AMONG the tell-tale signs of the decline of civic responsibility in contemporary society is the increasing lack of respect and courtesy on our roads and highways. It's disturbing not only because of the heightened risks to our safety, but also because of what it says about the way we treat fellow members of our community.
We are all familiar with this new fashion of driving. Indeed, many of us are guilty of popularizing it.
How much more common is it today than only five years ago to witness someone (or some two or three) speeding through a traffic light after it already has turned red? Common enough that there is now almost as much risk in not continuing through on red as there is in stopping. Often the driver in the trailing car assumes we're not going to stop and acts accordingly.
Or how much more common is it to observe someone failing to come to a stop at a stop sign? Or changing lanes abruptly without signaling? Or refusing to let someone in who wants to change lanes?
And what about the U-turns in the middle of the street? Or the mad dash to slip into the just-vacated parking space in the crowded shopping-center lot before someone who has been waiting patiently for the same space?
In addition to the safety hazards, there is often irrational behavior to contend with. For the slightest perceived offense, no matter how inadvertent, we are likely to receive the most awful dirty looks - or worse.
This all-too-common body language is accompanied, typically, by a stream of invective definitely not calculated to promote warm and fuzzy feelings.
It is not surprising nowadays to read about fistfights - or on occasion even gunfights - when a driver feels aggrieved by something, however minor. Resorts to violence are becoming more common in situations that, at most, ought to call for an exchange of insurance information.
In light of the rising number of violent "car confrontations," the police now generally advise that, whenever possible, we should avoid eye contact with people in other cars, so as not to provoke an incident.
Granted, there are other, off-road manifestations of the breakdown of common civility in daily life.
Anyone who stands in lines regularly, whether at the checkout counter or the movie theater, knows that line-breaking occurs more than it used to. So does throwing debris on the field at sports events. And, certainly, vulgarity in everyday language has become routine.
So, isn't it a little silly to focus just on our habits behind the wheel?
Perhaps. It certainly doesn't seem likely that law enforcement resources are available, say, to stem the tide of red-light running. In any event, I would not want our police to be turned into glorified "driving nannies."
But maybe this is a problem we can solve without additional resources. Perhaps the roads are a good place for each of us to pledge a small improvement in the civility of our communities.
The contacts we have while driving generally are random, fleeting, and anonymous. This makes it easier for us to engage in uncivil (and even reckless) conduct. We wouldn't treat people we know the same way we treat those whom we're not likely to see again.
If enough of us made a conscious effort to show our fellow drivers just a little more courtesy and respect by doing common-sense things (stopping for red lights, for starters), maybe a new level of civility would catch on in other areas, too, and make our communities safer and better, not to mention making us happier drivers.