Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought

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“Commuter Crossroads”—Commuting by Car

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Driving Speaks Louder Than Bumper Stickers (Sep. 12, 2009).
Angels in the Fast Lane (July 19, 2009).
Help Eliminate Auto Theft (March 1, 2009).
Driving to Save Gas (May 25, 2008).
Drive the Speed Limit Day (Jan. 6, 2008).
Be Careful Driving in the Dark (Dec. 10, 2006).
Driving with a Police Escort (May 28, 2006).
Beware Aggressive Drivers (Apr. 16, 2006).
Put Kids First in School Zones (Jan. 22, 2006).
How We Encourage Teens to Speed (Aug. 7, 2005).
Are Virginia Drivers Becoming Like Their Northern Neighbors? (Oct. 27, 2002).

Driving Speaks Louder Than Bumper Stickers

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on Sep. 12, 2010, and is reproduced with permission.

Somebody was tailgating me as I was driving in the right-hand lane on U.S. 1—it happens five or ten times a day. But a few minutes later I was alongside the guy who was in such a hurry.

“What does that fish sign on your car mean?” I asked him.

“Jesus,” he answered.

“Then why were you tailgating me when I was obeying the speed limit?” I asked. “What church taught you to do that?”

“I wasn’t tailgating you, [cussword],” he answered.

“Did you learn that in church too?” I asked, and he turned away.

Earlier I had seen a pickup truck weaving from lane to lane and tailgating other people on U.S. 1. It sported a bumper sticker about the driver’s faith and guns. Another tailgater had a bumper sticker about community peace building. Other aggressive drivers I’ve seen had messages such as “Blessed be” and “Life is good.”

Still others had license plates with a message like “By faith” or “Praise the Lord” or “Praise God” or “Give back” or “Guide me”—not always spelled that way, given the limitations of license plates, but the intended messages were clear. The way they were driving gave another message entirely.

If I weren’t a Christian already, I would surely be discouraged from believing after encountering these religious messages coupled with hostile driving. If you drive like hell, who is going to believe that you’re on your way to heaven?

And you want someone to guide you? OK. Stop for red lights. Respect people who obey traffic laws. Obey them yourself (it’s in the Bible: see Romans 13).

I know that there are plenty of Christians who do obey the traffic laws and treat other drivers (and pedestrians) with respect. There’s even a Sacred Heart Auto League of people who try to drive in a way that makes up for the wicked driving of some others.

Lots of the courteous drivers don’t have a message on their cars. But yielding to bicycles and pedestrians—even if you think you have the right of way—says something. So does stopping short of a red light so another vehicle can get out of a driveway, or being considerate of a slow driver who may be from out of town and looking for a certain side street.

My brother, who lives in Massachusetts, which is infamous for crazy drivers, once told me he doesn’t get angry with drivers who get confused and suddenly change their minds about where to turn, for example: “So what? He made a mistake. I make mistakes all the time.”

Patience and courtesy send a message.

So if you’re going to advertise your faith, you’d better make sure that your actions are saying the same thing as your bumper sticker, because your driving is speaking far louder than the words on your car.

I thought I would get a lot of hate mail over this column, but all I got were amens until one aggressive driver presented this column to a court as evidence that she needed protection from me.

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Angels in the Fast Lane

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on July 19, 2009, and is reproduced with permission.

I was driving to church one Sunday morning, going north on U.S. 1, hanging onto the speed limit. As is usual on Sunday mornings, the road was relatively empty. As I got near the turn for our church, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a red pickup truck flying down the hill behind me. Now, for those who will not or cannot obey the speed limit, the government has thoughtfully provided another lane. (When I say, “Cannot obey the speed limit,” I am thinking, “No brakes.”) Those who roll along in the right lane going the speed limit because they want to do the right thing (Saint Paul called us “fools for Christ”) need not delay those in a hurry who have more urgent errands to run.

