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Prairie Notes-On the Road


Fri, Oct 25th, 2002
Posted in Columnists

Turn down any country road in Fillmore county. Choose one that you have driven often in the past, though it may have been awhile since you passed that way. If you happen to choose that road early in the morning, say 6:30 or 7:00, or later in the afternoon, say 3:30-6:00, you may be met with a surprise: you no longer are the sole driver on that road. Though our concept of heavy traffic may be laughable by I-35 standards, the rise in the number of vehicles headed in all directions so soon after sunriseóor shortly before it, this time of yearósignals change for all of us. And the change had better bring an awareness that we rural drivers may have lost.

This morning on my commute along highway 30 toward Peterson, a silken mist draped itself over low pockets in partially picked fields; dried chocolate-colored stalks stood guard over the remains of green ditches; and four thick pink stripes announced the sunís arrival. I think that way as I drive, putting together descriptions as little mental exercises just to see if I can do it without overdoing it. But, simultaneously, public radio relays the news as my eyes dart to the speedometer, the "big picture" Iím supposed to be watching ahead, and the ditches, to spot signs of little critters, turkeys, or deer that may come skittering, flying, or leaping in my path. I could create a challenge worthy of any video game enthusiast if the van contained a cup of coffee, a cell phone, or a traveling companion. Remember, #30 has no shoulder and plenty of horizonless hills that mask whatever might be turning onto itóespecially with the rising sun in your eyes, and you have the makings of a bad accident. But this morningís "big picture" brought more possible hazards: I either met or followed nine other vehicles. Nine. We sat two-deep at the stop sign just to cross or enter onto the highway, and none of the vehicles were the tractors, semis, or combines which will appear from now until Thanksgiving.

Twenty years ago, I began driving this route to school. Had I seen nine vehicles in the morning I wouldíve thought I was in a funeral procession. Even five years ago, when a four-car morning was typical, nine wouldíve brought surprise. The I-35ers are allowed to chuckle, if they wish; but the change does have meaning for me as well as my driving habits.

I pride myself on my driving record, even though none of the other members of my family allow me to drive when theyíre in a vehicle with me. None of them will admit that, even with my slight acceleration problem and a few fender problems, driving skinny old highway 30 as often as I do could be perilous to someone with less experience behind the wheel than myself, such as the soon-to-be newly-licensed driver in our household. Itís unsettling. You see, Iíve faced nearly every kind of near-death experience in traffic accidents on that road and learned a little each time. I canít transfer that to my son via osmosis or transfusion; he has to learn it on his own, as do all of my kids. When you teach, you have a lot of kids. If theyíre in our county, theyíre all our kids.

If the other roads in the county truly are like mine, we do have a problem, because my road carries some pretty poor drivers on it every single day. My fascination with poor driving habits stems from one basic truth I have gleaned through on-going unscientific research: our rural drivers are not purposely rude, but many of us are completely oblivious to the fact that there are other drivers on the road.

Like me, rural drivers may be viewing the changing scenery, listening to the radio, or checking out the spot in the cornfield for deer. Whatever weíre doing, though, itís dangerous.

Itís dangerous to lose track of time, the speedometer, and your mind when youíre sharing the road with others. Compare this #30 fact to the road you use: my trip to Rushford includes only three safe, legal places to pass. The straight stretch at the bottom of the Rushford hill on #30 lends itself beautifully to passingóas long as the pass-ee allows it. After following people who are unsure of themselves going down the curvy hill, or who arenít as familiar with it as I am, Iím usually a little anxious to get by them once we get to the bottom. More than once have I begun passing someone who has continued at the 30 mph pace when, suddenly, itís as though the driver remembered, "Oh, yeah, Iím at the Indianapolis 500!" (I know Iíll be scolded for this next part, but it is a straight stretch, I am experienced, and I did it for the sake of research.) I have tried to continue passing simply to see when the other driver will realize, "Oops! I guess if I couldnít go over 30 mph for three miles, it seems senseless to try for 75 mph just because someoneís passing me." One driver "chased" me for the rest of that straight stretch, not allowing me to slow down until we approached the small hill that ends the passing zoneóand we were going at least 70 mph. I would have been frightened that this was an example of road rage were it not for the fact that the person I was passing was nearly 90 years old. At other times, the driver (male or female, it doesnít seem to matter) has even looked me in the face as Iíve been passing and then chosen to speed up. Why? How long had you been completely unaware that you were behind the wheel? Did you ever realize you chose a foolish time to "wake up"?

The wake-up call needs to occur before we get into the car, and it includes those of us who assume that all other drivers know that we "always turn left at the drug store." If we look around our small towns, itís easy to see the faces of those who havenít "always" lived here or havenít always driven behind us to learn that rule. New drivers should be learning to drive with patience; but why not make it easier for them by signaling your intentions, preferably before you stop to make the turn.

And to all of us who are scurrying to get somewhere fast, remember those three safe spots on your country road, and realize that driving _" behind the car in front of you will not magically create another passing zone for you. Back off. Especially in winter.

Many community education departments offer review courses for drivers over 55. Unfortunately, some of us shouldnít wait that long, or we may never get to be 55. We do need to learn to be purposeful, thinking drivers, though. Our country roads will never be I-35, but these roads do see much more traffic than ever before: traffic that includes people who may not have left enough time to get to work or a meeting and are not just out for a leisurely drive; people who have just discovered Fillmore County and who are out for a leisurely drive; and people who are out for a drive because they finally have a license to do it.

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