Staying inside the lines

For much of the summer, work crews have been repaving the main road that runs past my house. First they widened it, then they repaved it, then they painted new lines. The road was already plenty wide enough for two cars, but bicyclists use it — recreationally; I’ve never seen anyone commuting from Hillsborough to Durham on a bike — and I expect the road was widened out of safety concerns. But…

I use the road to run. I don’t run far on it, because there’s too much traffic and too many blind curves, but I have to run a brief stretch on it to get from my neighborhood to other less-traveled back roads. The wider road may be safer for bicycles — that remains to be seen — but it’s more dangerous for me. It used to be that if I saw or heard a car I could hop off onto the grass, but now for most of that stretch the paved road drops right off into the drainage ditch. And most drivers, I’ve noted, seem to think that however wide their lane is, they own the paved surface.

The wider road is also more blacktop for turtles to cross, if you care about turtles. I do, but they don’t have much of a lobbying interest with municipal governments and highway commissions.

The end result of this “improvement,” then, was to make the road less safe for those of us who rely on our feet and not on wheels. But there’s a catch, and this is the interesting part.

After the road was repaved, for a brief couple of weeks, drivers gave me a wider berth. I didn’t fully notice it until the next crew came through and painted the yellow lines — at which point that wider berth disappeared. When the road was a broad swath of blacktop, drivers moved over and shared it with me. Now that they’re confined to a lane, they don’t. They could slow down, of course, but they don’t do that either. They roar past me, their rear view mirrors a couple of feet from my elbow, and I have to decide whether to trust their steering or risk twisting my ankle in the ditch.

I’m still wondering at those few weeks when drivers shared the unpainted road. It happened too consistently and too briefly to have been a coincidence. If my observation is correct, then the majority of drivers are not the rotten jerks they appear to be when they threaten to run me off the road: they’re just following the rules.

The lesson I take is that rules make people stupid, and stupidity makes people mean. The rules say to stay within the lines, and they do. Obediently and unthinkingly. And to hell with everybody else.

But when the rules break down and people are forced to think for themselves, they mostly behave decently.

I suppose it be too much to ask that drivers (or anyone else) remember that people are more important than rules. I’ll ask anyway, and also that you all remember your nonwheeled brethren out there, the walkers and the runners and the turtles. We need space too.

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