There was a 40-vehicle pile-up on U.S. 31 near Muskegon Friday. Police blamed the usual suspects: speed and stupidity.
“You’ve got to take it slow,” a local police chief said. “When people get on the highway and the speed limit is 70 miles an hour people think they can drive 70.”
Which is a stunning quote considering the freeway was covered with snow and ice, from the photos I’ve seen. Were people really driving 70 in those conditions? If so, holy cow, people, what’s wrong with you?
Afterward, my friend Rick posted an interesting question about people and winter driving: “Are advancements like all-wheel-drive, anti-lock brakes and winter tires making us too confident behind the wheel? Are our driving skills degrading? Or am I just wrong about all of this?”
No, he’s not wrong. Modern safety equipment and sheer vehicle size, I think, can be contributing factors to foul weather accidents, oddly enough, because they convince some drivers they’re more in control and invulnerable than they really are.
I call these drivers “Masters of the Universe.” They’re usually (but not always) male. And they almost always drive SUVs and pickup trucks the size of aircraft carriers. Because their vehicles weigh more and usually have all the attributes and gizmos Rick mentioned, Masters of the Universe tend to drive more aggressively than others, especially in cruddy conditions. Woe to you if get in their way, for they love to tailgate, love to zoom past you on icy roads, and love to flip you off as they go by because, after all, they are, well, Masters of the Universe and you, frankly, are not.
I experienced it first-hand again yesterday, the same day as the Muskegon accident. Despite the dodgy weather, I was out trying to drive my son to Grand Rapids over an ice-covered two-lane road. Traffic was creeping along at 35 mph at best. A powerful east wind kept trying to shove my little vehicle off the road. It was a white knuckle drive, for sure.
Sure enough, though, despite conditions, every few miles a Master of the Universe with “4×4” painted on his tailgate or quarter panel would decide enough was enough and go zooming past the quarter mile string of lesser cars, including my own, that was in his way. Each time, I would struggle to keep my little vehicle centered in the narrow strip of blacktop that was visible, a job made harder by the twister of snow kicked up by their passing. It was a nerve-wracking experience. And that’s from a guy who grew up in the Upper Peninsula and is, if I do say so myself, a fairly good and experienced winter driver.
The odd thing is, I’ve never met a Master of the Universe who thinks he’s a Master of the Universe. They think their behavior is normal and it’s everyone else who’s the problem. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that other people might be intentionally driving more slowly in crappy conditions because they’re not piloting aircraft carriers with 4-wheel drive and snow tires. Or they might be driving, as my daughter does, a 20-year Honda Accord that isn’t all that great in the snow.
It also doesn’t seem to occur to them that other drivers might not be as wonderfully gifted as they are behind the wheel. They might be young, for instance, and be a little nervous driving in the snow. They might be older. Or have disabilities. Or maybe they’re not feeling well. Or maybe they’re on the way back from a funeral and not quite driving with a spring in their step, so to speak. Or bringing a baby home for the first time.
Masters don’t seem to care. To them, the rest of us are obstacles, not human beings. Getting to where they’re going a few seconds faster matters more to them than anything else, including you or me.
Masters of the Universe aren’t the only ones, of course. Most of us drive like them on occasion. We all have a little Master in us, me included. But the older I get, the more conscious I am of how fragile life is. So I’m trying to do a better job of remembering there are people – living, breathing human beings – in every one of those tin cans out on the road.
And every one of those people mean the world to someone somewhere.
Image credit: edward stojakovic
Note: The photo used is not from the Muskegon accident. Just a representative photo of crappy winter driving.