The driver of the red pickup, however, was not using the extra lane thoughtfully provided by the government. He raced up behind me and got close enough to have his front end remodeled if I should have to make an emergency stop for, say, a child or animal running into the road, and he stayed there as I rolled down the exit ramp. I tried to slow down gradually as I approached the stop sign, to avoid having that driver’s headlights installed in my back seat.

As soon as we were once again on a four-lane road, he roared past me and presently turned into another church’s parking lot. Maybe he was late for the service. Maybe he had an urgent call of nature. Maybe he was a choir member stuck on allegro.

Or maybe he was an angel! Angels are, as far as I know, exempt from traffic laws such as speed limits. Now, the man’s (or angel’s) driving did not seem particularly heavenly. But if he was driving a spiritual pickup truck, then he probably wasn’t endangering anyone. You can go a hundred miles an hour in a spiritual pickup truck and drive into a brick wall, or even through a brick wall, and not feel a thing. (I think.)

I wish I had stopped to watch in case that angel had done the brick wall thing. Anyway, I’m sure he must have been on an important mission from God to be in such a big hurry.

Now when I see vehicles roaring past me, particularly on the way to or from church, in that extra lane thoughtfully provided by the government, I realize that they might be driven by angels on important missions from God, although I’d hoped that angels wouldn’t use some of the gestures these drivers use. And I am thankful for the guardian angel who is riding with me.

When I see one of those drivers right behind me, however, I do try to slow down gradually for stop signs and red lights, just in case the pickup truck on my shoulder isn’t a spiritual one.

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Help Eliminate Auto Theft

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on March 1, 2009, and is reproduced with permission.

How can you keep your car from being stolen? Lock it. The Virginia State Police say that “half of all vehicles stolen are left unlocked.” Almost one in five stolen vehicles has the keys left in it. The State Police HEAT (Help Eliminate Auto Theft) program has more suggestions, but locking vehicles tops the list. Even if the vehicle itself doesn’t get stolen, leaving it unlocked makes it easier for a thief to steal valuables, such as a purse in plain sight or a GPS device.

Once you’ve taken care of the obvious (lock unattended vehicles, even if they’re unattended for only a minute), what else can you do?

Here are some other simple (and free) ways to protect a car from theft:

Permanently inscribe your car with its vehicle identification number (known as a VIN). Write it and your name and address with permanent marker under the hood or in the trunk. You can also get the VIN permanently etched into the windshield glass. Last year at Crime Prevention Day in Spotsylvania, the police offered this service free. (The windshield is one of the more expensive car parts to replace, so having your vehicle’s ID on the windshield creates a big expense—windshield replacement—for any would-be car thief.)

Hide business cards or address labels in the car to help prove your ownership if the vehicle is stolen. Business cards can be dropped down inside the doors next to the windows, and address labels can be attached under the floor mats or seats.

Never keep your title in the vehicle. It indicates proof of ownership. You don’t have to keep your registration in the glove compartment either (or even in the car); you just have to keep it with you while driving.

It may be worthwhile to invest in additional protection:

You could have an alarm installed. It attracts attention and buys time in an attempted car theft. “The longer it takes thieves to steal a vehicle, the more likely they are to be discouraged or caught,” says the HEAT fact sheet. But don’t get an alarm that’s overly sensitive. On several occasions I’ve been waiting at a train station and heard a car alarm go off every time a freight train went by and shook the ground. I wondered whether the car owner would have a dead battery by the end of the day.

You could get an anti-theft device installed to deter thieves. The police suggest using ignition cutoffs, fuel cutoffs, and steering wheel locks. Smart keys (which have a computer chip needed to start the vehicle) are expensive but efficient.

You could have a tracking system installed. If the vehicle is stolen, the signal from the device helps police find it.

Finally, the HEAT program has another way to stop car thieves: it offers rewards up to $25,000 for tips on auto theft, auto parts theft, chop-shop activity and carjacking. The HEAT hotline is 800-947-HEAT.

You can get more information on the HEAT program at or from the Virginia State Police, PO Box 27472, Richmond, Va., 23261-7472.

