My commute is killing me and driving me insane

I basically got a ticket for not driving like a crazy person!

Published November 10, 2009 9:11PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

A stupid speeding ticket has thrown me for a complete loop.

I am a slow and careful driver. I have to commute for an hour to my job. I have done this for 10 years now, and I learned a long time ago that speeding stressed me out but really didn't get me there much quicker. So I put my cellphone in the trunk to avoid temptation, I drive in the slow lane, I let anyone in who wants in, I try to stay the heck out of the way and assume that people who are speeding have some real reason to get there faster. I actually used to savor my downtime in the car alone as "transition time" between home and work. I leave 10 minutes earlier, I drive the slower, prettier route, and I enjoy a peaceful commute. Until very recently, I never had a ticket for anything.

As part of my commute, I have three miles on a four-lane twisting road through a beautiful park where the speed limit is 25 miles an hour. It is an appropriate place to drive slowly, but very difficult to drive 25 miles an hour, and most people who use this stretch of road ignore that rule. I am consistently the slowest driver on this stretch and a few weeks ago, a fellow was driving behind me very closely flashing his lights and beeping at me. This happens to me every once in a while, but this guy was more aggressive and more angry than I am used to. I was in the right lane and tried to just ignore him, but he was really making me nervous. Finally, I gathered that he was not going to go around me on the left and he really wanted my lane so I moved to the left lane. He gunned it, flipped me off and yelled at me as he passed me on the right, swerved into the left lane in front of me, slammed on his brakes to scare me, then took off at a high rate of speed. My heart was pounding, but I moved back into the right lane and looked up and a police car was behind me with its lights on. I pulled over, and the police officer said he had clocked me at 43 mph. I started to talk, he told me he didn't want to hear it, took my records and wrote up a ticket.

I got a ticket for excessive speed -- 43 mph in a 25 mile zone -- that has 4 points associated with it. I am stunned. I really don't know how fast I was going and I don't have any reason to think that the policeman was wrong, but I am surprised I could have been that far over the speed limit. On the other hand, I think that the police are generally fairly accurate, and I really don't know. I am angry that I got the ticket and the harassing driver did not, but just because he deserved it doesn't mean I am innocent of speeding.

So, since that happened I have been paying more attention and driving the speed limit on my commute. I even use my cruise control to maintain the proper speed where it is difficult, and I still cheat a little -- I add 5 mph where it seems ridiculously slow. For example, on one stretch of my commute it is 40 mph for two miles on a perfectly straight four-lane highway. The slow speed limit seems senseless, but I have been doing it anyway at 40 to 45 mph. I have been especially aware where there are road crews working, even on the interstate. This new attention to strictly following the speed limit really hasn't seemed to add any time to my commute so I think I must have been poking along like this all along to some degree. It is a more stressful and less enjoyable drive to pay such close attention for the entire drive.

Even more stressful, however, is the rage that I inspire in my fellow commuters. And I mean rage. People are outraged at me for trying to make sure I drive at the speed limit on many stretches where it seems I am the only driver who is aware that there is a speed limit. The incident that happened just before my ticket is now happening to me every day, sometimes more than once a day. This morning a fellow who had been tailgating me through my narrow neighborhood street was so infuriated that I slowed down for a yellow light that he passed me on the left and raced into the intersection after the light turned red -- he narrowly missed creating a multi-car disaster, and it took time to untangle the traffic mess this caused because he was blocking traffic and couldn't go anywhere. Although it was bad judgment on his part to pass me on the wrong side when I had stopped for a light, I feel in some ways responsible for the ensuing confusion. Other drivers who perceive that I am driving too slowly or cautiously seem to hate me, and they hate me with a sharp-edged, profanity-laced passion. They cut me off just to intimidate me, they yell at me, they flip me off. They want me out of their way. It feels like they want me to die.

I used to use my commute as a time of private isolation to listen to music or just drive in silent thought, but for the past few weeks I have been terrorized whenever I am behind the wheel. I am having nightmares about these angry people and I have started to have old nightmares about something bad that happened to me long ago -- the nightmares are of being randomly selected and harmed, and of having no way to help myself. I dread driving to work. I dread driving home. I feel very helpless.

I am trying to get along in this world where I have to drive, and I am trying to be respectful of the rules and my fellow man, and I am trying to even be a little flexible in spots (5 mph over the limit seems reasonable). But this has been a total nightmare for me, and I am seeing my fellow human beings in a very different, frightening light. I really don't know what to do. It should have been a minor event -- I can handle a speeding ticket, right? When you get a speeding ticket it is tangible and expensive proof that you should slow down, isn't it? Why am I feeling so shattered? Why can't I safely drive the speed limit without being terrorized?

