My first impression is disbelief, even denial.
The overhead informational sign on northbound I-77 reads “CONGESTION EIGHT MILES AHEAD” as I pass under it Saturday morning on my way to work. Eight miles happens to be about the distance I have to travel on this highway.
I’m faced with the dilemma that commuters all over the country encounter on a daily basis. Do I stick with my standard route, and hope that the warning is either wrong or over-stated? Or do I start plotting an alternate course on back roads that could be even worse?
According to the National Highway Administration, Americans spend a total of 7 billion hours annually cooling their heels in traffic. And though that’s a number I completely made up, it still represents a shocking waste of fuel, maintenance costs and, most importantly, time spent by workers that could otherwise be wasted in the office.
I decide to continue on my normal route. These road signs in general tend to have a low credibility, and I’m fairly confident this is yet another one offering misguided information.
As I continue my drive, this belief is borne out by other signs I’m passing along the way. “FOOD — NEXT EXIT” reads one posting, and soon I see that it’s not food at all, but a Taco Bell. Another sign says “SPEED LIMIT — 60 m.p.h.”, and I look no further than my own speedometer, indicating 78, to see that couldn’t possibly be right. Other tiny green signs whiz by each mile or so reading simply “84,” “85,” etc.; 84-what or 85-who is never disclosed.
For six or seven miles, my commute is continuing at its normal pace. If anything, cars are going faster than normal, this being a Saturday when most people with any sense are off. I’m riding in the second lane from the right on this four-lane highway, and faster motorists to my left are passing at rates that must approach 90.
Now I see another sign looming in the distance, this one orange and temporary and thus more likely to be accurate. It reads “LEFT THREE LANES CLOSED — MERGE RIGHT”.
A driver just ahead of me veers sharply to the right, making a guess that he’d fare better taking the exit ramp. Then another swerves off. I have only milliseconds to decide if I too should opt for the unknown challenges of an unfamiliar one-lane state road, or stick with the high-speed modern interstate.
These inevitably seem to become no-win decisions. If you get off and hit the back roads, it only takes the slightest slowdown there to convince you that you made the wrong choice, and should’ve stayed where you were. But regrets can be had with the other option as well, as I soon find out by deciding to stay on the highway.
At the top of the next incline, I see the tableau laid out before me. The two lanes farthest on the right are already bumper-to-bumper just a quarter-mile or so ahead. The left two lanes, meanwhile, are much more sparsely populated but still contain dozens of drivers looking to maintain their high speeds as long as possible before pulling in front of some hapless individual farther up the road.
Now I have another decision to make. Do I cut left, out of the queue of civilized, law-abiding people who understand that traffic rules are made in the interest of benefitting society as a whole? Or do I slow down, keep my place and wait my turn, all the while cursing those speed demons who jet past me?
There was a time when I’d opt to be the accelerating asshole. I always figured that the choice here boiled down to either being the hated, or doing the hating, and the former seemed easier on the blood pressure. You high-tail along, looking straight ahead so as not to make eye contact with those on the right you are passing. When the cones appear requiring your move to the through lane, then you look for a truck or clunker or other slower-moving vehicle to cut in front of.
These days, I’m more mature, and realize that staying in line is the right-if-frustrating thing to do. Soon, I’ve slowed to a crawl. I try not to watch as the drivers fly by on my left. Yes, they’ll make their destination a little ahead of me, but at what price? They’ll have to live with a slight feeling of remorse for up to five minutes, while my conscience will be clean. Except for the fiery collision I’m hoping they’ll encounter some day.
I creep along slowly, careful to keep in close contact with the car in front of me. The only thing more infuriating than watching the speeders pass is accidentally allowing one to merge immediately in front of me. With every start and stop, I snuggle up to that bumper ahead like it was Anne Hathaway.
I can make out some flashing lights in the distance, and soon see where the road is actually narrowing. We’ve not been given any clue as to the cause of the slowdown. I suspect it’s road construction of some sort, since it seems likely they’d choose a Saturday rather than snarl a weekday commute. I hope it’s work on the giant pothole I’ve hit several times in the area, or perhaps much-needed bridge maintenance.
Actually, what I really hope is something more exotic, something that might transport me away from my hum-drum commute into a bit of excitement. I’m not so callous as to wish for the multi-car pileup that results in various cool body parts being strewn about the median. But an Airbus 380 making an emergency landing on the highway would be very interesting, as would a giant sinkhole that sucks up all those people who’ve spent the last five minutes speeding past me.
We’re now past the chokepoint of the merge, and I can see a large crane set up near another of the interstate’s overhead signs. A blue panel is dangling from the crane. As it swings in the breeze, it turns enough so that I can tell what it is — a new sign being installed above the road.
This one reads:
“REST AREA/WELCOME CENTER 1 MILE AHEAD”
That’s it? That’s the reason the state has chosen to inconvenience hundreds of drivers on their way to work, or shopping, or a day at the water park? To tell us, in shiny reflective type, that there are some brochures and picnic areas just off the road up ahead?
All around us, our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. We continue to burn fossil fuels at outrageous rates while ignoring public transit and carpooling opportunities. Highway safety is at a critical juncture — we still need to figure a way to keep over 30,000 Americans from dying each year on the nation’s roadways.
And yet we can rest assured, as we sit idling in our cars, that signage directing the weary to a cup of coffee and the full-bladdered to a restroom will remain fresh and shiny.
Even if we can’t necessarily believe what the sign says.