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Driving to Save Gas

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on May 25, 2008, and is reproduced with permission.

How much gas can you save by careful driving? Up to 20%, according to “Fuel Economy Focus,” a MotorWeek article by John Davis reproduced on the U.S. Energy Department’s website.

Using two identical cars but two driving styles, MotorWeek tested the cars on country roads, in stop-and go-traffic, and on freeways. The cars were wired to precisely measure “engine load, throttle position, and” revolutions per minute.

On a country road with hills, “there’s only so much you can do to maximize economy,” said Davis. The most important thing is “to maintain your momentum.” Speeding up only to slow down again wastes energy. Dennis Smith of the Department of Energy (MotorWeek’s careful driver) recommended driving smoothly, as if your mother were in the car. He used 4% less fuel on the country roads than the other driver, “Hurricane” Henry Kopacz.

Even though country roads offer few chances for economy, the open highways are “where most of us do our most inefficient driving,” said Davis. He pointed out that “traveling 10 or 15 miles per hour above the speed limit … can rob your fuel economy by up to 20%.… Weaving in and out of traffic, not using the highest gear, jumping on and off the throttle, and generally not keeping a steady-state speed are also shortcuts to the nearest gas station.” On the open highway, careful driver Smith got over 24 miles per gallon, Hurricane Henry just 17.

In city driving, as on country roads, there is less opportunity to economize. “Avoid quick starts and hard stops, always combine short trips, and plan your route to avoid backtracking, congested areas and hills,” said Smith. Also, “slow down well in advance of red lights.”

Excess weight (such as junk in the trunk) and underinflated tires also waste gas.

Cutting gas consumption 20% with smart driving sounds good. How about improving mileage 100%? With hypermiling, some drivers claim to achieve just that. Hypermiling “techniques range from the straightforward—driving at a constant speed—to the more outlandish methods, such as pushing your vehicle,” wrote Lynle Donnely in the Johannesburg, South Africa, Mail & Guardian. Pushing your vehicle? Yes, at least to move it out of a garage to wash it, for example. In Europe, hypermiling is known as eco-driving, and its practitioners are “equally concerned with the decrease in emissions that can be achieved by greater fuel efficiency,” wrote Donnely.

Eco-driving uses “some basic principles of defensive driving,” such as “leaving a greater following distance between your car and any vehicle in front of you” and observing “things happening up to 15 to 20 seconds ahead,” Donnely said.

“Hyper” indicates extremity, and some hypermilers do almost anything to save gas while driving, such as choosing a route that is sheltered from the wind and not parallel parking if an alternative is available.

But there’s another “sure-fire way to save fuel,” said MotorWeek’s Davis. “Commit to driving less often: Carpool to work or school, and consider walking or biking for short trips.”

Those are a lot easier than pushing your car.

You can find more, sensible tips for economizing on fuel online at

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Drive the Speed Limit Day

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Jan. 6, 2008, and is reproduced with permission.

“Keep your speed at 65 mph and you can cut the rising cost of a fill-up, ease the angst of the commute and provide a bigger safety cushion,” wrote Roadshow columnist Gary Richards of the San Jose Mercury News. Since June 2007, he has been promoting the first Friday of each month as Drive the Speed Limit Day, “an idea hatched by” his readers, who “say keeping to the posted speed limit Friday is about something much bigger than burning less fuel. It’s also about saving lives.” He pointed out that “since 1968, when the [California Highway Patrol] began tracking day-to-day fatalities, there have been only three days when no one was killed on California roads.”

Speeding hurts the environment too, he wrote: “Speeding can cause a vehicle to operate for long periods putting out high degrees of smog.”

“Speeds above 60 mph can especially be a drag,” wrote Orrin Cook in his TerraPass blog. He cited “U.S. Department of Energy estimates that for … every 5 mph above 60, the decreased fuel efficiency is the equivalent of paying a $0.20 surcharge on each gallon.”

To judge by the comments of Roadshow readers in San Jose, obeying the speed limit once a month isn’t very hard, and they find it worthwhile.

