Sep 27, 2014

To Infinity and Beyond

"Have you ever noticed... that anyone driving slower than you is
 an idiot?  And anyone driving faster than you is a MANIAC!"
                                                                             --George Carlin

"Some of these people think that by buying safe cars
 it excuses them the responsibility of having to learn
 how to DRIVE the f----n' thing!"                              --George Carlin

commentary by killre

For once, the guy in front of me not only saw the light go green the instant it happened, he knew what he wanted to do about it.  I was next in line, so I saw the whole thing.  We were in the lefternmost left-turn lane of perhaps the biggest secondary artery in these parts, catching our breath, having just run the gauntlet of a tight freeway interchange hard against a short block flanked on all sides by sizable shopping centers.  (Lefternmost, for use at intersections with more than one turn lane.)  It was a little after 8 a.m.

When we got the go, he tromped on it.  You might wonder how I know that.  Believe me, when I get to the end of this anecdote, you'll realized he must've tried to kick a hole in his firewall.  He made the two-by-two turn into the right-hand lane, cutting off an SUV.  He speeded past the orange-vested road workers --who were giving us all the stony stare from behind their cones-- at ten over the limit.  He blew straight through the end of a right-turn-only lane onto the far shoulder, yanked it into the thru lane while going around a curve, then came to a stop at the yield sign.  Not a rolling stop, mind you; a stop stop.  No reason; just stoppin' at the yield 'cause he was in such a hurry.  Then he completed the right turn and was gone.  At no point in any of this did he deign to signal.

He was driving a Prius.

I can't be the only one here who finds irony in that.

In the pantheon of latter-day makes and models, the image cast by Toyota's mousy gas/electric stands in some of the sharpest relief.  Whatever labels you mentally slap on that end of the spectrum likely depend on your political bent, but almost no-one can deny that the Prius, by dint of being the first truly popular example of its class, anchors said end.  The other end currently has no clear-cut commandant.  Some would point to the mid-life-crisis coupe or convertible with the breadbox-sized trunk and the full-throated roar.  For my money, though, it is the extra-big, always-shiny, suburbanite-owned pickup that never hauls any-thing, never tows anything, inevitably takes two or more parking spaces, and is basically the automotive equivalent of a customer-service rep who dons a cow-boy costume to go to the supermarket, where he literally shoves people aside on his way to the Caesar-salad kit.

I'll not claim to have chosen that metaphor with care, but I did choose it with purpose.  For some time now I've been both intrigued and consternated by the specific form of madness that too often takes hold of many of us whenever we get behind the wheel.  (I say us and we because, sadly, I am not immune.  In my case it is exclusively retaliatory, as if that's somehow better.  I am working hard to channel the unwelcome energy into excessively emotive eye-rolls-- and the silent invocation of certain ancient and particularly nasty spells.)

I think the phenomenon is some kind of temporary sociopathy.
Perhaps, in some cases, not so temporary.

Once upon a time, I likened cutting off a big rig in fast traffic and slamming on the brakes to entering a dive bar, approaching the biggest, meanest-looking hombre there, knocking the drink from his hand and then, just to clarify intent, shaking a strenuous middle finger about eight inches from his nose-- all on a whim.  Following that theme, if more people acted in person the way they do while driving, the shortage of medical personnel would approach national-emergency proportions.

Several months ago, Cadillac cut loose with a commercial geared toward com-batting, on behalf of their ELR, the same stigma certain people attach to the Prius.  Basically, the ad targeted red-blooded, red-meat-eating, red white and blue-waving red-staters with the message that it was possible to own a (red) hybrid and still be a swaggering, big-balled and boorish troglodyte.  Typically, they cheered; the spot was attention-gettingly brash and slyly effective, funny and ultimately harmless.  A very few rolled their eyes and muttered incantations; they thought it insidious.  I found it telling.

Curiously, there has not been a similar hue and cry over a more recent, admittedly more understated, car commercial that I find far more dangerous.  It makes being a motorized sociopath not just acceptable, but something to aspire to.  I give you the new Infinity Q50.

Let's break it down...
First, our mentally harried hero --let's call him "Richard" because form suggests some formality, as well as the avoidance of labeling him Dick-- takes off in his shiny, spanking-new sedan with all sorts of private, non-driving-related thoughts tumbling through his head until the moment the car reminds him to stay in his lane.  Personally, I don't know anyone incapable of thinking these thoughts without drifting sideways, but apparently the carmaker named its product the I.Q. 50 because it identifies the target demographic.

Safely back in his own lane, for now, Richard again becomes sociopathically self-absorbed.  A few miles on, he takes the time to signal a lane change, but either he doesn't bother to check his mirrors or he never bothered to adjust them, because he comes within inches of running a better driver off the road into a concrete barrier.  His reaction?  "Hoo, I thought it was clear."  This is akin to saying, "Whaddaya know, I almost killed somebody," in the same tone of voice most of us would use to mutter, "Huh, I'm out of floss."

Far from chagrinned, Richard then abandons all pretense of paying attention or of possessing any sense of responsibility.  No longer troubled by self-intoned trivialities (apparently the writers' brainstorming session was shorter than the ad itself), he simply stops. looking. at. the. road.  He is verily barreling toward the broad back-end of a very big, very visible van at a speed differential we can only hope will end this sociopathic putz here and now, but, alas, the I.Q. 50 is capable of braking itself.  Richard's reaction: "I didn't see that coming."  No, you didn't, and the video clearly shows why.  You weren't looking.

Richard then indulges in a self-satisfied smirk, the human animal's single most punch-worthy facial expression.  It says, "I know I'm a complete ass, but it's okay because I get away with it."

Safely rolling along a surprisingly open road once again (virtually all the other vehicles we see in the spot are ones with which Richard nearly collides; feel free to extrapolate what would happen in heavy traffic), it is time for a high-sticker-pricedly haughty narrator to drone of the I.Q. 50, "Its instinct to protect... leaves you free... to drive."  Too bad its drivers don't take advantage of that freedom.

This is just the latest instance of a trend that has concerned me for some time.  It began with anti-lock braking systems, negating the need for anyone to know anything more about emergency braking than Me stomp pedal!  History books often leave us with the impression that advances happen in easily discernible, all but revolutionary leaps.  We are nearly a decade and a half removed from Avery Brooks, whilst shilling for some now-forgotten advertiser, saying, "It's the year 2000... but where are the flying cars?"  While standard-issue flying cars may never come to pass, we are creeping, incrementally, with each relentless season, toward the day when all cars will drive themselves.  There are many who would point out that is inconsistent with, in fact the opposite of, freedom.  In the mean-time, each creeping increment, each bell-and-whistle driving aid added to the latest model diminishes us in some compensatory way-- not just as drivers, but as human beings.

P.S.... Bud "Smirk" Selig must go.

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