Steve Chatterton
Will Write for Food
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No, You Turn!

May 6th, 2014 by Steve
Photo by Colin Broug

Photo by Colin Broug

When I was learning to drive in high school, my driving instructor asked me a riddle as we pulled up to an all-way stop: “Four drivers arrive at a four-way stop at the same time. Which one goes first?”

I suggested “age before beauty” as a possibility, but it didn’t get the laugh I hoped for. Sorting it out by order of height, whether tallest to shortest or vice versa, would be difficult with everyone in a seated position, and deciding it by a quick game of rock-paper-scissors would be problematic with four players who couldn’t hear each other well.

“The answer is,” said the clearly exasperated instructor, “the one on the right.”

“But every car is the one on the right in that scenario,” I protested.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” he replied, giving me the distinct feeling weren’t going anywhere, as if we were actually going around in circles. To make matters worse, he refused to clarify further.

That, for what it’s worth, is the root of my problem with driving; the rules of the road are ultimately governed by Zen koans that mere mortals are not enlightened enough to figure out.

My mother loved all-way stops; they were the only way she would ever turn left. For all their built-in potential for confusion, she found them far more civilized than the free-for-all of a traffic light. One car in motion at a time with no one left stranded in the middle of the intersection desperately waiting for their opportunity to finally get across, the four-way was her last refuge of sanity in a world clearly gone mad.

I, however, learned how to drive on the mean streets of Toronto, where such civility would incite a riot. As the fourth-largest city in North America (Eat it, Chicago!), Toronto has no patience for pleasantries on the road. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere important, and woe be upon the fool who slows things down for everyone else just by being nice to someone. Reference Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for an important sermon on the needs of the many as opposed to the needs of the few or the one, and get out of my lane while you’re at it. Better yet, surrender your license and take public transit for the rest of your days. Just don’t be on the streetcar in front of me.

They say if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. Likewise, if you can’t abide big city driving you can always move to the suburbs. Contemporary suburban sprawl calms traffic with it’s gently curving, winding streets and the occasional speed-bump that make it difficult to get up to the posted speed limit unless you really set your mind to it.

On top of all of that, almost every intersection in the burbs is an all-way stop, those pleasant little junctions where soccer moms in minivans coax each other into crossing first, selflessly sacrificing their turn to accelerate until they’ve ensured no vehicle is left behind. The rules of the road just don’t apply out here.

I first became aware of this problem when we started looking for a place to live in Whitby. (We came for the affordable housing, blissfully unaware of the irregular traffic habits.) People waved me through at every intersection whether I had right of way or not. I was thankful then, as I was running a little late. These people are so friendly and helpful, I thought, never suspecting that they had collectively taken leave of their faculties.

It was not until later I noticed a pattern emerging, a systematic approach that somehow determined that no matter the scenario I was always the one everybody else wanted to let through. I’ve even had the proverbial four drivers at a four-way stop situation work out in my favour when the other three drivers simultaneously waved me on as if reaching a consensus through a hive-mind I’m not privy to. I’ve also had several situations where I clearly didn’t have right of way, but it was given to me because no one else would listen to reason.

As a case in point, a couple of weeks ago I pulled up to a four-way stop a second or two after another driver coming from the opposite direction. I was clearly indicating my intention to turn left across his path, and he had no turn signal on. And so I waited. And waited. The guy gave me the wave. And I waited still. Then he flashed his headlights at me.

I quickly deduced there were only two ways this could play out. The first way involved the other driver honking his horn at me, leaving me to concede defeat and take my unearned, undeserved right of way before my misguided attempt at good will drew too much attention. The second way involved the other driver getting out of his car, walking across the intersection and knocking on my window. After safely ascertaining he was not carrying a weapon, I would roll down the window part-way to allow for some negotiations, which would most likely involve him saying things like, “If it’s not too much of an inconvenience for you, my good sir, I really must insist you take advantage of this situation and make your left turn before I go through, as you can see, I’m in no rush and no particular hurry.” Then he’d likely prove his point further by crossing over to the sidewalk and standing there until I took him up on his generous offer.

On the off-chance it might have gone down like that, I resigned myself to my inevitable fate and floored it.

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