Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thoughts From My Youth

I grew up in Southern California, in a house on a hill that overlooked Interstate 10. `

We could hear the tires as endless streams of traffic flowed by. The freeway was like a living thing. It sang a loud and busy song during rush hours, and a lonely and mournful one before dawn that was punctuated by gaps of silence. The sound of the freeway was a background presence that ebbed and flowed across our days.

I would often wonder at the ceaselessness of it. Where are all those people going? Each vehicle representing one person or more, caught up in their own activities, thinking their own thoughts, each being pressed by their own individual, and yet also collective concerns. It filled me with wonder, and knowing that I was only observing a mile or so of the freeway, the thought of it quickly became too big for me to wrap my mind around.

“Our” part of I-10 was at the foot of a grade. They widened and improved the freeway when I was about ten years old, expanding it from a six lane to a eight lane freeway, and an extra slow lane on the uphill parts on each side of the hill.

With all those lanes to choose from to go over the hill on, nearly every truck grinding up that hill would collect two or three automobiles behind it. They would be unable to find a big enough gap in the next lane to merge into so that they could go around. It seemed surprising to me, because it was so consistently common.

The grade shouldn’t have been a surprise to any of them, because it was visible to travelers for more than three miles during their approach to it. Just as it is now, there was no concept of “stay right except to pass”. Every lane was “available” for the motorist to choose from. So why were so many drivers caught behind slow trucks in the rightmost lane?

Some of the hapless motorists were caught out attempting to pass traffic on the right. They had overestimated the trucks speed and were unable to reach the gap in the next lane they were aiming for. Their own aggressive driving backfired on them.

Most, however, were just not paying enough attention to avoid being in the right-most lane at the base of the hill.

Were the drivers of the cars in the second lane being rude to not merge left and provide a gap for the trapped motorists behind the trucks? Do they have some obligation to help them out of their jam? Should there be an expectation that they do so?

In short, what is the obligation of a lawful traveler on the public street to make it easier to for faster traffic to overtake him?

There is the legal requirement to maintain one’s course and not speed up then being passed, but is there some other unwritten moral obligation? What is it, and who gets to determine what that moral obligation is? What is the principle behind such a notion?


  1. From age 2 to 8, I lived 1/4 mile from interstate 83. I remember that sound.

    When I was 8 we moved to rural PA. The crickets were so loud! They kept me up at night for weeks.


    Yeah, it's interesting how some people can't observe conditions more than 6 feet off their noses. And then they get mad at the slow vehicle they get stuck behind... truck, bus, garbage truck... but they feel especially justified if that vehicle is a bicycle.

  2. Our first house in Southern California was close to the San Diego Freeway. It was a steady low roar that went on day and night.

    In many Western States, road users have much more than an unwritten moral obligation to facilitate passing by pulling over. For example, see page 29 of the 2009 California Driver's Handbook, at:

  3. @keri -- damn straight --- > ".. but they feel especially justified if that vehicle is a bicycle."

    @chip -- nice recollection of your younger days from 70 years ago :) decency/politeness/courteousness can not be taught by any law!