I attribute it to thirty years of peace. Men my age should be battle-hardened and not afraid of someone like them.
They are like a mechanized army, legion in number, thundering down streets and terrifying anything in their path. They have vaulted those descriptions which imply self-awareness, words like cold or ruthless. Rather, they exist in a state of oblivion -- deaf to the shrieks and epithets slung in their wake and unfeeling to the expressions of fear or enmity turned to them as they roll by. Storm troopers? Panzer divisions? Mongolian hordes? No, svelte women driving enormous SUV's while chatting happily on teeny-tiny cell phones.
Suburbia has become a very scary place.
It's not exactly what Orwell envisioned, but here at the end of the millennium, the evil-twin products of industry and technology threaten the continued development of a humanistic society.
Every time a driver climbs up into the cab and turns the key of a Chevy Suburban, Lincoln Navigator or any of their kin, they are flipping a bird to anyone who dares share the planet with them. Thanks to an EPA exemption, most of these vehicles pollute the air three times as much as a regular car. They are twice as likely to be in accidents, and when involved in one, are twice as likely to kill another driver.
Research is also emerging to show that the big SUV's can cause collisions merely by blocking a trailing driver's view of an upcoming curve.
Now, this is not to say that there are not bona fide reasons for owning such a machine. There are folks who actually use them for work purposes. There are some big families (one license plate I see around town reads "5 - BOYS"). And though I can't vouch for this from personal knowledge, I have heard of people who actually take off-road vehicles off the road (note to those who might think this includes them – going over a speed bump doesn't constitute off-roading).
But operating a three-ton vehicle includes a moral obligation to do so safely, as in keeping both hands on the wheel. Which brings us to cell phones.
There are legitimate reasons for carrying these things and sometimes even for using them. Doctors, plumbers and bookies may all need to reach out and touch someone at any time. But these women in SUV's? The only thing I can figure is they are in contact with someone in the back seat.
In any case, all these calls should be made in private and not while driving. When Americans were better-behaved (and better-dressed I might add) and Ma Bell wasn't so concerned about cost-cutting, we had something called a phone booth. It had a door and everything. Because phone calls shouldn't be made in earshot of everyone else. Even now in less-genteel times, everyone but the offenders knows cell phones should not ever, repeat, not ever be heard ringing in restaurants, movie theaters and, yup, church.
I was in a drugstore the other day trying to decide between shave cream and shave gel, when a woman in a tennis dress whipped out her Nokia and began complaining to someone on the other end about how her prescription wasn't ready. I actually felt kind of sorry for her (as well as the person she called), because it did not occur to her to do something a little more productive with the time she had to wait. Like browsing the magazine section. Then again, I suspect she was already up to speed on the ALIENS KIDNAPPED ELVIS story.
Yet there is hope. Sales of full-size SUV's, while not decreasing, are increasing at a much slower rate and more drivers are opting for the smaller, more manageable versions.
As for cell phones, it's possible that their public usage could fall to the Candid Camera effect. For a period of years, that show ruled the ratings. It was enormously popular. Suddenly, people just stopped watching it. America came to the collective revelation that contriving ways to make people look silly maybe wasn't so funny after all.
And people talking publicly on their little phones do look silly. Heck, teenagers do it now. Which is reason enough for adults not to, the same way they know enough not to wear pants shaped like pontoons with a waistline that comes to the knees. And the chatters may also come to realize that ceding one's time and privacy to anyone who wants to drop a dime is not a symbol of status, it is a surrender of it. Like they say, time is a luxury.
It could happen. In the meantime, if you have to cross the street, look both ways -- twice -- and then run like blazes.
September 22, 1999