Sunday, January 11, 2009


Not long ago, while driving on a long, flat stretch of freeway in central Wyoming, a reader from Salt Lake City faced a dilemma.

My reader, P.W., tries not to exceed posted speed limits, he says, for "ethical and safety considerations." Typically he stays in the right lane and watches as other drivers barrel by on the left.

That's what he did for most of the drive on the Wyoming freeway, which was divided, with two lanes running in each direction. The posted speed limit was 75 miles per hour, and even at that rate people were whizzing past P.W.

But then P.W. came to a stretch of at least 10 miles where road work was underway. The freeway narrowed to only one lane in each direction, and the posted speed limit was reduced to 50 miles per hour.

After a short period of driving at 50 miles per hour, P.W. noticed that, while there were no cars in front of him, a long line of cars was strung out behind him.

"It was clear," he writes, "that, by following what I thought was right, I was inconveniencing many other people."

So P.W. accelerated, violating his ethical beliefs and risking a speeding ticket -- in a construction area, no less, where fines are doubled.

"I let public pressure force me to go against my values," P.W. writes. "I'm sure it was the practical thing to do, but I'd like to have your take on the ethical viewpoint."

Public pressure can work in unusual ways. Once, while I was driving in Georgetown, a suburb of Washington, I made a right-hand turn when the traffic light was yellow. Awaiting me was a police officer who had already pulled over three or four drivers at the same intersection.

As she took out her ticket book, one of the other drivers shouted out his window, "Give him a ticket! Give him a ticket!"

Presumably he wanted me to have a ticket to match the one he already had received. He didn't get what he wanted, though: The officer looked over at the yelling man, looked down at her citation book and then stepped back. With an exaggerated, sweeping motion of her arms she directed me to drive on.

Public pressure, in the form of the other driver's shouting, apparently changed her mind about giving me a ticket.

In P.W.'s case, he knew that he was wrong to break the speed limit while driving through the construction zone on that Wyoming freeway. But the drivers lining up behind him made him feel that he was inconveniencing them and/or annoying them by keeping them from driving as quickly as they would ordinarily have been doing ... regardless of the posted limits.

Often we're faced with situations in which we choose to do or not do something -- to turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior at work or not to turn in a classmate for cheating, for example, or to speed because everyone else is speeding -- because we don't want others to think ill of us. So we do the wrong thing in order to fit in.

No lives were at risk when P.W. observed the speed limit, only the patience of the drivers behind him. It would have made for an awkward 12 minutes or so of driving, but the right thing for him to do was to follow his values and observe the speed limit, regardless of how many cars accumulated behind him. As soon as it was possible, of course, he should have pulled over and let the speeders pass.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Jill said...

I can relate to this situation because I'm always a stickler for following speed limits, etc. In this case, what I would have done (and actually do decide to do when the situation seems to demand it) is to pull over and let cars pass me. Then they're happy and I'm happy (even if I needed to wait a little while). But, I'll admit, I usually do say something to myself like, 'I hope they get a ticket for that.' That part of things might just be human nature.

Anonymous said...

Again, a reader is so consumed with the "letter of the law" that he let the circumstances that probably would have allowed him to slightly increase his speed so as to slightly less inconvenience the cars following. I learned the ropes of such traffic ensnarlments when living in Florida and when driving back and forth between my destination and returning to my Florida home. The speed limits were clearly marked at unrealistic levels that few drivers were following. For several years, I made it a habit to follow the posted speed limit and finally came to my senses that the speed limits were posted but were studiously not followed by most traffic, save fools like myself. I finally realized that as long as there was no additional danger in increasing to a normal freeway speed, it was really much more dangerous to insist on following the lower posted speed and creat a traffic hazard for other cars and actually for myself. I've found that traffic works best when you maintain a flow matching the rest of the traffic around you. Obviously, if there are scofflaws greatly exceeding the posted speed limits, it would not only be foolish but hazardous to try to keep up with the speeders. Again, trying to blend in with the normal flow of traffic seems to work best for safety and avoiding creating traffic blocks.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

yawningdog said...

Another Utahn, here.

I often will speed up, faster than I want to travel, on a very dangerous mountain highway I have to take to get to the Salt Lake City portion of my state.

There are now more passing lanes on this road then when I moved here 14 years ago, but there are still plenty of sections where one has to cross into the oncoming lane to pass. If I have someone tailing me on those parts of the road, I will increase my speed just to keep the idiots from making a risky pass instead of waiting for the passing areas. As soon as we hit the passing areas, I am free to return to a normal and safer speed.

In the SLC area, everyone seems to drive 75+ on the highways. I would love to drive less than 70, but to do so would mean becoming a speed bump. My father always told me to not to be the fastest or the slowest car on the road.

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