When the legal thing isn't the right thing
NEEDHAM, MASS. — After spending several hours at the mall, I was stuck. Traffic had slowed to a crawl on my side of the Interstate. I was in the right lane, a mile from my exit, and anxious to get home.
Apparently other drivers were anxious too, because they were flying past me in the breakdown lane.
On most highways, driving on the shoulder is a clear no-no, but on my particular stretch of road, it's a little murkier.
The shoulder functions as a travel lane on weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. But this was 5 p.m. on a Saturday, and by some Cinderella-style governmental magic, the special 55-mile-per-hour lane had officially reverted to its lowly breakdown status.
As I watched the smug drivers sail by, my frustration level rising, I tried to reason my way into breaking the law, too.
I told myself it's not as if the shoulder is never used as a driving lane. By establishing these windows of travel for the shoulder, the state of Massachusetts is recognizing that periods of high traffic call for breaking the normal rules of the road. This was certainly one of those times.
I told myself the principle of putting the greater good ahead of my own didn't apply here. It's true that if everyone at a concert stood up to get a better view, all would be worse off, with the same mediocre view but sore feet. But, in this case, if everyone regarded the shoulder as a travel lane, we would all travel incrementally faster. If anything, my transgression would benefit society.
I told myself that I was getting off at the next exit, so in fact the shoulder would just be like a one-mile off-ramp. I wouldn't be merging back into traffic later, and I wouldn't be cutting anyone off. No one would be harmed.
I told myself all this - but, still, I couldn't turn onto the shoulder.
Unmoved by common sense, I sat in traffic for 10 minutes to go that one mile, while other cars continued to whiz past me on the right.
There was a time I would have felt morally superior to those selfish people breaking the law. I would have told myself that they had no regard for other people and congratulated myself on being a model citizen.
I don't feel that way anymore.
Instead, I recognize that I am cowed by authority, particularly when that authority is anonymous, mere words on a sign.
Somewhere in my civic upbringing, I confused obedience with goodness.
It's too late to reeducate myself now.
As much as I reason with myself, and as much as I believe I'd be justified in crossing over that solid line, I will bow to rules that makes no sense.
It's the legal thing to do - it may even be the moral thing to do - but I know it can't be right.
• Deborah Mead is a stay-at-home mom whose latest poem will appear in Main Street Rag, a quarterly literary journal.