Rules of the Road
What ever happened to drivers being civil?
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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.