Courtesy, Civility, Payback

On my way to an afternoon meeting one hot and hazy day last summer, I was feeling pretty good – virtuous even. Traffic had been light on I-85 and the downtown connector, and I had just a few blocks left to travel, around the Capitol via Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and on to Pryor Street and my meeting site. I was going to be early – I’d probably get there before my boss arrived.

But then I reached Pryor only to find it had become a parking lot, thanks to a messy roadwork project that shut down portions of practically every lane. Jackhammers were drilling away, and orange cones were everywhere. Horns were blaring, and cars were trying to negotiate the road-turned-obstacle-course. I could hear my cell phone ringing, but this was clearly not the time to take my eyes or attention off the road.

It took 20 minutes to travel three blocks. With great effort, I kept calm; but there were other drivers who did not. (When I had the opportunity to retrieve the phone message, I found it was from my boss: “Pryor Street is awful. Nobody’s moving.”)

I arrived late to the meeting and ran in breathless, distracted, apologetic. Hardly an extraordinary occurrence – just another day playing the roulette wheel that is Atlanta traffic.

Some days it takes more energy to get where you need to go to do your job than to actually do your work once you arrive. There’s a lot of waste involved in combating the traffic – time, money, energy, good will, productivity. There’s considerable harm done to the environment – all those idling cars spewing exhaust fumes into the air.

But there is also a loss of civility. Most of us, stuck in traffic, are not the nice people our mothers raised us to be. We are frustrated, impatient and occasionally rude. Once traffic comes to a halt, people start blowing the horn when they don’t really need to, cutting someone off just because they themselves were cut off in the previous block.

In extreme cases, road rage rears its ugly head. If you’ve ever been close to that, it’s pretty frightening. I once saw a driver hold up a gun in response to another motorist who hit the horn.

Happily, most road situations don’t reach that point; but any traffic tie-up has the potential to get out of hand. The most helpful thing I’ve learned is not to take things personally.

The rude gesture or the horn blast may feel personal, but it rarely is. Reminding myself of that helps. So does giving the offending driver the widest possible berth – whether there’s a firearm in evidence or not.

A friend once said that she always tries to be courteous to older drivers she shares the road with, because she figures they’ve probably lived long enough to deserve to have some slack cut for them. I like that idea, but I’ve simplified it so I don’t have to guess ages or make snap value judgments about motorists’ worth.

I don’t always achieve this, of course, but I have set myself a “civility” goal of at least one courteous gesture per auto trip – letting someone in the lane ahead of me or allowing a driver to pull out of a driveway or a parking lot.

And, frankly, I expect some courtesy in return – a nod of the head will do, a slight wave of acknowledgement is even better. If neither is forthcoming, I feel snubbed, though I try not to take it out on the rest of the drivers I encounter.

But, truthfully, I’m neither a Girl Scout nor possessed of an overly-sweet nature. I live for those moments, infrequent but delicious, when the road gods conspire to dole out a little justice.

It happened to me one Sunday afternoon when I was driving home from a trip to Birmingham. Interstate 20 was crowded, but traffic was moving along at a steady clip. Just outside the Atlanta city limits, a little yellow car came roaring from behind me and began to dart recklessly in and out of the traffic at what had to be well over 120 miles an hour. It was unnerving; terrifying even.

But the scent of payback was in the air.

Just a few minutes later, I had the pleasure of driving past that same yellow car, which was off on the shoulder, billowing oily black smoke, while the driver stood there looking helpless.

He also looked lonesome, but I’m confident that the law enforcement officer who was pulling up in front of him was about to offer some conversation and some company.

Categories: Business Casual