Behind the Wheel

I live in Michigan and we have something unique besides a mitten shape. We have the Michigan Merge. I thought everyone had this until I read an article by someone who moved here from elsewhere. It turns out in other states (and possibly the rest of the civilized world) people approach merging far differently than Michiganders. In other places folks use all the lanes provided right up until the point where one is being eliminated and then they take turns merging into the remaining lanes. What a concept! Everybody just keeps driving as they normally would until they need to do something different.

In Michigan we are both paranoid and overly compliant. The very SECOND we see a sign that our lane will be disappearing at some point waaaaay down the road, we honor the contract we signed at birth (or whenever we moved here) to IMMEDIATELY move over. Never mind that this causes a huge slowdown in the flow of traffic and leaves perfectly good pavement empty for miles.  We are worried that failure to move now will result in being stranded at the point of the actual merge. We have been taught that merging at the merge point is rude and that others will resent us for it and will drive bumper to bumper in order to prevent us from entering their lane. And, in fact, anyone who dares to ignore this sacred custom may be subjected to harsh treatment including horn blowing, third finger raising and in some cases a particularly aggressive form of shaming where a car that has already pulled over comes back out just far enough to keep custom-breakers from using the perfectly good lane.

I have tried to discuss this insanity with otherwise intelligent and reasonable people who will not budge. When I admit that I always drive in the soon-to-be-eliminated lane right up to the merge point, there is a collective groan and the occasional hiss and boo as they shout “I HATE those people!” The collective wisdom seems to be that I think I am better than everyone else, special, not required to follow the rules. But there are no actual rules in effect here except to get over before the lane goes away. I have received my fair share of tickets over the years, but have never once gotten one for “failure to merge three miles early”!

This leads to the broader topic of Road Rage. Having driven on the unbelievably congested 6 lane freeways in southern California I can certainly appreciate how people would lose their minds and start acting out all over the place.  The relentless sunshine alone might put me over the edge. I get it. But here in sleepy, gray little Michigan my biggest commute is about 5 minutes, so on the rare occasion when I am out in rush hour traffic it is a shock. I had to go to the dentist at 8 a.m. this morning and truly feared for my life. People drove 85 miles per hour in almost bumper-to-bumper conditions. Once when I tried to create a little breathing room between my car and the one in front of me, some guy came barreling up on the left and swerved into my lane nearly taking off my front bumper. I honked at him briefly and he gave me what looked like a well-rehearsed finger salute, first with his right hand in his rear view mirror and then with his left out the driver side window. WOW. Equally troubling was my powerful urge to skip the dentist and follow this jerk to work to give him a piece of my mind or maybe shame him in front of colleagues or customers.

My daughter was driving to a certain large university (the identity must be kept secret for fear that certain relatives might become overly excited and start sending her T-shirts and cup holders) on a look-see trip and was cut off in this fashion twice. She had thankfully taken my nimble small car with great brakes as she is convinced she might be dead if she’d been in her slow old Chevy.  I recently watched a guy in a fast car weave in and out of very heavy, fast-moving traffic causing nearly every driver he cut off to have to brake. This crazy behavior is what gets people killed as happened last week when I-75 was completely shut down due to a double fatality case of road rage.

The answer here, of course, comes straight from Buddhism. Detach. Get in your car with nothing invested in the trip save your safe arrival. Let the anger, frustration, speed and bad behavior of your fellow drivers stay right where it belongs–with them. Breathe and keep your eyes on the road and your mind on something pleasant–like living long enough to eat dinner with your family that night. And remember that whatever is making these drivers so bat-shit crazy has NOTHING to do with you so don’t take anything they do personally. They are either having a bad day, week, (life?) or trying to punish everyone else for the troubling fact that some people refuse to observe the Michigan Merge.

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