“Wow, ‘Drive The Speed Limit Day’ was surprisingly easy, with fewer people tailgating me than when I go 70-75 mph,” commented Roadshow reader Jennifer Silveira.

Maybe people are nicer in California. I’ve found that in the Fredericksburg area and almost everywhere north of here, if you obey the speed limit you will be hollered at, honked at, cursed at and crowded. I obey the speed limit anyway, and stop signs, red lights and school zones too. I’ve seen speeding havoc happen in front of my eyes, including a car spinning—yes, rotating—out of control and a car smashing through the gates of a railroad crossing. I’ve seen the results of crashes and heard many more stories from a buddy who has decades of experience with a rescue squad. I’ve also seen what speeders do to pedestrians and bicyclists, especially children: speeding robs them of safety and peace when not robbing them of life and limb. I’ve decided not to be part of that, and I’ve concluded that I don’t have a right to exempt myself from the law.

Drive the Speed Limit Day? For me and some other people, it’s every day. It saves gas, it promotes safety, it pollutes less, and it gives some respect to people who are walking or bicycling and really sparing the environment and consuming less gas.

The next Drive the Speed Limit Day in California is Feb. 1. Virginia could give it a try. Gas is expensive enough, the air is dirty enough, and the carnage on the roads is deadly enough to motivate some people to make a difference. And, yes, one person can make a difference. Cook estimated that he would put 152 to 590 pounds less of greenhouse gases into the air each year by reducing his speed to the posted limit. He also calculated that he could save anywhere from $17 to $67 a year in fuel costs. If that doesn’t sound like much money, try giving what you don’t spend on gas to the Fredericksburg Food Bank or another local charity. Ask what they could do with $67 or even $17.

“This isn’t just about gas,” wrote Silveira. “It’s about treating strangers with some consideration as you share the road.”

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Be Careful Driving in the Dark

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Dec. 10, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

What you can’t see can still hurt you. As we approach the shortest days of the year, those of us who drive are spending more of our driving time in the dark. It’s easy to forget that you can’t see all the hazards you might encounter.

I heard one driver say that he ignores the same stop sign every morning because he can see whether there’s anything coming. (He said he finally got ticketed.) The fact is that in the dark, you cannot see everything you might have to stop for.

Number one on the list of things that might hurt you is other cars. In the last week of November I counted five cars traveling at night without headlights. I don’t usually count them, but when I’d seen three by Tuesday I realized I was encountering more than usual.

When you approach an intersection at night, if a car is coming the other way without headlights, you probably won’t be able to see it until you’ve stopped and looked both ways. I always look both ways because another thing I see often enough is vehicles going the wrong way on a one-way street or driving on the wrong side of a highway. Even if you have the right of way and the other driver has a stop sign or red light, don’t assume you can see all the cross traffic: a vehicle might be approaching without lights. Don’t assume it will stop, either. An awful lot of drivers in this area are in too big a hurry to obey stop signs or red lights.

The other hazard you can’t see is pedestrians. At this time of year, I not only do more driving in the dark, I do even more walking in the dark. I assure you that even at 5 a.m. there are people out walking and jogging. If you’re driving and have your headlights on, we pedestrians can see you coming. But maybe you can’t see us if we’re waiting at the corner to cross a street. But you can see the red light or stop sign, right?

Worse, sometimes we can’t see the traffic lights. Where Lafayette Boulevard crosses Princess Anne and Caroline Streets, the traffic lights point only in the direction of approaching traffic. Pedestrians walking the other direction never get a green light. In fact, the lights change only for motor vehicles. So we have a dilemma even walking in the same direction as the traffic: cross when there’s no traffic coming or only when there’s traffic present to trigger the traffic light. Give a thought to us as you approach.

And if you’re going to suddenly turn and cross the sidewalk to enter a driveway, we don’t know that unless you use your turn signal. Just because you don’t see us, don’t assume we’re not there.

