Illustration by Anne Bentley.
I’m transfixed by the Geico commercial in which an actor portrays George Washington in one of the iconic scenes of the American Revolution: crossing the Delaware in a boat. Only the Geico George Washington, unlike the Founding Father, is crossing the Delaware Turnpike, not the Delaware River. “Pull together,” Geico George Washington says as actors playing Continental Army soldiers use ropes to drag their boat across the dry terrain of the turnpike. “A little to the left. Easy, easy.”
As these American heroes make their way haltingly across the turnpike, blocking traffic, impatient drivers honk. The honking grows louder and angrier until finally the Geico George Washington snaps. “All right, all right,” he yells at the honkers. “We’ve all got places to go! We’ve all got places to go!”
It is a funny commercial. But it doesn’t make me laugh. It’s too accurate a parody of what our nation has become in these challenging times.
A healthy democracy requires a certain politeness among its populace and leaders. “Long before current fears about incivility in public life—before anxieties about Twitter-shaming and cable-news name-calling—politeness was very much on the minds of United States leaders,” according to a recent essay by historian Steven Bullock. Thomas Jefferson, Bullock notes, placed “good humor” at the very top of his list of important “qualities of mind” for any citizen.
Autocrats and bullies, by contrast, are rude. They shout and dominate; they run right over their fellow citizens, sometimes literally.
I don’t have to drag a boat across the turnpike to encounter drivers who may be civil in other areas of life but are capable of turning aggressive and dangerously selfish. I see it every day. So do Montgomery County school bus drivers and police officers. Not all of the county’s school buses are equipped with cameras yet. Still, in the previous two years, 34,000 drivers have been caught on camera and ticketed for passing school buses that were stopped—lights flashing and the little red stop sign out—to let children get on or off.
I wish those numbers shocked me. They don’t. I watched in horror recently as a boy of 7 or 8 tried crossing Old Georgetown Road at a crosswalk near Bethesda Elementary School during rush hour. The boy, who was carrying a soccer ball, made a few starts into the crosswalk, then jumped back to the curb. Not one driver stopped for him. Some drivers probably didn’t notice the boy, too distracted by the unrelenting whoosh of their daily responsibilities. They had places to go.
I was walking, so it was easy for me to stop and help. After the child convinced me that he had his parents’ permission to cross Old Georgetown and play in the schoolyard, I escorted him. As we crossed the road, I eyed drivers warily, trying to ensure that we weren’t mowed down by someone talking on their cellphone. One man met my gaze and honked so loudly that the little boy and I both jumped. I guess I should have been grateful that the driver didn’t flip us the bird.
There have always been impatient jerks behind the wheel, and sometimes I’ve been one of them. Here’s an old joke: What’s the shortest time interval ever measured? It’s the interval between the traffic light in front of you turning green and the driver behind you honking. These days, there’s an entire Reddit.com thread—listed under Petty Revenge—on how to respond to impatient honkers at stoplights. This is my favorite posted suggestion: As soon as the driver behind you honks, hit your hazard flashers, pop the hood and act as if you are checking your oil. Don’t get back in your car until the light turns red again. I would, of course, never do that. I’d be afraid someone would run me over.
I know that some drivers are growing more aggressive, impatient and selfish. I’ve watched it happen just blocks from my home. I’ve lived on Wilson Lane in Bethesda for 18 years. For most of that time, the intersection of Wilson Lane and Bradley Boulevard was my perfect escape route to avoid driving through the traffic of downtown Bethesda.
Most drivers I encountered there didn’t just follow the rules of the road. They did what we ask schoolchildren to do: They waited their turn. If someone heading in either direction on Bradley was trying to turn left onto Wilson, drivers behind sat and waited. They stayed in their lane until they reached the intersection and could safely assess approaching traffic from all directions before they either crossed Wilson or turned onto it.
That’s changed in recent years. I’ve seen many near misses as drivers abandoned their lane and rode the right shoulder—sometimes for blocks—to avoid waiting for somebody up ahead to turn left. Months ago I saw a teenage jogger wearing a fluorescent safety jacket almost struck by a driver who, fed up with waiting his turn, decided it was a good idea to race along the shoulder where she was jogging.
It’s only going to get more dangerous at that intersection, and others like it. The state legislature recently made it legal in some circumstances for drivers to leave their lane and ride a paved right shoulder to pass a driver turning left.
Middays and weekends, the driving in my neighborhood still looks a lot like it did when I moved here: pretty civil. Drivers stop and wave me on when I walk across Wilson. When I drive and try to change lanes, most people slow to let me in. When I wave to thank them, most wave back.
It’s the weekday rush hours that now feel like the Wild West after the bad guys shot the town marshal. Rush hours aren’t just for getting to and from work anymore. There has for a long time been an extended afternoon rush hour as parents or nannies drive kids to and from far-flung after-school activities.
As county traffic increases and main arteries clog, drivers increasingly use smartphone apps like Waze to find alternate routes. That often puts them on roads, like Bradley Boulevard, that run through many neighborhoods, Bethesda police Capt. Paul Liquorie recently told me.
The instant he said that, some of the aggressive driving I’ve witnessed made sense. Some aggressive drivers in my neighborhood may not live here. They might not live anywhere near here. They may not feel any connection to the drivers around them or the children crossing our streets. They might—like internet trolls—feel a certain protective anonymity.
That new reality struck me so hard recently that I nearly cried. My Labrador retriever had surgery to remove a malignant tumor. He’s a sweet big boy: 80 pounds. He was dopey from the anesthesia when I picked him up from the vet in Potomac. Vet techs offered to let him stay the night in a large crate in the surgical suite of their office. I didn’t want him to be afraid, confused and alone in the night. So the techs carried him to my SUV on a stretcher. We all hoped that the anesthesia would wear off during my drive home. It didn’t. When I tried lifting my dog out of the back of my Honda, I collapsed under his weight and we both tumbled onto the driveway. I struggled up and tried every way I could to lift my good big boy without injuring him. I didn’t have the strength. So I sat and cradled my dog at the end of my driveway, just a few feet from the passing traffic on Wilson Lane. We were both in distress and increasingly covered in blood from his surgical drain. Driver after driver passed us. Some looked at us, then looked away.
Two young girls from my neighborhood walked over and offered to help. They were kind, but too petite to help me lug 80 pounds of dead weight up the stairs from the driveway to my front door. So I called a friend who has both the physical strength and the heart to help. He’s a mergers and acquisitions lawyer who lives in Chevy Chase. He’s a political archconservative. We fight politics like cats and dogs. Yet we always find common ground: reverence for the U.S. Constitution and a belief that in a democracy we are all, in some profound way, in this together. I warned my friend to expect to get his good clothes bloody. He said, “I’m on my way.”
As I waited, I watched the afternoon traffic on Wilson grow heavy and slow. I searched each driver’s face, hoping to spot a burly friend or neighbor to flag down. I didn’t. At least some of these drivers, these strangers, had time to ponder the odd sight of a scared, bloody woman cradling an unconscious dog at the side of the road. Nobody stopped to help. I don’t know why. It’s a tough spot to pull over. Maybe some people thought it was too dangerous to stop. Maybe some figured that whatever was happening was not their business.
They all had places to go.
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.