Some years ago a surgeon told me about a time when he rushed from his home to a hospital to perform an emergency surgery. On his way he encountered a driver blocking the left lane who would not move to the right to let him get by. The highway was completely clear as far ahead as he could see. He estimated he was delayed in getting to the hospital by several minutes. The patient did not survive and the surgeon was unsure if his getting there sooner would have made a difference.
After hearing this story, I began collecting data and anecdotes of similar situations. I expected to hear a lot of stories from doctors similarly delayed, but I didn’t. Indeed, I heard of only one other, a pediatric surgeon and one of a very few who can perform some procedures. Similar to above, she was unsure what impact the delay had.
Most of us would likely consider these legitimate or at least very understandable reasons for driving a bit fast; being late for a date, not so much. Then again, one of my nieces once told me that any guy who doesn’t have his act together enough to leave on time and not have to rush isn’t someone she wants to be with anyway. Ouch!
Along with the doctors above here are the top five reasons to speed I found in my queries:
- Needing a restroom break: I can drive the speed limit and pee in my pants, or drive a little faster and maybe make it. What would you do? (BTW, most cops have heard this excuse. And occasionally there’s been supporting evidence.)
- Trying to get themselves to a hospital: One example would be a guy passing a kidney stone. Officially, we should pull over and call for an ambulance, but in reality how many of us, when a couple of miles from the hospital, are going to do that?
- Getting one’s pregnant wife to the hospital.
- Going to a hospital when a spouse, child, or parent was in the emergency room and sometimes trying to get there before they died.
That last one is the one I think about the most. Legitimate? Depends on who you ask and how obtuse you want to be. Some cops tell me that there is no excuse for speeding and that this will just lead to one more death.
Reality isn’t so cut and dried. Almost any of us, upon receiving a call that our child was in a hospital emergency room, like after they’d been hit by an errant driver, would likely not be paying too much attention to the speed limit. (Of course, we don’t adhere to the speed limits very well anyway.) Listening to people’s stories about their trying to get to a hospital quickly were heartbreaking.
This is even more understandable for those trying to make it to the hospital before their child or spouse dies. This was somewhat the case of Ryan Moats who was stopped by a cop at the entrance to a hospital parking lot. He explained to the cop that he and his wife were trying to see his wife’s mother before she died. The cop accused them of lying and wouldn’t let them go. Ryan’s wife, against the cop’s command, ran in to the hospital. Ryan waited and arrived 15 minutes later—about 5 minutes after his mother-in-law and according to everyone who knew them, his adopted mother, had died.
Dangerous? Hard to say. If speed itself (on a motorway) was that dangerous then we’d likely not have many Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Italians, or a few others left on this earth. Weaving in and out of traffic to get around left lane vigilantes is likely much more dangerous. Not to mention the risk of enraging someone who may already be on their emotional edge.
Reality? About 99% of the time, the person behind you in the left lane flashing their lights is someone simply late to work. Maybe someone who needs a restroom. Unlikely someone rushing to the hospital before their wife dies. Do you know though? Even if you’ve seen them doing this before, is this the third time their husband has been rushed to the hospital after a heart attack?
I also wonder about people’s mental state (and for that matter, mine).
Every year numerous people are killed because they antagonized someone—something we seem quite in love with doing in the U.S. Someone comes up behind us in the left lane, we can easily move over, but instead we slow down. Or someone flashes their lights at us to let us know they want to get by and we hit our brakes. A trucker blocks us in the left lane and once we get by we slow down to force them to downshift. All of these to ‘teach someone a lesson’.
We are a mature lot, aren’t we?
In June 2007, I’d written a commentary for the Strib about this. Two days after it was published, a teen was killed and another critically injured about a mile from my house.
“It appears that the Jeep was going southbound in the left lane,” Knippenberg said. “The Audi comes up behind the Jeep. The Jeep taps his brakes. The Audi backs off.
“The Audi then catches back up to the Jeep. The Jeep taps its brakes again. The Audi again backs off. The Audi goes to the right lane, passes the Jeep, comes back to the left lane, and at this point slows.”
Troopers want to know why.
“Was it to get back at the Jeep for tapping its brakes? Was it to avoid something in the road? Was it for some other unknown reason?” Knippenberg said.
“The driver of the Jeep took evasive maneuvers by braking hard and swerving to the left, from the left lane, towards the median.”
The Jeep overcorrected and shot to the right, crossed two lanes and drove along the guard rail, possibly hitting it. The Jeep then veered and rolled across both lanes.
(On a side note, the above description really irritates me. Jeeps don’t tap their brakes, Audi’s don’t slow down, and cars don’t kill people. Drivers do.)
From my conversations with the cops who investigated this crash, both drivers had numerous opportunities to avoid it.
- Had the Jeep driver not been in the left lane to begin with.
- Had the Jeep driver moved to the right lane when the Audi first approached from behind.
- Had the Audi driver backed off and waited a bit more patiently.
- Had the Audio driver not brake-checked the Jeep.
- Had the teens been wearing seatbelts.
- Had the teens been in a vehicle safer than a Jeep.
What was the mental state of the Audi driver and why? Even someone who is usually calm can snap. How often are they someone who is otherwise quite mature but just caught their spouse in bed with a friend? Or were fired from their job? They’re exceptionally angry and perhaps driving really fast. Will blocking them help anyone? Or just make them angrier and likely to do something stupid that harms a lot of people?
Their mental state doesn’t excuse their actions. But if we’re dead, I don’t know how much that matters.
Who among us hasn’t found ourselves late to a job interview or for dinner to meet our potential in-laws? Or trying to get to a hospital before our child dies.
It would be best if everyone always drove the speed limit, but I’ll not hold my breath. We in the U.S. don’t obey laws, we obey our beliefs and desires. Law obedience happens when the laws just happen to intersect with our beliefs and convenience.
We need to build a cooperative environment rather than a high conflict environment. We need an environment based on consideration for others, even if that might occasionally mean being considerate of jerks, rather than an environment based on our mature desire to antagonize others.
A bit of courtesy goes a long way and costs us nothing. And may save some lives.