On William Street at Sunken Road there’s a flashing yellow light at the pedestrian crossing. It’s next to the university, and even at 6 a.m., long before the first class, there are people crossing the street. Yet one morning I saw a truck barreling down the hill, well over the speed limit, and driving on the wrong side of the road too. On the back was a placard asking, “How’s my driving?” I called the 800 number to answer that question.

There are other places where pedestrians are an afterthought or not thought of at all, but people on foot still need to cross the road. Four-Mile Fork and the shopping center at College Avenue and Jefferson Davis Highway come to mind. Remember that pedestrians may get a walk sign lasting only a few seconds (if there’s a walk signal at all) and even then may have to share the intersection with turning traffic. I don’t deny that some pedestrians behave recklessly, but when driving, we have the greater responsibility for others’ safety, especially in the dark.

Remember, what you can’t see can hurt you—and can hurt somebody else too. As the December holidays approach, don’t just spread a little cheer. Spread a little safety.

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Driving with a Police Escort

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on May 28, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

Driving down the Interstate with a police escort made traveling a piece of cake—at least for a while. I was driving the second car in a funeral procession in New Jersey; there was a hearse up front, a police car in the rear, and five or six cars in between. We all had headlights and flashing lights turned on. From the church to the military cemetery was about a hundred miles.

At first, all the other drivers yielded to us, even though we crept up the main street while some cars were still bouncing over speed bumps in the church parking lot. We got onto the Interstate and stayed in the right lane, doing somewhat less than the speed limit as the hearse followed a dump truck in the right lane. I noticed a few cars and even a semi-trailer stop on entrance ramps to let the funeral procession go by.

Before long, though, we started to encounter drivers in a hurry who just cut into the procession. At one point, I remarked to my wife, “That’s the third one.” But soon there were too many to count, and there were so many cars and trucks blithely cutting through the procession that I couldn’t see the hearse up ahead, the police car to the rear, or any of the other cars in the procession. The police officers in the car bringing up the rear tried to help herd us back together, and when we fell behind, they made room for us and waved us around.

On the New Jersey Turnpike, we managed to regroup, and we headed down the highway at 65 miles per hour. It was easy to see why the pike is notorious for chain collisions; I saw one group of seven cars and trucks pass us, all tailgating one another and all doing over 70. If the first truck had lost a tire cap, there would almost certainly have been a pileup.

Suddenly the procession shifted to the right lane and entered a rest area. I and another driver were separated from the rest by a big truck and couldn’t make the exit ramp.

Before the trip, I’d asked for directions to the cemetery in case some extreme circumstances such as a flat tire separated us from the procession, but by now I had learned that there are 50 ways to get separated from a funeral procession.

With nowhere to go but the next exit, we two lost sheep headed toward the cemetery and arrived long before everyone else. When the police arrived, I thanked them for the escort.

“Any time,” said the sergeant.

Ever the smart aleck, I asked, “How about tomorrow on my way to work?”

I knew that it wouldn’t do much good anyway, seeing how much respect the funeral procession had gotten.

“We wanted to give you two cars,” the sergeant said, but he didn’t have two that were in condition for a 200-mile round trip. The cruisers were being used around the clock, seven days a week, and don’t last more than about eight years. He said he told his officers not to get into a chase because they’d lose unless they were chasing a street sweeper, and then only if it had the brushes down. Another smart aleck.

Wisecracks aside, I’m sure this lack of respect for funerals isn’t peculiar to New Jersey. All over the Fredericksburg area, I see drivers who won’t stop for red lights, stop signs, fire trucks, or ambulances. I can imagine how politely they yield to funerals.

If, while driving, you encounter a funeral procession, remember that the drivers in it may not be familiar with the way to their destination and may well be distracted by grief. Be courteous and compassionate and give them the right of way.

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Beware Aggressive Drivers

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Apr. 16, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

“Beware Aggressive Drivers,” read the black-and-yellow sign. We were heading north on U.S. 15, about to enter Shamokin Dam, Pa. Another sign warned that the next six miles were an area with a high rate of accidents caused by drunk drivers. As if on cue, as we descended the ramp, a pickup truck passed us on the shoulder. Drunken, aggressive or both, it did not matter: when you’re on the receiving end it’s just one more good deed (careful driving) punished.

