The one and only time I was ever ticketed for any sort of moving violation was on the evening of Valentine’s Day 2007. I was driving south on the West Side Highway and had just turned onto (I think) 50th Street when I was pulled over by a cop because I was talking on my cellphone—while holding it. When he said, “Do you know how long we tailed you with the siren on and the lights flashing? FIVE BLOCKS,” it woke me up. I never drove non-hands-free again.
We have a new-ish law here in Vermont that I thought would really improve manners on our highways. But let me begin with a bit of background. Vermont has fewer than 650,000 residents, but those 650,000 are pretty spread out. It isn’t uncommon for a commute to be 45 minutes, which here means 45 miles. I don’t bat an eyelash at driving to South Burlington twice a week to go to Trader Joe’s, because it’s only twenty minutes (26 miles) away. And so it goes, here on the roads. People spend much of their lives in their cars. And that means they do a plethora of things there. Things that endanger other people.
I used to be amused by my cousin Leslie’s assertion that, having grown up in California, she could smoke, drink a soda, eat lunch, do her makeup, and talk on the ‘phone all at the same time while driving. I’m not so amused by it anymore—not because I wouldn’t trust Leslie behind the wheel with my life, but because since we moved here I have so often almost been sideswiped on the highway, broadsided at an intersection, or hit in a parking lot by someone talking (non-hands-free) or texting. So I rejoiced when, last year, the Vermont Legislature passed a hands-free bill, and Governor Shumlin (after taking some time to opine as to how everyone ought to be counted on to “do the right thing” and we didn’t really need this sort of measure) signed it into law.
And here’s where we run headlong into the Vermont way of doing things. As far as I can tell, the law has made absolutely no difference. I am still avoiding idiotic behavior on the roads as much as I ever was, and as a matter of fact, it seems to have gotten worse. (In two separate instances over the holidays, for example, I was almost run over while walking across a parking lot by a woman who was driving while presumably updating a shopping list, and sustained $400 worth of damage to my rear bumper courtesy of backing into a pillar in another parking lot to avoid a woman talking on a handheld ‘phone and heading right for my front bumper.) And, despite a professed “crackdown” during the fall, when we all saw “PHONES DOWN…HEADS UP” signs along the interstate highways and there were apparently a bunch of people pulled over and ticketed, the police don’t seem to be paying too much attention to the problem. Apparently, everyone is still relying on the good citizens of Vermont to “do the right thing.” Which translates, as far as I can tell, to “doing exactly what you want to do.”
Here’s the thing. There is an unspoken compact among the citizens of New York City that goes like this: if you break the law, and you get caught, it’s a fair cop. You argue with the officer, but in the end, you suck it up and you accept the ticket. And so you mostly don’t break the law, or at least not much, and part of that is because you know you live with 7 million other people who are also entitled to get to the end of every day still breathing. And that, along with a hefty dose of heavily publicized examples of people who break the law in some pretty serious ways and get caught doing so, is how New York City continues to function as a relatively civilized place. But Vermont seems not to have this compact. No expectation of enforcement, no expectation of admission of guilt, no public shaming of those who break the rules, no dire consequences for anyone (well, except for the people who get hurt or killed by the lawbreakers). And so there doesn’t seem to be any reason for people to stop doing exactly what they want. Which—sorry, Governor Shumlin—isn’t always the right thing.
I see this in many arenas here, this unwillingness to admit that problems of societal behavior exist, and that we need laws to manage those problems, and people who are willing to enforce those laws. I’m sure the “it’s all going to be okay if we just ignore it” mentality stems from the time when Vermont was a wilderness tamable only by the sheer will of its inhabitants. At that time, survival was only of the fittest, and “every man for himself” was not just an aphorism, but a necessary skill. But Vermont is a very different place today, and we cannot always count on the same altruism that was so publicly on display in the months and years following the devastation of Irene to bring us all together as a cohesive unit. In Vermont, our homes and cars are our castles—but they are also neighbors to all of the other homes and cars throughout the state. And if we continue to treat those castles as inviolable—if we do not recognize the urgency of dealing in a comprehensive and decisive way with texting while driving, driving non-hands-free, and the myriad other social issues that as Vermont grows need our considered attention—we will through our omissions end up creating a culture that, rather than continuing to respect the individual, lays waste to what should be our common goal: a Vermont that is safe for everyone who chooses to live, work, and travel within our borders. Forgetting the texting while driving accidents for a moment, that would really be a tragedy.