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Observations from a Tocquevillian tour of post-pandemic America

We need to reload the code of the road.

An electronic highway sign on on Interstate 93 in Boston in 2014: “Changing Lanes? Use Yah Blinkah.”Michael Dwyer

I hesitate to compare my 21st-century travels to those of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political scientist whose journeys around America in 1831-1832 led to such an insightful account of the young nation.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

As Tocqueville wrote of one leg of his tour, “I have just made a fascinating but very fatiguing journey, accompanied each day by the thousand annoyances that have been pursuing us for the last two months; carriages broken and overturned, bridges carried away, rivers swollen, no room in the stage; these are the ordinary events of our life.”


Save for broken carriages, swollen rivers, and missing bridges — and the crowded coaches, since we went in a Honda Comfortable Runabout Vehicle — he might well have been describing the recent three-day trip my wife and I took across vast regions of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Which is to say, there were multitudinous annoyances. And that brings me to my big Tocquevillian travel takeaway: After more than two years of the COVID pandemic, motoring America needs a remedial course in considerate cruising.

Let’s start with the refresher with our on-and-off friend “the blinker,” a.k.a. “the turn signal.” Thankfully, most drivers do seem to recall that it has a role to play when one switches highway lanes. But contrary to contemporary belief, turning on your blinker does not create an instant right to move from one lane into another. There remains the minor matter of making sure the adjacent lane is clear.

One way to go about ascertaining same is to glance into that silvery rectangle mounted on the inside of your windshield. Yes, it’s mostly there so we can admire ourselves like Narcissus, practice our Jim Carrey faces, or hone our Donald Duck impersonation, but, wondrous to relate, the rear-view mirror (to use its abstruse technical name) also reveals objects that are behind one’s vehicle. The side-view mirrors perform similar functions regarding adjacent-lane locations. Thus a glance at those magical reflecting spots will quickly tell you whether another vehicle is in, or headed toward, the territory you hope to occupy.


On to driving’s distractions and discontents. Just as it made us a more slovenly nation, the pandemic has eroded our understanding of what should properly occur where. As a general rule, if an activity threatens to take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel for an extended period, it isn’t congruent with driving. So: If you are struck by a sudden urge to change your turtleneck or floss your teeth or practice your juggling or even just to vacuum your floor mats, it’s best to pull into a rest area. Texting also falls into this category. Indeed, pursuant to the notion that texting and driving aren’t compatible, New York State has added numerous texting stops to its highway system. May they last longer than Andrew Cuomo did!

Relatedly, if your velocity comfort zone is firmly confined to the 40-to-55-miles-per-hour range, you should stay on the highway’s right side, leaving the passing lane to those traveling fast enough to put it to proper use.

Judging from our trip, how to execute the effective passing of another vehicle also confounds many post-pandemic drivers. Pro-tip: This operation shouldn’t take an eternity to accomplish. Let’s say you are attempting to go by an 18-wheeler with “Walmart” emblazoned on its side. If, after two or three minutes, your vehicle is still abreast of the “R” or the “T,” it’s time to depress the gas pedal slightly, thereby reclaiming speed-determining authority from your vehicle’s cruise-control function and allowing you to manually hasten the passing operation.


A further note: There is an implicit contract inherent in passing. By undertaking to do so, you signal your intent to travel at a higher rate of speed than the vehicle you’re overtaking. If you complete your pass but then decrease your speed to less than that at which the other vehicle is traveling, its operator will consider you to have passed in bad faith. That person will then pass you in turn — and all your time in the left lane will have been for naught. Unless you happen to be a police officer, you may even find yourself the target of an uncongenial finger signal.

Not all motorists are borne along by four wheels, of course, which brings me to this: If you’ve ever purchased one of those mellifluous machines that lull you to sleep with soothing sounds, you may have noticed that among menu offerings like “ocean surf” or “forest rainstorm” or “mountain brook,” you rarely find “revving Harley with unmuffled exhaust pipes.” Why? Because that snarling noise isn’t music to most ears.


Indeed, even a small assemblage of riders reflexively vrooming their unbaffled bikes can diminish the experience of a small, beautiful, history-laden town like, say, Gettysburg, Pa. That’s why such behavior is considered a bit boorish by the non-biking world.

That word to the wise will no doubt do the trick. After all, no one in today’s America wants to be a loudness lout — do they?

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.