars. I can’t see anything conservative about it at all. If any ideological significance can be extracted from it, surely it’s a fairly pure libertarianism: I see no hint whatsoever in the lyrics that the driver of a car recognizes any obligation to other people, although maybe it’s a concession to civil order on Hagar’s part that he’s willing to surrender his license rather than head for the hills to prepare an armed resistance.


I consider a more conservative view on driving practices to have been captured in a cartoon I saw some time ago—two men are sitting in hell, and one says to the other something like (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Pulling up behind people and flashing my headlights at them. What about you?”


My local paper regularly publishes letters and phone calls from people who are outraged that speed bumps (or breakers, or lumps, or tables, or traffic circles, as the various obstructions are called) have appeared on a street where they had not previously been. My sympathy is all with the residents of the street, not the drivers. I assume that anyone outraged enough by a speed breaker to complain about it at length to the paper is one of those who caused the obstacle to be needed in the first place. Usually the street involved is a residential one that has gotten adopted as a short cut which avoids bigger and more congested ones. This would be only annoying if the short-cutters were well behaved, but inevitably a number of them believe themselves entitled to drive forty or fifty miles an hour where the posted limit is twenty-five or thirty, and are not shy about showing their impatience and disregard for anything that might slow them down.


So the people who live on the street find their lives and those of their children and pets at risk from the reckless drivers, and they ask the city to put in speed breakers. I figure they have to be pretty concerned and unhappy to ask for something which is, after all, going to be a big inconvenience for them, too.


I suppose it’s possible that the behavior of the drivers hasn’t really changed much in recent years, and it’s just that the residents are pushing back more vigorously. I wonder the same thing about the phenomenon of people running red lights. Every day upon leaving work I have to pull out into a major street from a small side street. There’s a light there, but I know better than to assume that green means, unqualifiedly, “go.” At least once a week someone runs the light, and I don’t mean that the car just slips by as the yellow turns to red, but that it accelerates from a block away at the first sight of yellow and flies through the intersection well after the light has turned green for me. Have people always done this so regularly and with such abandon? I have no statistics upon which to decide the question, but I certainly seem to see it more often.


If they really are increasing, these bad habits are small signs of a bigger decay, of increasing indifference to the rights of others, the common good, and for that matter simple courtesy. So goes the devolution of liberty, as intolerable behavior requires the imposition of more and pettier rules upon matters which used to be managed acceptably by a general presumption of self-restraint.

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