On Thursday morning I started driving from Florida to Austin, Texas. My Cadillac was as full as it could be while still being able to make a 1,000 mile journey. I was a little stressed because the lady whose house I had arranged to rent had backed out of the arrangement. I was headed to Texas with nowhere to stay, but the wheels were already in motion, as they say. Texas or bust.
Somewhere between Tallahassee and Pensacola I had an epiphany and I began tailgating other drivers.
If you look the bottom left corner of my driver’s license you’ll see the phrase “Safe Driver.” I like to say that I drive like an old person. I’m not a skilled driver per se, but I am very careful. I have never had so much as a speeding ticket in all the years I’ve been driving. I drive slowly and defensively. I slow down at intersections to look for oncoming traffic, even if I have the green light. I leave plenty of distance between myself and the car ahead. I don’t want to risk any damage should something go wrong on the road.
I used to drive a Chrysler Gem to get around town, which is an electric car throttled by government mandate to only 26 miles per hour, which is slow even on residential streets. Other drivers would get impatient with me, they would tailgate me and overtake the car, even if it meant going into oncoming traffic to do it. They would always accelerate quickly from there, vindicated and free.
A minute later, without fail, I would pull up right next to them again, while they were stopped at a traffic light, or if they had hit slower traffic. I learned from my Gem that it never paid to be impatient on residential streets. Speeding and tailgating are pointless even if you value the extra 10 seconds you might gain from them, since the traffic system itself will prevent you from realizing those gains.
Just relax and go with the flow of traffic, you’ll get there in due time. Don’t stress out about jams or detours, just enjoy the moment, and get where you’re going when the opportunity presents itself.
One of my rules with long distance highway travel is that I never exceed 9 miles an hour over the speed limit. Statistically, I’m unlikely to be pulled over for going only 9 miles an hour over, as many state statues have the threshold of “lucrative citation” set at 10 miles per hour over. I also tend to stick with packs of cars moving that speed, like a herd of gazelle hoping to avoid the blue and red flashing lion lurking in the underbrush on the shoulder of the highway.
When you’re traveling 17 hours, those extra nine miles per hour add up to about 150 miles over the course of the trip, which is about 15% of the total journey. In that case, it makes sense to push the limits in a calculated and systematic way.
I was driving West on I-10 through the Florida panhandle, with my cruise control set to exactly 79 miles per hour. Every time I would see a slower moving car in the fast lane, I’d either slow down the cruise control or just turn it off well in advance, so I could maintain several car lengths of space between us. The distance made me comfortable and ensured we wouldn’t disturb each other or collide.
I would be annoyed because I wanted to make good time, but these people were in my way, going more slowly than I wanted to go. And their speed determined my speed. You know those laws that were once enforced, that people know about, but that seem optional these days? I waited for the space I needed to pass the slow drivers on the right, so I could continue my 79 mile per hour cruise. And I would stew the whole time I was going only 67 or 71 miles per hour.
At the first available opportunity, I’d speed ahead with vindication and freedom.
I was approaching another slow-moving vehicle in the fast lane, and I couldn’t go around him. I reflexively reached for the cruise control switch, and I thought,
“Doesn’t this guy know that some people want to go fast in the fast lane?”
And as soon as I asked, a smart part of me retorted,
“No. You’re staying four or five car lengths back and matching his speed. How is he supposed to know you want to go faster?”
Oh shit. Tailgating as a public service: “Excuse me kind sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m in an awful hurry, would you mind if I passed?”
So I didn’t flick the cruise control off. I edged out of my comfort zone, and sped toward his car. I got within a car length, and just as I was going to lose my nerve, he slid into the slow lane to let me pass.
And I was so grateful to him. Letting me pass in that moment held a strange emotional weight, like he acknowledged that I was driving forward at a speed he wasn’t comfortable with, and he accommodated my path forward just because I “asked” by pressuring him just enough for him to notice I was there.
From that moment on the panhandle forward, when I knew the other driver could get over for me, I would drive close enough for them to notice me and they would move. I would thank them in my mind every time. In heavier traffic, when movement wasn’t possible, I simply turned cruise control off and went with the flow. When other even faster moving traffic bore down on my rear bumper, I would happily move over for them as well: you’re going faster and taking bigger risks than I personally would, but best of luck to you!
By the way, I’m not talking about driving.
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