I am angry that there do not seem to be any other speeding tickets being handed out by the many police I see on the side of the road, but I really don't think that would make me feel better. I want to know what to do, and I don't know what to do. Is it possible to obey traffic laws and not disrupt the lives of my fellow drivers? Why does this feel so much bigger than it is?

I hope you can find words to calm my thoughts.

Terrorized Commuter

Dear Terrorized Commuter,

The words I would use to calm your thoughts are these: You don't have to keep doing this. You can stop. In fact, I think you need to stop driving this route now. My advice to you is to decide, today, to change what you are doing. It is important that you do this before things get worse. Your very life is at stake.

You need to break the cycle. Each time you get stressed by an angry driver you are flooded with stress hormones that are damaging to your health and well-being and may lead to a catastrophic accident, high blood pressure, stroke and a host of other stress-related illnesses. It's like you are being poisoned.

And for what? All in order to participate in a system of transportation that is insane and should have been changed long ago? All to keep working at a job that perhaps does not give you what you need in life anyway, except for a paycheck?

Why does this feel bigger than it is? Maybe it doesn't. Maybe it is really that big. Every morning and evening for 10 years you have been driving a lethal weapon at high speed among a horde of other drivers few of whom are highly skilled, many of whom are distracted, driving with inadequate sleep, their minds blurred by prescription medications, their nerves raw from murderous routine, their anger spiking at the slightest provocation, their vehicles poorly maintained, their reactions erratic, some of whom can barely see, others of whom do not know the rules of the road, all of whom are driving on poorly maintained American roads not designed or built especially well for high speed; you are vulnerable to the lack of skill and emotional reactions of a whole host of characters of varying skill levels and psychological stability and all this is completely beyond your control. It is insane. It is insanity multiplied by millions of miles. Things happen in an instant. Things go wrong. Things spin out of control and people lose their lives every day. It's a nightmare.

How much bigger does it have to get?

But every morning hopped up on caffeine we suppress our fear and strap ourselves into our death machines. In the evening, weary, distracted and impatient to get home, we strap ourselves in again. We pretend it's normal. We pretend it's manageable. We have somewhere to get to, so we do not linger on the tragedy of loss that is our highway system; we do not mourn the wetlands squandered for highways, the meadows paved over, the mountains cut into, the trees sacrificed, the animals deprived of habitat; we do not shudder at the poisons released into the air by our vehicles as we cruise along at lethal speed. We just drive. We suppress what we know to be true -- that what we are doing is mass suicide of historic proportions.

We just drive.

Because you've got to keep up the commute, right?

Maybe not.

Maybe it's time to throw a monkey wrench in the works.

You may need to get help for the trauma you are experiencing. But I would think hard before adopting treatment aimed solely at getting you back into your automobile. What you are going through, I would suggest, is a recognition of the truth. The veil has been pulled away and you have glimpsed just how insane this whole enterprise is. Take your symptoms seriously. They are telling you that there is something fundamentally wrong and you have to stop doing it.

There must be an alternative. If not, that is one more indictment of our criminally mismanaged transportation infrastructure: The fact that driving to work is not simply an option but a necessity for so many millions of Americans is appalling. The fact that it is so commonplace makes it not less appalling but more so.

Consider yourself forced to explore alternatives. Are there other people in your neighborhood with whom you could share rides? Could you pay someone to drive you? If you examine the per-mile costs of commuting, including maintenance, gas, oil, insurance and the value of the car itself, you might find that, rather than being an added expense, it would be a net savings to find someone to pay for a ride. And there must be some transit hub somewhere, no? That you could drive to and park? No?

Then let's get radical: Why do you absolutely have to go to this particular location every day? What would happen if you stopped going? What would happen if you refused to participate in this murderous and insane ritual? What if you take the leap, become a resister, just up and stop the madness?

You could stop commuting just on principle. You could tell the people where you work that they will have to make it possible for you to work at home.

I am serious about the urgency and immediacy of the situation. I say do something before it's too late. Stop the madness! Do this not only for yourself but for the millions like you who have been driving in appalling conditions.

You know, we sometimes live with chronic situations that we know are intolerable but we keep going. We can do lasting damage to ourselves in this way. So I urge you to act on what you know to be true. This is an intolerable situation.

Stop tolerating it. Let the chips fall where they may. You don't need to do this.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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