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As Long as We Remember...

October 18, 2011

Revelations from France’s National Highway

Earl 'Rocky' Mackintosh

Could it be that making good wine is not the only thing the French do better? It’s hard for me to admit that I’ve had a Maryland driver’s license for just 48 months shy of 50 years, but it’s the truth.


It’s even harder for me to admit that not 48 minutes after compiling background information for this topic, I was pulled over by a deputy with the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office for exceeding the speed limit in a 40-mile-per-hour zone.


With that said, I’m happy to report that the deputy chose to only give me a warning, thus avoiding a $90 speeding ticket!


While I must admit that there have more than a “few” instances where I have probably deserved to be pulled over, I have had very few traffic violations in the over 200,000 days of commandeering the wheel on the roads.


Now if there is anything that will jinx me … that statement surely will!!!


As my friend Farrell Keough often states … “But I digress!”


So … my wife Nancy and I recently returned from a wonderful vacation in France where we drove through the Rhone River Valley and the eastern portion of the French Riviera. We clocked over 1,600 kilometers (about 1,000 miles) in 10 days.


We have traveled in Europe before, and more often than not, rented a car to forge through our planned customized trip. If you’ve never driven through the European mainland, while the cars and trucks are smaller, driving takes place on the right side of the road as we Americans are accustomed.


After flying all night, we arrived in the Mediterranean town of Nice, France, at about 1 PM. Our mission was to drive north about 350 kilometers to the ancient Roman hill towns east of the Rhone River.


Unlike the Norwegians who have drilled hundreds incredibly long tunnels through mountains (some as long as 27 miles!) to make their roads straight, the French have chipped away very curvy narrow roads along cliffs overlooking wonderful views of the surrounding scenery.


That’s until one ventures onto the French national highways. Here we found wide open roads with three lanes on either side of the median.


As the day wore on toward what would be referred to as rush hour, the number of vehicles increased every kilometer. Incredibly there was little to no congestion.


It became very apparent to us that the French do something much better than those in the North American melting pot.


What could that be?


Drivers in Europe for the most part are very good at practicing something known as “Lane Courtesy.”


While it is part of all states’ driver’s education manuals, the concept of respecting the left lane as only a passing lane, is clearly something foreign to the average American.


How often have you pulled on to an interstate highway, found yourself behind a slow moving truck in the right lane, and moved to the left only to find another slow moving driver leading a line of impatient motorists as they look for an opportunity to pass via the right lane?


I learned the lesson of lane courtesy a few months after passing my driver’s test. I was 16. With the top down on my 1964 Ford Fairlane convertible, the radio blaring out current Rock & Roll tunes through WPGC 1580 AM, I was actually cruising at the speed limit … in the left lane on Interstate 70S between Rockville and Gaithersburg.


It so happened that I was driving perfectly parallel to another vehicle in the right lane of the then two lane highway. Happy that I was driving the speed limit, I was oblivious to the fact that there were at least 15 cars following the two of us in each lane.


After about 5 miles of keeping up with each other, my counterpart to the right exited the highway.


The next thing I knew, there appeared an extremely angry man in a car on my right.  Yelling at the top of his lungs over my radio playing the latest hit from Freddie and the Dreamers “I’m Telling You Now,” I received a fast X-Rated refresher course on Lane Courtesy.


Even more so that any angry instructive lecture I received from my father in those days, that moment has resonated with me over my 200,000 days behind the wheel.


Back then Americans actually respected the left lane. Even though there are more people on the highways now, there were fewer lanes and traffic did flow much better in peak traffic hours.


Being the conservative that I am, it’s hard for me to imagine that I would return from the socialist country of France boasting the people of that nation do something better than we Americans other than making great wines and cheese.


Five years ago in the heat of what is always an intense political county commissioner election, traffic congestion along our interstate highways was a major campaign issue. Along with several other people, I took part in a bi-partisan local issue political action committee (PAC) known as the Committee to Unlock Frederick Gridlock.


The group invested countless hours in researching solutions to the congestion we all experience along our interstate highways, as well as U.S. Route 15. Candidates were polled on whether they would support state and federal funding to widen I-270 and Route 15.


While the effort definitely raised awareness to the issue, not much was really accomplished in Annapolis. Of course, the bottom fell out of the real estate market, the economy leaving governmental coffers at all levels strapped for cash.


But after reflecting on how well the traffic flowed on the highways of our friends in France, clearly there are some steps that individual drivers could practice that just might assist in alleviating some of that congestion that we face on our major roads.


The National Motorist Association (NMA) has spent a tremendous amount of effort on the issue of “Lane Courtesy.” Its website provides the reader with an opinion of how the concept was given a death sentence when President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the 55-mile-per-hour National Speed Limit.


NMA claims that the concept of only using the left lane for passing has been lost to an entire generation of drivers.


The NMA also says that this one act started a culture change in American driving habits, by creating a mindset that as long as one drove the speed limit, it really did not matter what lane you resided in.


For those of us old enough to recall those days, I think they’re on to something.


The organization promotes the proper practice of lane courtesy, by using one’s turn signal when changing lanes, and then “politely” flashing one’s headlamps to request the slow driver in the left lane to move right.


I must admit I have used this method several times when driving on the interstates. Unfortunately, in about 50% of the cases the driver in front of me has no clue what I’m trying to signal, ignores me or becomes agitated and slows down out of spite.


Many states have laws dictating the proper use of the left lane, but they are rarely enforced except in cases where a driver is moving well below the speed limit.


So, what can one take away from all this pontification of the topic of Lane Courtesy?


For me, it has made me more aware that my left lane highway driving practices have been good. But I have also found that with my heighten level of awareness that the French drivers are better than we Americans … has increased my level of frustration with slow left laners.


Could my impatience lead me down the path of road rage?


Hmmmm … I guess I will have to let you know the results of my next encounter with a highway patrolman!


Stay tuned!


Rocky Mackintosh is the owner of a land and commercial real estate firm based in Frederick. He is also the editor of the MacRo Report Blog.


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