Heads in a fog
Is it me or are more people driving around today with their heads in the clouds than before?
Drivers have always had distractions, whether from kids roughhousing in the back seat, cars rubbernecking at an accident, or the urgent need to change the radio station or CD.
But today, we have more things than ever clamoring for our attention when we drive. Some of them are external and technological in nature, such as phone calls, texts and GPS directions.
Other sources may be internally generated. We’re so bombarded with messages all day, some of us may have adopted a general air of inattention just to block out the noise.
On a quick outing the other day, I had three experiences in the same parking lot, one after the other, that led me to write this column.
I had gone to a small strip mall with a crowded parking lot to visit a popular store where people are constantly streaming in and out, so I expected to have some close encounters.
Surprisingly, I arrived at a time when there was an empty spot near the front of the store. In the car next to that spot, a woman was rooting around in her trunk, so I drove into my spot slowly and carefully.
Then, as if she hadn’t even noticed me there, she proceeded to open the rear passenger door of her car, pinning me inside mine.
When I saw that she had a child in a car seat, I thought I would simply wait until she had gotten him out so they could go into the store. But after sitting quietly for a minute, I discovered she was still standing there, now feeding the child his lunch.
I started my car again to open my window and politely asked if she could let me exit my car. She did, and I went into the store.
I probably wouldn’t even recall that situation now were it not for my experience only a few minutes later, as I tried to leave the same parking spot.
When I returned to my car with shopping bags, I saw a car idling right behind me, the driver apparently waiting for a spot like mine to open up for him. So I put my bags in the backseat, got into the front seat and started the engine — only to discover the driver had not budged. I was trapped again.
I waited a few moments, but when he continued not to move, I killed the ignition, opened my door and walked around to the driver’s side of his car to point out that I was trying to vacate a parking spot for him if he would allow me to leave.
He then backed up just enough for me to get out and pulled into my spot.
Next, I proceeded to the exit, which is also frequently crowded. There’s a very busy six-lane road outside the strip mall and a clearly marked two-lane driveway to allow entrance and egress for shoppers.
As I neared the exit, the car just in front of me, also leaving the shopping center, inexplicably drove into the lane intended for those entering the center (rather than the exit lane) and proceeded to wait there for the light to change.
I hesitantly started to pull into the (correct) exit lane but quickly realized that probably wasn’t a good idea under the circumstances, as the two of us would then be blocking all entrance to the center.
Sure enough, a few seconds later, a car coming up the main road attempted to enter the shopping center, only to find the entrance lane blocked by the out-bound car. So, I pulled back completely from the exit lane, allowing the driver to maneuver around the stopped car and enter the shopping center that way.
It seemed like an eternity before the traffic light changed and both the distracted car and I could leave the center.
Having these three experiences in a row got me thinking. Have many of us become so accustomed to focusing only on ourselves (or our ubiquitous technology) that we have stopped being aware of what’s happening around us?
While I don’t know if technology actually had anything to do with these particular examples of distractedness, I wonder if our tech-obsessed modern way of life has accustomed us to walking (or driving) around in our own little worlds.
With hearing blocked by ear pods or Bluetooth devices, eyes only for our smartphones and GPS, have we walled ourselves off to the sights and sounds of our surroundings and fellow human beings?
As for those of us who find such behavior obnoxious, what lesson do we take away from these encounters? Do we walk around with chips on our shoulders, looking for reasons to get angry? Do we decide that, since so many others seem to be oblivious and get away with it, we should become more self-centered and insular ourselves?
Or do we aim to make a point to acknowledge the presence of others while respecting their personal space, in hopes that we might break through the barriers between us and help reestablish norms of human interaction?
I hope the folks with whom I interacted that day gained a little more self-awareness after our encounter.
But even if not, I certainly have been doing a lot of thinking myself since then, and I hope I have come away a little more aware of how my own behavior (especially behind the wheel of a car) might affect others.
And I hope those reading about this experience may do the same.