Monday, January 23, 2017

Do You Trust People on the Road?

(This one outgrew the Link Log...I'd been thinking about part of it for about a week.)

"Never get into a car with someone you don't know"? I think there's a generational thing going on here. I think in the first quarter of the twentieth century there was a lot of snobbery about Nice People Not Speaking Until They Had Been Properly Introduced, and in the last quarter that attitude resurfaced (via insurance companies) under cover of Staying Safe by Not Sharing Anything You Have Insured Even with Your Own Immediate Family. (Ooohhh, ooohhh, insurance for a car pool would cost more than the gas you'd save, better get the policy that's invalidated if you and your spouse and children don't form a procession of four separate single-passenger vehicles when you go to church together.)

In the middle of the twentieth century when both my parents and I grew up, though, there was more of a sense that self-reliance means knowing when you can place a very limited amount of trust in almost anybody because you can trust yourself to deal with situations likely to come up in your dealings with that person. 

Many baby-boomers hitchhiked. Many advertised for housemates in newspapers, for car-pool buddies on bulletin boards, for baby-sitters at the laundromat. I met my adoptive brother from an ad tacked to a bulletin board at the supermarket, my adoptive sister from one on a bulletin board at a restaurant, my husband from a newspaper ad (in the "House Sitting" category). I grew up sitting beside total strangers on buses and trains. I don't think the average person in a car is more dangerous than the average person on a bus or train. 

Chances of being exposed to minor infections and/or boring conversation: high. (If you have AIDS or pathological hostility, by all means lock yourself in your own car, all alone.) 

Chances that a passenger wants to do any deliberate harm to the driver on whom the passenger is relying for transportation: extremely low. 

Chances that a driver wants to do any deliberate harm to the person to whom the driver offers transportation: still quite low, though kidnapping is less rare than "carjacking."

Chances that a "nice" person may be an incompetent driver, and may even offer you or me a lift in the hope that we'll be able to take over driving: relatively high. At least, as a woman who's walked alone and at least considered accepting lifts from total strangers, regularly, for thirty years, I've met only one Bad Person (a young woman) and maybe a dozen people who I believe were less competent drivers than I. 

But here's the thing: Even if the driver is an evildoer with evil intentions, s/he has to stop the car in order to do something evil to you. If it does come down to you against that person, the driver is vulnerable to a physical attack; the passenger is vulnerable to a suicidal driver (very rare) or an incompetent one (common), but otherwise the passenger is no more vulnerable in a car than in a one-to-one encounter on the street. I do not get into just anybody's car, nor do I recommend that you do, but I do recommend learning to see past the garbage spewed out by the car, gas, and insurance industries. It's no more dangerous to share a car with any given person than it is to share the sidewalk with that person.

There are plenty of reasons why you or I might not want to be within arm's length of a certain individual, on the sidewalk, on a train, in a car or anywhere else. Seeing a photo (which may be misleading) and references (which may be faked) on a web site don't even tell you whether those reasons apply to a prospective car-pool buddy. A phone conversation gives you an opportunity to find out more of what you really want to know--whether the person is a bore or a bigot, or is hostile to you for whatever reason, or currently has a sinus condition that may not be contagious but is still likely to gross you out, or will be travelling with a diabetic dog. Face-to-face, you really can usually see all the information you really need, once you've learned that you can trust yourself.

Smell smoke? Person is likely to light up again in a few minutes. If you don't want to smell like an ashtray, don't be within a few yards of this person.

Glassy eyes, or eyes that don't focus even after a minute or two of conversation? Person is not in "normal" condition (whatever that is, for this person). It may be safe to sit beside this person but it's probably not safe to let this person drive.

Hostility indicators? (Typically, in the Southern States, these include long hard stares, bared teeth, an affected "Placater Mode" speech pattern, lots of bogus endearments and/or extravagant compliments; a hostile adult will tell you anything but the truth, so will almost never look or sound like a hostile child or a hostile character in a movie.) Person is dangerous. If you're in a car, a house, a religious observance, with this person, get out fast. Hostile adults are much more likely to be planning some sort of social sabotage and/or repulsive sexual display than a physical attack. If they were planning a physical attack the fact that you have a weapon is likely to send them off in search of an easier victim...but be aware.

If avoiding bullies costs you a date, a job, or a social connection, be aware that this is good. You're better off without those people in your life, whatever they had to offer.

On the other hand, people who don't seem to have much to offer, but do seem to be presenting themselves to you with benign intentions, just may become unlikely but valuable friends.

I used to travel in and out of Washington, D.C., by bus and train. The bus and train stations are a few blocks apart. The neighborhood in which they are located is a non-residential neighborhood, populated mostly by travellers and those who make a profit off them--legally or illegally. Licensed D.C. cab drivers are, in my experience, hard-pressed, hard-working, decent guys who deserve tips, but I didn't necessarily want a cab just to get from the bus to the train or vice versa. Sometimes at night I'd see panhandlers approaching. I think this was where the whole idea of a zombie invasion came from. To avoid harassment I'd hail the healthiest-looking one (in D.C. it's wise to work from the assumption that everybody has AIDS) and offer that one a handful of change to walk with me, carrying one of my bags. My experience was that these panhandlers were always flattered and never tried to abscond with the laundry bag. Their lifestyle is no role model for the young but, no, they're not after your blood or brain.

I've found car pools via photo-free, small-print newspaper ads. Some groups shared one ride for one trip. One group became friends and shared rental cars for monthly trips for years. No photo or references were needed. If you become friends you do; if you don't you don't. 

If you learn to trust yourself to be able to cope with people, you don't have to look for dates via pathetic dating services; you become attractive, and attractive people ask you for dates. So, admittedly, do jerks who think anyone who speaks to them wants their body. Guess what? You can say no. 

