Monday, March 27, 2006


Highway Queues

We seldom fully realize how much we trust and rely on each other as human beings. Experience teaches us that, most of the time, our behavior falls within easily predictable norms. We adhere to basic rules of decency, fairness and consideration for others.

Even the modern tasks we most take for granted, like cruising down the highways, rely on cooperative, communal efforts that have no precedent in history. Not merely the financing and construction of the interstate, an effort involving tens of thousands of workers, millions of taxpayers, and untold billions in treasure; but the promulgation of dozens of rules and the education of over a hundred million drivers to enable them to follow those rules.

Not that very many people actually obey speed limit laws.

A traffic jam is a kind of queue. The number of people – drivers and passengers – who want the same thing exceeds the capacity of the system to deliver. A bottleneck forms – my family and I went through two such backups last weekend – and the cars and trucks form a line, waiting their turn to get down the road.

As we waited our turn, a few cars and trucks blew by on the shoulder. Perhaps somone in one of these illegally driven vehicles was having chest pains. Maybe one contained a woman in labor. All good reasons to drive past a jam on the shoulder; but not the way to bet.

I turned on my CB radio and eavesdropped on the truckers. The first backup, from the Florida turnpike up along I-75, stretched out for twelve miles. A camper had gone off the road and cracked open like an egg, spilling clothing and household items two hundred yards along the side of the road. A family sat on a blanket on an embankment, watching a lone woman picking up her belongings. Everyone one the freeway slowed to a crawl to get a good look. Our hearts went out to them in sympathy.

It would be interesting to know if the numbers of people driving on the shoulder during traffic jams has changed over the years. Fortunately, I was able to resist road rage. Despite the morons who risked their own safety and those of us around us, the social order was maintained.

Maybe this is a hopeful sign.

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