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A Fate Worse Than Death: A Word on Traffic Jams

Can I talk to you for five minutes about traffic?  Far as I can tell, traffic jams are pretty much the worst thing happening in the world.  I watch the news, I listen to podcasts, I occasionally read one of the free USA Todays at Chick-Fil-A.  I know what’s going on out there.  Nature is warming itself.  There are gunfights raging in some of the dustier parts of the globe.  There’s the whole “Africa” situation.  The world’s got problems, no doubt.  But for the life of me I can’t think of a single place on the planet less enjoyable than the eastbound 210 Freeway at 5:30pm on a Wednesday.

Okay, so maybe that’s a little extreme.  Obviously there are worse places in the world than an American freeway at rush hour.  (The back seat on a Greyhound bus comes to mind.)  Can we at least agree that traffic is the most annoying thing in the world?  And yes, I’m putting it above Wanda Sykes, rainy weekends, and middle schoolers in a movie theater.

To say traffic is one of my pet peeves would be like saying that civil liberties were one of Stalin’s pet peeves or that George W. Bush “annoyed” some political science professors.  I hate traffic.  It makes me crazy.  No matter how much I brace for it or plan my trip to account for it, I always end up losing my freaking mind.  I gesture and curse, I rant and rave, I call down fire from heaven.  I go nuts.

I don’t like feeling this way.  The occasional longwinded rant notwithstanding, I consider myself a fairly even-tempered guy.  I’m not prone to fits of rage and I don’t often ponder the ways my temperament might be improved by an automatic weapon.  Traffic makes me do these things.  But why?  Why have six short months in Los Angeles (aka The Julliard School for traffic jams of promise) transformed me from Jeffrey Lebowski into a ball of rage who is perhaps only days away from (a) some serious stomach ulcers and/or (b) pleading guilty to vehicular homicide?  I have some theories.

My first problem with traffic is that it is an inexcusable underutilization of one of the great inventions of human existence: the automobile.  The automobile is a wonder of modern technology.  It allows us to travel at speeds unimaginable even 100 years ago.  Yet there it sits, bumper to bumper with its similarly impotent peers, while lesser modes of transit like bicycles and feet race ahead on nearby pedestrian walkways.  I defy anyone to show me a situation more frustrating, more enraging, more downright tragic than watching an octogenarian in a motorized cart reach your exit before you do.

And my car isn’t just sitting anywhere mind you.  It’s sitting on a freeway. Freeways are to cars what military service is to high school linebackers.  It’s what they were made for.  Sitting in a car that’s parked on an interstate is like starving at a Golden Corral.  You have a machine (your vehicle or your mouth, respectively) which wants to do only one thing (drive, eat) and here it is in the one place where it can experience the fullness of all it was meant to be (an open road, a buffet) and yet it is doing the exact opposite (idling, starving).  Inexcusable.

It is one of the cruel tricks of the universe, and an indictment of traffic’s wickedness, that the only thing more aggravating than being stuck in traffic is to be freed from traffic.  This is because 90% of traffic jams end without explanation.  One moment I’m taking a nap while I roll along at 0.5 mph, and the next I’m cruising at 70 without so much as a construction zone or escaped zoo animal to account for it.

I’m more pissed now than ever.  “WHY?” I shout to the heavens. Why did this have to happen?  To what end?  For what purpose have I been tormented?  It’s not enough that I’m going fast again.  I want answers.  I want to know what greater good was served by my time in gridlock.  I want – alright, I’ll admit it, I want an accident.

Go ahead and call me a terrible person, but don’t tell me you haven’t thought the same thing.  I don’t want anyone to get hurt or killed or anything crazy like that.  I just want to see some good, old-fashioned, drivers-ed-worthy wreckage.  I sacrificed 30 to 90 perfectly good minutes of my 20s.  All I want in return is a Hyundai wrapped around a telephone pole.  Or maybe an 18-wheeler on its side with Hostess products strewn across the asphalt.  Or anything on fire.  Whatever.  I’m not picky.  I ask only that it justify the delay and that it look awesome.

But no.  Nine times out of ten the bottleneck’s origin is more underwhelming than Britney Spears’ acting career.  It’s a stalled vehicle 25 feet off the shoulder.  It’s a puddle.  It’s a curve in the road.  It’s some jackass who hits his breaks for no reason thereby forcing the next 1,000 drivers behind him to hit their breaks at the same spot.  It’s nothing and no one and my precious minutes die in vain – unexplained and unavenged.

I’ll say it one final time, traffic sucks something awful.  I could go on (and on, and on, and on) but, depending on your reading level, I think my five minutes are almost up.

I’ll close with this.

Traffic is a step backward for humanity.  It is the most disagreeable symptom of civilization as well as a compelling argument against it. If I’ve learned anything from The Road, The Book of Eli, or Revelation it’s that freedom from traffic will be the coolest thing about the coming nuclear holocaust.  Will it make the cold, hunger, and roving bands of inbred barbarians worth it?  I couldn’t say.

Am I looking forward to finding out?  You bet.

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