I feel sorry for the children of this actuarial generation who are growing up without the benefit of neighborhood bulletin boards, classified ads in newspapers, and "Swap Shop" radio shows that regularly bring them into contact with total strangers who may bring whatever they're looking for--from a used math book to True Love--into their lives.

When I look at a total stranger at a bus stop, in a car that stops to offer me a lift, beside the road as I stop to offer him or her a lift...I don't think about what I myself would incline to call "trust." I'm not asking this person to handle cash for me or baby-sit for The Nephews. It's more like "How tiresome is this person likely to become in the next few minutes, and can I cope with him or her?" Usually, in the absence of obvious social-bully behavior, it's likely to be worth "trusting" the person to act like a normal human being.

I'm glad to read that services like Uber and Lyft offer people the option of identifying themselves and/or their vehicles by photos when connecting with strangers. I hope people aren't deluding themselves that the photo does more than make it easier to locate a connection. People who look "nice" on a computer screen can still be bigots, bores, sick, stoned, hostile, or, worst of all, they can be the kind of drivers who take a cell phone call while rolling at speed around sharp curves...

The proportion of that kind of people in my home town seems to be rising these days. It is ironically due to a problem that, when I was growing up, we thought we were planning never to have: drug addiction.

We had anti-drug "education" at school. We had anti-drug "rallies" for parents as well as films and lectures for students. We all learned the list of symptoms of addictions that few if any people had any more. Being a drug addict, feeling a need to distort your awareness of reality, was considered a very stupid thing to do. We called addicts "scags." It was a term of contempt, spat at people, not used in "nice" conversation.

Later on, when my father was blind, one of the drivers he hired was one of the parents who'd gone to the anti-drug rallies. "I feel so bad all the time these days, I went to a doctor, but the prescription he gave me didn't help. The doctor says, if I can't get down below 200 pounds, he's going to give me a prescription for methamphetamine. Wasn't that one of those dangerous habit-forming drugs?"

"Yes it was," I remembered. "It's a stimulant. At first it affects the body like coffee, only more so. Then people need more and more of it to stay out of withdrawal. That's when it gets dangerous. They can have heart failure or psychotic breakdowns. They can lose their judgment and become unfit to drive."

"So, if you want to keep this job," Dad summarized, "you will have to start walking for exercise and get your weight below 200 pounds."

He was a good person to work for, if people weren't too intimidated to take the job at all. I was glad that that driver continued to walk for exercise even after Dad died.

But meanwhile we have an ever-growing problem in my home town. People who still despise all "scags," who feel no need to be particularly polite about saying no if they're offered a glass or a joint, are using stimulants and painkillers to maintain the level of energy they have tried to establish on the job. They would never become, or even socialize with, "pot-heads." They may have been offered a prescription, and may think they're still within some sort of boundaries of Safe Use, as "meth-heads."

Where exactly are the boundaries of Safe Use of methamphetamine? Probably, like alcohol, it's dangerous for all users. Meth users never know when they're going to black out, have heart attacks, or be hospitalized after having snapped into a state of consciousness so psychotic that they don't remember what they did.

During the past week I've seen some driving that suggests that some people who live west of Gate City, who have nine-to-five jobs, are using meth to compete with co-workers for productivity and are crossing some sort of boundaries.

Picture a two-lane road, fairly busy, at sundown on a dark, rainy evening. The road has only one shoulder, a lot of cross streets, and a posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour. As your car revs up to 35 miles per hour, you are passed from behind by someone doing at least 55 miles per hour. The person crosses a double yellow line to move around you, passing within two or three yards of your back end. You brake to give the person more room to move back in front of you, while thanking God that the person didn't run head-on into another vehicle approaching in the other lane, which the person would not have seen--the double yellow line is there for a reason. Although the person seems oblivious to danger and the law, somehow the person does notice that you slowed down, and slows down too in order to move into your lane barely two yards ahead of you. Luckily this person is not targeting you personally, though, and as you continue to drive very slowly the person roars off ahead of you. If this driver's path within the lane were being tracked it would be wavy. When this person finally turns off, onto a smooth, well designed exit ramp, the person makes an unnecessarily wide turn and swerves into the opposite lane for no reason before moving out of sight...

Some evenings I've seen two or three of them. One evening when I was walking and warily watching all of them pass, it appeared that they were having some sort of road race. In traffic.

I don't expect to have to share the road with these people very long. They aren't going to keep their jobs or their drivers' licenses very long.

A photo, even a verified identification of these people with the photo, and references, might still make them seem like people you'd want to ride with. In fact, this time last year they probably were people you might have wanted to work or travel with, and if they survive the inevitable breakdown and rehabilitation from meth, this time next year they'll probably be that kind of people again.

Meanwhile, I want to avoid even being on the same road with them, even in someone else's car.

So, the point is: Nothing that can be written down and calculated and perceived as "safe," in actuarial terms, is as reliable as your firsthand observation of the actual situation at any given time. A burnt-out wasted wreck of a panhandler may be a good local guide to a neighborhood where you don't want to be all alone. Someone you've worked with for thirty years may be about to kill himself and a lot of other people during a reaction to a relatively legitimate drug, maybe one he got (or started using) from a legal prescription, but no less deadly. Nothing in an insurance company's filing cabinet, and nothing on a computer screen, can tell you which of these two people is dangerous to you. Only your own observation can tell you that.

"Systems" to guarantee "safety" are seldom worth the paper they're printed on. Direct observation is reliable almost every time.

I've not read this book myself, and hope it's not one of those pleas for more idle chatter rather than being a book about daring to talk in a worthwhile way with strangers, but according to Amazon the author's experience has been similar to mine: