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Thursday, November 29, 2007

On Driving and not Driving

I have lived in a few different places in my life and I can say one thing with a bit of authority: People everywhere are lousy drivers. I think that there are many different reasons that motivate people to behave badly behind the wheel of a car and these reasons often have to do with where they live. Americans drive badly because they are assholes in a hurry. Europeans drive atrociously because they are infantile and have watched too many car races on TV. Consider the fact that more and more of these accidents-waiting-to-happen are also trying to use a cell phone as they drive and this should be all the reason you need to opt out of automobiles and take the bus on both continents.

Although, for the most part, Spanish motorists are rather terrifying, I have noticed that a certain type of driver in Spain behaves in a courteous, almost civilized manner. These drivers will use their turn signals; they actually yield to pedestrians at cross-walks; they obey the speed limit and other traffic laws; and they don’t use their horn as some sort of obnoxious, offensive weapon. It is easy to pick these drivers out in traffic because they will have autoescuela, or “driver’s training,” written somewhere on their vehicles. This goes to show that Spanish drivers knew the proper rules of the road at some point in their careers behind the wheel; it’s just that many of them choose to forget everything they may have learned in driver’s education the minute they are allowed to drive without the watchful eye of a chaperon.

I have now gone almost one year and a half without driving an automobile. I honestly wouldn’t mind if I never drove again. I doubt I will be lucky enough to avoid this nuisance but while I live here in Spain I’m pretty sure I won’t ever be in the driver’s seat. I haven’t even been in a car since I was in a taxi several months ago to go to the airport. I can now get to the airport on the new subway line. Avoiding cars is probably more beneficial to a person’s health than ending a lifelong habit of smoking. Unfortunately, as a cyclist I still have many intersections with other people who choose to drive cars.

I am fairly fortunate on this account because Valencia has a great system of bike paths that keep cyclists out of harm’s way for most of their travels. You still need to cross a lot of street intersections which can be a crap shoot more often than not. A red light doesn’t seem to mean a lot to many Spanish drivers so you need to be extremely vigilant every time you cross a street on a bike. Never take it for granted that a car will stop for you when you have the cross signal because the red light to many drivers is only a very mild suggestion that they should perhaps slow down, and stopping is almost out of the question.

I have developed a special technique that is almost foolproof in assuring that I can cross the street without getting flattened by a
Spanish driver hopped from watching too many Formula 1 races on Sunday afternoon. This tactic may seem a bit cruel since I am placing babies and senior citizens between myself and speeding automobiles, but I can assure you that it is very effective. I have learned how to use human shields to protect me from aggressive motorists. Interested? Keep reading.

If there is a senior citizen or a woman pushing a baby carriage in the crosswalk, I can be almost certain that traffic will come to a stop. People here are very respectful of babies, and they are scared shitless of imperious older folks. When it comes to cars and cross walks, babies and octogenarian Spanish widows are like having a big brother around to protect you from the playground bullies.

I have never much liked cars and driving, so trading my car keys for a transit pass was very easy for me. I have even accepted walking as a means of getting around. If I am going to the center of town, because of the crowds, it is almost too much trouble to ride my bike. I wouldn’t even dream of trying to get around Valencia in a private automobile. I can’t believe that anyone would prefer to drive from one part of town to the other when there is such an efficient system of metro and busses. Even when you do manage to get to your destination by car, there is almost certainly going to be a serious parking problem, but as someone who doesn’t drive, that’s no longer my problem.

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