Route 15 changed to four lanes of honking, hustling, tailgating traffic racing from one red light to the next as cars entered and exited the restaurants, stores and motels on both sides of the highway. In fact, it was a lot like Fredericksburg except with warning signs.

Although I’ve seen a lot of Pennsylvania, these warning signs were new to me. I don’t know whether they help, but it was interesting to see aggressive driving formally acknowledged as a hazard. Near York, Pa., on U.S. 30, I saw a sign warning that there was “aggressive driver imaging” for the next two miles. It didn’t deter some people from aggression.

Curiously, I did see an instance where a traffic law was obeyed. (The fact that it seemed unusual says a lot about how chaotic the roads have become.) Where U.S. 15 narrowed to two lanes for a few miles as it passed through some small towns, the speed limit dropped to 45 or even 35. Signs warned drivers to keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead. In my rearview mirror I could see a line of neatly spaced vehicles. When the road widened to four lanes again, one driver, while passing, took the opportunity to express resentment that I had been obeying the speed limit. On the way home the next day, though, the “keep a safe distance” signs were ignored (as were the speed limit and other traffic laws) by a young woman who followed as close as possible for miles through town. Sound familiar to those of you who drive through the neighborhoods of Fredericksburg? If it would lead to tickets for the aggressors, I would definitely like to see aggressive driver imaging in the 35 zone by Massaponax Outlet Center.

Besides different warning signs, another thing I noticed on my interstate trip was that the roads in Maryland and Pennsylvania seemed much less congested except around Baltimore and Washington. In Virginia, U.S. 15 is mostly a winding, two-lane road with some sharp curves and steep grades. As soon as we crossed the Potomac into Maryland the road was straighter and, before long, wider. Once it became a four-lane highway, it stayed four lanes all the way to Harrisburg, even though we were traveling through mostly rural countryside. The idea in Maryland and Pennsylvania seems to be to build four lanes whether you need them or not. On U.S. 15 north of Harrisburg, signs warned of heavy truck traffic, but the road was almost empty on a weekday afternoon until we got to the purported vortex of aggressive driving in Shamokin Dam.

Not everything in Maryland and Pennsylvania was well maintained, however. On one stretch of Route 283 in Pennsylvania, I had just slowed from 55 to 50, because the pavement was so rough, when the speed limit jumped to 65. A lot of the traffic was going slower than that, maybe because of the rain. Pennsylvania has made one big mistake compared to Virginia, however, and it involves highways and river access. The Susqehanna is a wide, beautiful river, but it is cut off from many of the towns on its western shore. For 20 miles or more, U.S. 15 occupies the western bank, with nary a traffic light or bridge for people who live nearby to get close to the river. I’d expected riverside parks where we could enjoy the scenery and gaze at the river, but I didn’t see even one. Fortunately our area isn’t in danger of having a highway built along the bank of the Rappahannock, and we have a few spots from which to enjoy the Rappahannock and the Potomac.

We don’t have signs warning about aggressive drivers, but I guess anybody who drives in this area will discover them pretty quickly.

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Put Kids First in School Zones

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Jan. 22, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

I passed through three school zones while taking one of my daughters to the doctor earlier this month. Usually the driving portion of my commute doesn’t involve school zones or school buses. I’m halfway to Arlington before the school buses are on the road, and the pupils are doing their homework before I get home.

Those of us who obey speed limits may be in a small minority, but I’d hoped for more company in the school zones with the yellow lights flashing and school buses arriving at the schools. Yet as soon as I slowed to 25 miles per hour for the first school zone, a speed demon was tailgating me no more than ten feet behind my car. “Where is this guy going in such a hurry?” I wondered. The answer: to school. There were two children in the back seat of his car, and he turned into the school driveway. “What kind of person would hassle other people for obeying a speed limit outside the very school his own children attend?” I wondered next. I can only guess at his thoughts and motivation, but I would bet big money that caring about other people isn’t one of them.

