Driving us crazy

February 12th, 2021

Speed Limit

(published in The Daily Memphian)

I’ve written about it before, one of the more interesting things about daily life in Memphis, and one that just might kill you. We can’t drive. Worse. We’re proud of it.

Yesterday morning, I thought it might be time to write about that again. When the light changed, the guy across from me stomped on the gas pedal and turned left – without a signal – in front of two lanes of oncoming traffic, barely making it, and fist pumping to congratulate himself on the achievement. Horns and single-finger salutes from my fellow drivers also marked the moment.

Last night, as Highland was converted to a drag strip once again, the column was shaping up nicely. Might as well write since I’m awake. Would-be NASCAR drivers in muffler-free muscle cars are breaking the sound barrier right outside my window. Would-be jet pilots stretched out on two-wheel crotch rockets are looking for new land speed records between Walnut Grove and Sam Cooper. And still, I’ve never seen a cop pull anybody over on that stretch and hand out a single ticket for anything. Not even one. They probably can’t catch them.

Memphis is rolling right along.

If you’re reading this or anything on a phone or a tablet, or sending anything on one while driving – congratulations – you’re one of us.

If you think the people behind and around you in traffic either ought to know what you’re about to do or don’t deserve to know – welcome to our club.

If you think the turning lane in the middle of our busiest streets is actually an on-ramp, a place you can reach by lunging out of your favorite chicken drive-through or latte fix, cross half the street, and then cruise along until you can merge into traffic, you’re going to scare a lot of people and piss off a lot more – you’re going to fit right in.

If you know you can jump off the curb and beat cars coming both ways to the other side, or better yet, get halfway across and keep everybody guessing your next move while you balance on the dividing line, or better still, just amble on out there and make everybody stop because you can – you’re among friends.

You’re one of us. You’re an idiot.

I write about things Memphis, and there’s nothing more Memphis than the idiots on our roads. Our driving is like our unpredictable, even dangerous creativity, our shtick of doing old things in new ways and scaring people to death while we’re at it.

My father-in-law once backed his car a quarter mile down the interstate shoulder against traffic to get back to the exit ramp he missed. My mother-in-law used to keep time to the car radio by tapping on the gas pedal, shaking down the road like Elvis on Ed Sullivan

These are the people who taught my wife how to drive.

Long before cell phones or texting there was the distracting world inside my mother’s head. In there, the colors in the trees or the shapes in the clouds were far more interesting than the road in front of her. That’s how she drove into a ditch off Kirby with me riding shotgun. We were fine. The car not so much.

She was taking me out for a driving lesson at the time.

Friend Allan had parked his car on the side of the Mallory exit ramp – stupid in and of itself – while he harvested errant golf balls from the interstate side of the Riverside golf course fence when a semi blew by and took that ramp far too fast. Barely missing his car, the rig started lurching sideways like a dinosaur in a death throe, crashed on its side and slid to a stop with a final smoking metal screech. Alan ran to help and just as he got there, the driver stood up through the driver door window and exclaimed to no one in particular, “S--t! Second one this month.”

We all have these stories.

We all know that mere rain kills cars in Memphis, let alone snow, leaving them dark and abandoned on wet streets. We all know that lane lines are just suggestions, and moving in and out of them is to be done either very quickly or ever so slowly with little regard as to who’s already in them and never, ever, giving the move away with a turn signal.

Evidently, virtually everybody in Memphis was frightened by a turn signal as a baby and avoids them at all costs.

We all know that our pedestrians and our drivers are at war.

Today or tomorrow, you’ll probably almost hit somebody crossing the street just about anywhere, except, of course, in a crosswalk. In Memphis, jaywalking isn’t a crime – it’s a birthright.

On the other hand, our drivers consider crosswalks to be lines marking the center of the first car at a light or cross street. In Memphis, pedestrians don’t have the right of way – they need to get the hell out of your way.

We all know that both our pedestrians and our drivers are at war with cyclists.

For those who measure these things, Memphis has gone from one of the worst cities in America to one of the best in terms of bike lanes and trails.

For those who ride in those lanes and on those trails, getting home without an incident – a confrontation with a driver, a dog off a leash, or a pedestrian off his or her meds – is a crap shoot.

On the other hand, weaving in and out between cars in moving traffic on a bike and riding the Greenline like a sprinter in the Tour de France doesn’t impress people; it breaks bikes and bones.

City council member Ford Canale is trying to help, getting the default speed limit lowered to 25 MPH. Unfortunately, if you’re going 25 in Memphis joggers with baby carriages are going to blow your doors off.

We have a long way to go.

Observing the rules of driving – the real ones, not ours – would be, well, pedestrian. Whatever else you may want to call it, our driving, like our city, is never pedestrian.

I’m a Memphian, and y’all be careful out there.

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