Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Where are the truckers of yesteryear?

I made it as far as Chicago, and while I was driving my mind wandered to the Greyhound bus trips I used to take back and forth to college. On Sunday nights when I rode from home in Chicago back to Urbana, Illinois, I used to sit up front by the driver. I went home often enough that he recognized me and we used to have long conversations. That was back in the days when bus drivers were allowed to have conversations with passengers, and I think it helped him stay wide awake. Anyway, I'd observe how he flashed his headlights when a truck or another bus had passed him, signaling the other driver that all was clear to pull ahead of him. My bus driver said it could be really stressful to be pulling a big rig and trying to keep track of little cars that might pull to the right to pass just before you were trying to get into the right lane, and it was also tricky to gauge whether you'd truly passed a vehicle and that the driver knew you wanted to pull in. So this little "all clear" was appreciated, and when a truck pulled in front of us, that driver would flash his tail lights back at my driver in a little sign of thanks.

I loved how courteous the highways seemed back then. I didn't learn to drive until I was 22 or so, but as soon as I took to the open road in my trusty Ford Pinto, I started flashing my lights whenever trucks passed me, when it was safe for them to pull in. And 90% of them flashed their tail lights back at me. It made the highways as friendly for me as Baltimore was to Tracy Turnblad.

Hardly any truckers nowadays seem aware of this friendly tradition. Few of them flash to give each other the all clear, and even fewer expect auto drivers to do this. Last time I drove home from the Twin Cities, three truckers blinked their tail lights at me, but today, even with all the trucks passing me near Tomah and on the Illinois tollway, only one driver blinked. I bet if it were possible to get reliable statistics for each year from the 1950s through this decade, one would find a perfect inverse correlation between the number of auto drivers signaling truckers that it was safe to pull ahead of them and the number of auto drivers giving truckers and other drivers the finger. Something has been lost. Does anyone but me miss it?