When I got to the next school zone and once again slowed to 25, I instantly picked up another tailgater. I pointed to the yellow flashing lights, and she sped around me, waving. Her van had a “Kids First” license plate. Probably a misspelling—it should have said, “Kids Last.” Cheerfully speeding in a school zone turns “Kids First” into a sick joke.

In the third school zone, I wasn’t hassled for obeying the speed limit, but I seemed to be the only one going as slow as 25. At 25 miles per hour, it will take you 36 seconds to pass through a school zone a quarter mile long. At 35, it will take you 26 seconds. Those 10 seconds have a price, mostly paid by school children:

The school bus drivers turning in an out of the school driveway must deal with speeding traffic.

Any children trying to cross the road to school have less time to cross safely.

The environment around the schools is a little more lawless—hardly what kids need.

School children learn how little their lives are worth to you.

If their safety isn’t worth 10 seconds of your time, your priorities are really messed up. The rest of us would be blessed if you lost your license soon, before you hurt yourself or anyone else.

I realize that the police and sheriffs are busy. The Fredericksburg area isn’t Mayberry. We have murders, drug deals and dogs mauling people. There may be more school zones than there are officers on duty at any given time. And maybe no child has been hurt or killed in a school zone lately.

Let’s not wait for that. The pain felt by the child’s family and friends won’t be over in 10 seconds. It will last a lifetime. In fact, even if no child is injured or killed, the lessons we teach will last a lifetime. We can teach them that their safety is worth 10 seconds of our time. It is worth getting up earlier and allowing more time to get to work. It is worth getting to work late or missing a train, if it comes to that.

Let’s make sure our priorities are in order. Let’s really put kids first.

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How We Encourage Teens to Speed

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Aug. 7, 2005, and is reproduced with permission.

Why do some teenagers speed? Wrecks and deaths have torn at the social fabric of the Fredericksburg area in the past few years, and a lot of people have addressed the question with more questions and some answers: Don’t teens realize that speeding kills? Yes, but they think it won’t happen to them. Don’t they know to slow down and exercise caution when road conditions are poor? Yes, but they are inexperienced at handling motor vehicles under poor conditions.

I have another answer that partly accounts for speeding teens: they will be punished if they don’t speed. Anyone who obeys the speed limit can be counted on to be hassled for it on virtually every trip. The punishment for obeying the speed limit is vastly more certain than for disobeying.

Those of you who obey traffic laws know what I’m talking about. If you drive 25 miles per hour through your neighborhood, if you do 65 in the right-hand lane on I-95, or if you drive 35 or another posted limit in the right-hand lane on the U.S. 1 bypass and there’s any other traffic around, you probably won’t get very far before an impatient driver is tailgating you, dangerously close, and often honking, flashing high-beams, giving you rude hand gestures, cursing at you or calling you names—and sometimes all of those at once. (If you don’t believe me, try not exceeding the speed limit for just one day.)

To obey traffic laws in the face of this, you must be stubborn, serenely virtuous, or oblivious. I’m stubborn.

To disobey the traffic laws, all you have to do is go with the flow. It appears that you can travel at any speed you like for long periods—maybe months—and not be punished by anyone or reap the consequences of your behavior, until the night you straddle the yellow line on a curve and find a car coming the other way, or crest a hill and find stopped traffic on the other side, or find an animal or child entering the street when you don’t have time to stop.

One day years ago I was driving on a winding suburban road with a speed limit of 25, and I was hanging onto the speed limit. I came around a curve and found a dog lazily walking in the road. If I’d been going 26, the dog probably would have died—and it could have been a child I’d encountered, not a dog, though it would have been bad enough to kill someone’s pet to save a minute or two of traveling.

I learned a lot about driving from a friend who has been a rescue squad member for decades. His driving is almost always defensive, cautious and legal. He doesn’t risk his life or anyone else’s to save time. I decided that his was the kind of driving I wanted to imitate.

