I was almost home after work Friday as I prepared to exit the interstate. I inched into the right lane and immediately had to slam on the brakes to avoid rear-ending the truck in front of me.
Farther ahead, I could see other cars swerving and skidding to rapidly slow down. About a quarter-mile up the road, leading the column of about two dozen vehicles like a mother duck leading her brood across a meadow, was a white minivan, flashers blinking as it chugged along at about 30 m.p.h.
The posted minimum speed on the interstate is 45 m.p.h. However, it seems there is an unwritten rule of the road that, as long as you turn on your flashers, you can get away with anything.
Parking in a handicapped spot? Okay, if you activate the emergency lights.
Stopped in the middle of your neighborhood to chat with a passing friend? Just make sure your rear-end lights are blinking.
Speeding to the hospital to deliver your cousin and his sprained ankle to the emergency room? No faster than 140, if you don’t mind — just be sure you have your flashers on.
Foiled Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was well aware of this loophole in traffic law. When he tried in 2009 to blow up his Pathfinder after filling it with explosives and abandoning it on Broadway, he was careful to activate the hazard lights. Police initially dismissed the threat because the flashers throbbed so rhythmically and vibrantly. However, when smoke began to pour from the passenger compartment, they called in the bomb squad and averted what would have been a major attack.
“But I had the flashers on,” Shahzad later testified during his trial on terror charges.
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” responded federal judge Arthur Cox.
Cox almost threw out the case at that point, until prosecutors reminded him that the USA Patriot Act, passed in the wake of 9/11, gave authorities extraordinary powers to halt car-bombers even if they had their blinkers on.
The folly of granting immunity to all kinds of offenses just because someone pushed a button on their dashboard is becoming more widely acknowledged. While I objected strenuously to the slow-poke minivan I encountered Friday, part of me wishes to see the concept not only maintained but expanded.
What if we could wear flashing lights on either hip which we could activate every time we found ourselves in a period of stress or uncertainty? We could warn those around us that we we’re momentarily unstable and should be given wide berth.
Think how marvelous it would be to easily publicize that we shouldn’t be approached while heading to the breakroom at work. To warn our child’s teacher that the parent conference they’ve requested will not erupt into a screaming match as long as they treat us gingerly. To urge those in front of us at Starbucks to make way and let us place our order first.
Some of this automotive-inspired technology is already entering general use. A few weeks back, I encountered one of those motorized shopping carts used by our inordinately massive citizens in the grocery store. The lady was attempting to make a three-point turn in the middle of the frozen food aisle. Whenever she threw the vehicle into reverse, a loud beep emanated from the chair.
As the maneuver progressed, other shoppers clogged the row waiting for the opportunity to pass. Most were polite enough to pretend to be looking for Hot Pockets while they waited. Eventually, the beeping stopped and the normal traffic flow was able to resume. The humongous fat lady didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of explaining to all who waited that she deserved their sympathy and, if they wouldn’t mind, that pack of frozen french fries in our cart as well.
I’d like to propose some other ideas we can borrow from our Auto-American friends to use as we amble through our daily lives.
Spoilers — These aerodynamic devices on the back trunk of sports cars could also be affixed just above human butts, so that runners and fast walkers can maintain stability as they proceed. (I, for one, often fear my speedy jogging pace will lift me right off the pavement without the downforce provided by a spoiler.)
Turn signals — Sure, most drivers don’t use these properly to begin with, either ignoring them completely or leaving them on long after the urge to turn has passed. (I’m looking at you, grandma). But think how effective they’d be on the sidewalks of Manhattan, as a way for busy businesspeople and befuddled tourists to signal their intent to make a sharp right into the subway without being killed by a passing bike messenger.
Horn — If someone walking ahead of you isn’t moving fast enough, give them either a brief beep or a full-throated “ah-ooo-ga” to urge them out of the way. (I know what some of you will say: “Wouldn’t saying ‘excuse me’ be more polite?” To which I would respond: “Why does that shuffling quartet from Iowa who’s never seen anything taller than a grain elevator deserve civility?”)
Headlights — Only cars and cats have the ability to emit a high-beam light out their “eyes” to illuminate the way in front of them. Why couldn’t humans be surgically altered, perhaps as part of their annual eye exam, so that photons come shooting out of our face, allowing us to pee more effectively in the dark?
Grill — This idea already has foothold among the hip-hoppier portions of our population, and could rapidly be expanded to others. Have all your low-tech natural teeth pulled and replaced with a shiny metallic grill. This will save on dental bills as well as improve your visibility as you swerve in and out of pedestrian traffic.
Trunk — Again, we can turn to our urban friends — who have long trumpeted the value of “junk in the trunk” — for guidance on how to give us more storage capacity than pockets and purses could ever hope to offer. If we could hollow out our too-ample rumps and use the space to keep gum, cellphones, checkbooks, cash, tissue, cigarettes, etc., our hands become more free to open doors, adjust our shorts and attack innocent bystanders with knives.
Computer diagnostics — I’d love to have a “check intestines” light come on every time I over-ate, or a heart symbol illuminate on the end of my nose to indicate I might be in need of an angioplasty. Cars have it so easy; just hook them up to the computer in the service bay and you immediately know what’s wrong. Health care costs would plummet if a simple stop at Pep Boys might head off a major cardiac event.
I call on Detroit and the medical establishment to join forces in this effort to bring humanity “up to spec.” With our manufacturing sector in the doldrums as our healthcare system booms uncontrollably, maybe President Obama can include these ideas in his jobs push.
And if they need the help, I’d be happy to write the owner’s manual. As long as I can beep, honk, screech or flash while I’m doing it.