I’m driving west on I580, and coming up there’s a big split. Three lanes go left to San Francisco, and two lanes exit to go north. I’m heading north. There are plenty of signs warning me that I’ll need to be in the right lane to exit north, but even without them, I know it’s coming, because already the backup extends towards me. This northbound exit always causes a bumper-to-bumper standstill, stretching out for a good 1/4 mile. So I slow down, put on my blinker, and take my place in line. I wait with everyone else.
Every few seconds I move forward another few rotations of my tires.
As I inch toward the point where the northbound lanes diverge, I see in my left rearview mirror a speedy little car in the San Francisco lane next to me, putting on its right-turn blinker and slowing down. Like a dog sniffing a scent, it tentatively noses next to some of the cars behind me, looking for an opening to enter the northbound lane. Other fast-moving cars bound for San Francisco detour around as this errant car crawls in the lane, now just in front of my left bumper, presenting me with an ethical dilemma: should I let them in?
Why or why not?
This may seem like a trivial or even obvious question, but I think your answer reveals something about how you see the world (at that moment).
On some days, I find this driver annoying and obnoxious. Someone relying on the kindness of strangers to shorten their own wait time at the expense of others. If I were standing in a long line at the grocery store, would they try and budge into that line ahead of the other patrons waiting their turn?
On those days, I want to teach this inconsiderate fool a lesson and make it impossible for them to cut in. Maybe next time they will line up and take their turn waiting with everyone else.
Of course, in a grocery store line you can just indicate to someone where the line starts (“back there”). In traffic on I580, however, there is no face-to-face communication and there is no turning around, so it’s not so easy.
And then, on other days, I think perhaps this driver is from out of town, unfamiliar with the road, or didn’t notice the signs, and are now relying on the kindness of strangers. Do I want to contribute to a cold, heartless world by making it impossible for them to merge?
After all, what’s a car-length of distance in the big scheme of things? Isn’t maintaining a kind heart more important than arriving where I’m going 3 seconds sooner?
And on the third hand, other people don’t have a moral dilemma here at all. If I’m that driver needing to get into the backed-up northbound lanes, why should I do so any early than I have to? What’s the big deal?
Recently I was a passenger in a car with one of the kindest, most considerate people I know, and they merged into the northbound lanes very late, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do. I was astonished. And it made me wonder if I was making a mountain out of a molehill.
So most of the time, I tend to let the drivers in because:
- I want to live in a world of kindness,
- I want to keep my heart open,
- there may be a good reason the driver is in that position, and
- it’s just not that important!
But on other days, my heart is hard and I move up as close as I can to the car in front of me, and teach that interloper a lesson.
And generally, I feel rather yucky afterwards.
But it seems to me that this question of whether we let the driver in to traffic is the same question as whether we welcome immigrants into this country, or listen to people with other viewpoints, or give money to the homeless. It all hinges on our assumptions about the “other” and our own view of abundance or scarcity (of our own time, money, etc.).
So whatever choice you make, the next time you find yourself northbound on I580 at the split and another car sidles up next to you with its right blinker on, see what you can learn about yourself. Listen to the things you tell yourself about this other person and why you should let them in or not, and see if you agree with everything you hear. If you have a passenger, ask them their opinion. You may be surprised.
And whatever your choice, drive safely!