If we want teens to drive safely, then we need to teach them that we should obey the traffic laws even if they can be broken without punishment most of the time. We also need to show them that this is a choice not only about how fast we go or how cautious we want to be; it is about what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to be like the people who are rude and hostile to anyone who interferes with their speeding? Or do we want to be like my friend the ambulance driver who cares enough about other people’s lives and safety to put them first?

We need to teach these things by example. I would not like drivers—teenage or otherwise—to be oblivious, but serenely virtuous would be nice, and when it comes to doing the right thing, I will gladly settle for stubborn.

But we also need to change the driving environment so that teenagers are not punished for obeying the speed limit.

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Are Virginia Drivers Becoming Like Their Northern Neighbors?

By Steve Dunham

This column originally appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on October 27, 2002, and is reproduced by permission.

Are Virginia drivers getting as bad as their northern neighbors? A couple of road trips to New England in the past year gave me an opportunity for comparison. I drove a few thousand miles in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. A friend from Pennsylvania also took a road trip to New England and sent me some comments. Our impressions are anecdotal, not scientific, but I have lived in Virginia 11 years, was born in New York, and also lived in New Jersey and Massachusetts, so I’ve accumulated some experience.

First, a word about how driving has changed in Virginia since 1991: When I moved here, people seemed more patient, more accommodating. Tailgating, honking, and highbeam-flashing seemed less common, and nearly everyone seemed to let emergency vehicles go by. Also, drivers often yielded to pedestrians. Now, I don’t have to tell you how common aggressive driving is, and the hostility of some drivers extends to pedestrians. I’ve seen drivers actually yelling at pedestrians who were merely crossing the street with a green light, and the drivers who do yield sometimes get honked at by the driver behind them.

Have things really changed? Maybe there was just less traffic, and an awful lot of the new traffic consists of former Northerners, and a lot of those, it seems, are always in a hurry—they don’t have time to be patient and accommodating. Is Virginia’s road culture being overwhelmed by the North?

First, a Pennsylvanian’s perspective on the legendary drivers of Massachusetts. My friend Joe Giachero wrote to me:

  1. Every Massachusetts driver wants to pass every out-of-state car, no matter how fast the out-of-state car is driving.
  2. The preferred side for passing is on the right.
  3. Tailgating is permitted until a suitable (at least one car length) gap opens up on the right to pass.
  4. Right-hand turns must be made from the extreme left-hand lane, and vice-versa.
  5. Use of turn signals is strictly prohibited.
  6. Use of the one-finger sign of peace is mandatory.
  7. Minimum speed is 120% of the speed limit posted (except when encountering out-of-state motorists, when the minimum speed is 110% of the out-of-state car, regardless of posted speed limit—see item 1.)
In Virginia, these are common practices but far from universal, and in fairness, I will point out that many of the kindest, most generous people I have encountered were in Massachusetts. But Joe, who actually attended a school for race car drivers, is right: Massachusetts is, on the whole, a hell of a place to drive. My own experiences bear this out, and I will add that Connecticut is very like Massachusetts. New Hampshire was about the same, and Vermont not a whole lot better.

In New Jersey, the word yield does not appear to be in the dictionary. Maryland and Delaware were not much of an improvement.

The surprise on my trips was New York, though I did not pass through New York City, which is another story. Driver behavior in New York state was not that bad.

A story in the Seattle Times, however, made me wonder whether a state-by-state comparison is moot. It included rules such as “Follow the car in front of you very closely if traffic is thick, and never let anyone into the space in front of you—this space is sacred” and “Anyone driving slower than you is obviously an idiot. Anyone driving faster than you is clearly insane. Anyone who passes you and then slows down is therefore an insane idiot.” Also, the writer felt that Seattle drivers were clearly superior to California drivers.

But is Virginia any better? My conclusion: maybe, a little. I don’t think that the Northern drivers are much worse. I just think that there are more of them crowded together, and I think that’s the nub of it: how do we drive when things get a little tough?

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