The Hippo in the Fast Lane
Entry for 2016-07-03


Statistically, you're the same — you and the driver in front of you. But you are an intelligent human being. You're capable of driving, cursing, flashing your lights, and blowing your horn simultaneously. The person ahead of you hasn't got the brains of a pot-roast and is unable to perform even one of those actions, say, driving.

He proceeds at the pace of a glacier, blocking your path, holding up all traffic in what used to be called the "fast lane" of the freeway. He wallows in the shadow of a livestock truck in the other lane, side by side, so that neither you nor anyone else can get by.

He is a hippopotamus. He belongs on the Serengeti Plain, where there is room to pass.

Once you have exhausted your catalogue of profanity, scatology, and blasphemy, you fall silent and begin to wonder: who is this person? Where will I meet him again? Will he turn out to be the plumber I call when the pipes break and the water is rising toward the fuse box? Will he be the brain surgeon called on to "rush" to the hospital and control my cerebral hemorrhaging caused by this traffic jam or the next one?

The 9,000-Mile Backup

In Pittsburgh, the State Police captain whose troopers patrol the parkways and interstates told a reporter that rush-hour congestion could be eased considerably if drivers would use a little common sense — for example, if they would maintain the 40-mph minimum speed in the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.

He cited the instance of a motorist in the fast lane of the tunnel moving so slowly that a gap of 300 or 400 feet opens up between his (her?) car and the one in front. This happens frequently, which may be why it's called the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.

This particular parkway carries 120,000 cars a day. At 400-foot intervals, 120,000 cars would require 9,090 miles of roadway. Even when you divide that by two lanes or four, the traffic jam would be backed up into at least one ocean and possibly two. So the captain's request would seem reasonable.

At least it's a start — a dollop of public education to remind the hippopotamus not to squat in the fast lane as sole occupant of a space large enough for eight buses, especially not when the eight buses are stymied in his waddling wake, their riders on the verge of mutiny.

Stronger Measures

Possibly public education is too gentle an approach. We've witnessed the futility of public information campaigns in signing everyone up for a car pool, persuading everyone to ride the bus, and making sure no one drives after drinking. Such solicitations lack incentive. What's the reward? Sobriety? Immobility?

Besides, people just don't trust public service announcements, and why should we? If we had actually heeded all the worthy exhortations we've heard over the years, each of us would have a fallout shelter filled with Series-E bonds from the payroll savings plan, everyone would be wearing a WIN button, and we'd all be in the Marines.

No, the toilet training of squatting hippopotami will require stronger measures. Some of us, though philosophically opposed to capital punishment, would be willing to make an exception for so important a cause as this, and incidence of slow vehicles in the passing lane might noticeably decrease once a few offenders had been put to death.

Short of that, some hope might reside in the methods of behavior modification — rewarding the desired behaviors and penalizing acts of stupidity or thoughtlessness at the wheel. To some, this may smack of Orwell's 1984, but actually 1984 worked out fairly well.

Blame the Victim

Even as written, the traffic laws are not entirely innocent of awp_poststs at behavior modification. But it's upside-down and backwards. Punishment is reserved for the swift. Any rear-end collision is presumed to be the fault of the trailing driver — the one being obstructed. And on interstate highways that cost $30 billion in taxpayers' money to build, the same taxpayers are now fined into penury for driving at the speed for which the highway was originally designed. Meanwhile, minimum speeds are seldom enforced and the penalties are slight, so the hippopotamus is encouraged to believe that he or she is on God's side.

What the laws and the enforcers should be doing instead is to fine the slowpokes and give the money to the drivers who are being forced to follow slowly behind them. Take $100 from the hippo, and give it directly to the driver immediately behind, and also give him the hippo's car. Next day's logjam will be one log lighter.

That means, of course, that state legislators will have to amend the various vehicle codes, and thereby looms an obstacle even bigger than a hippopotamus. In Pennsylvania, at least, the state house and senate may like the vehicle code just the way it is because a legislator is immune from speeding tickets as long as he's on official business. He's free to choose his own route, so if he's clocked at 75 through a car wash, who's to say it wasn't official?

State senators and representatives also may have another basis — a matter of metaphorical kinship—for favoring the hippopotamus over the swift and the competent. In case you haven't noticed, the dumbest people in the legislature invariably get re-elected.