(Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer 3/31/05)
Every day I follow basically the same route driving to and from work assignments and running errands. And every day I am amazed as I pull up to a certain red light in my community where it is boldly posted: No Turn On Red. What I am amazed at is the number of drivers who ignore the sign and turn right on the red light anyway.
As I sit in my car, waiting for the light to turn green, I wonder what it is about the wording of the sign that some people don’t understand. It seems clear to me – No Turn on Red. It doesn’t say No Turn on Red Except When A Police Car is Not Visible. It doesn’t say No Turn on Red, Except For You in the Lexus. And it doesn’t say No Turn on Red Unless You Are Running Late.
Nevertheless, every single day, I am witness to a number of drivers who choose to disobey the mandate of that particular road sign. I may be more sensitive to this issue as just a few years ago I spent a substantial amount of time in my car with two teenage drivers enrolled in a Driver Education class.
And I had to answer their questions as to why it’s okay for some other drivers to go ahead and turn right on red when the light is still red.
My first reaction was to dismiss the person breaking the law as someone who is just a jerk, my pithy summation of many a traffic scofflaw. However, after my twentieth hour or so in the passenger seat with my teenage driver, I had to reassess my appraisal of other drivers’ road skills. The right turn on red thing happened a lot. Were there really that many jerks in the world, or was this law-breaking a sign of a deeper societal flaw? (At this point in the discourse a teenager often turns the radio up.)
Perhaps I expect too much from my fellow citizens. After all, I too have been tempted to turn on red when it is 11:00 p.m. and I am the only car on the road, nary a police vehicle in sight. And let me mention that I have on occasion performed stupid car tricks such as backing up on a road when I passed a street I needed to turn on, and making a U-turn at an inappropriate intersection. 99.99 percent of the time though, I am a perfectly law-abiding citizen, who would no more turn right on red than I would park in a handicap parking space.
Sadly, I have come to view the phenomenon of turning on red when you are not supposed to as representative of a dispiriting cultural tendency. Perhaps this isn’t in the same category as breaking traffic laws, but what about people who blithely wheel their overflowing shopping carts up to the Quick-Check line, and unload their 102 items, clearly violating store policy? Or those boorish louts who, even though they are in back of you in line at the store, race over to the next cashier that opens, even though that cashier stated in a clear voice, “I will take the next person in line.” (Which would have been you…)
I try to give these transgressors the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they didn’t see the sign, maybe they were having a senior moment, maybe they can’t read. But the cynic inside me says that they did see the sign. They read it, and thought it didn’t apply to them, because they are entitled somehow to something more than the rest of us. They must not think that laws, and rules, and common standards of civility and politeness are part of the social glue that keeps us safe and neighborly.
At least that’s what I told my son, as he waited patiently for that same red light to turn green, while the guy in back of us honked at us to move it.