Sunday, March 02, 2008

Driving Me Crazy - The Pokey and The Gapper

I have to talk about these two together, because in combination, they often create one of the biggest headaches commuters face each and every morning - the Complete Stop For No Apparent Reason. "The Pokey" is, as you may have guessed, a slowpoke. Now, I would cringe at the accusation that I am a "Leadfoot" (or "Zippy", as I'll talk about at a later date), but I do like to drive fast. Safely, yes, for I do not believe in that bullshit that "speed kills", but a little fast. (Speed doesn't kill, bad driving does. Race car drivers survive fast driving all the time.) I feel that the 55 MPH Speed Limit for interstate highways, which were built when the national speed limit was 75 MPH, is too oppressive. I even think that 65 MPH is too low, but at least it's a lot closer to the speed at which I like to drive. I'm not going to set myself up for a conviction for speeding by saying anything more specific than that. [Now, for purposes of this post, unless I specifically say otherwise, I am talking about driving in ideal conditions - the roads are dry, there is no precipitation, and it is light enough outside to see. In other words, no excuses. None of this "Well, what if it's raining or snowing out? Shouldn't you drive slower and leave a gap in front of you then?" In that case, yes, you would, but we're not talking about that here. Got it? Good.] But the Pokey is the guy who does things like drive 55 MPH in the left-hand lane of a highway on which you are allowed to do 65 MPH. (It's even worse when he's a Pacer, too.) I especially hate the assholes who drive at the Universal Speed Limit of 45 MPH because they're too dumb to read the speed limit signs and know that they can go faster. I know they're deliberately driving at 45 because they don't know they can go faster because there was a stretch of road near my home on which the speed limit was a rarely-posted 55 MPH. People would drive along at 45 MPH until they reached the county line where a 45-MPH Speed Limit is posted, and they would speed up to 50-54 MPH. If they were willing to speed up to 5-9 miles over the speed limit at that point, then what did they think the speed limit was when they were tooling along at only 45? They must have thought it was lower, or they would have sped up. Maybe they're just too afraid to drive. My feeling is that if you're too afraid to drive, then don't. Or do it when there's no one around, like three in the morning or during a blizzard. Then you won't bother me.

And then there's the Gapper. Poor Misunderstood Gapper. Nobody appreciates the good he thinks he's trying to do. And with good reason. He's only making things worse. "The Gapper" is the name I give to the guy who likes to keep and maintain at all costs an unnecessarily large gap between himself and the car in front of him. I have no problem with the idea of leaving a little distance between you and the guy in front of you, but it doesn't have to be enough distance to play football in. About two or three car lengths is reasonable enough if you're the type who pays attention to what's going on around him. If you think the countryside or the person talking next to you is more interesting than the guy hitting his brakes in front of you, then maybe you should leave yourself a little more room than that. The point is, leave a gap that you can use to slow down safely within, but don't maintain that distance even when you do come to a complete stop! When I see the guy ahead of me leaving a huge gap in front of him, I'm going to assume that as the cars in front of him slow down, he will utilize that distance to gradually slow down, as opposed to suddenly slamming on the brakes and keeping a good hundred and fifty feet of empty space in front of him. This, in turn, causes me to have to brake suddenly because I'm slowing myself down to come to a stop at a point further up the road. I'm not expecting that the Gapper is only going to use half of all that beautiful space to stop safely. Where the Gapper does more harm than he thinks is when, after coming to a complete stop because of a Pokey way up ahead, he decides to leave a gap in front of him when traffic starts moving again. He might think that traffic will just start moving along at the same 30 or 40 MPH that he's planning on doing, and that everyone will be able to just move along, but at a slower pace and without having to come to a stop. He is not helping at all. In fact, he is going to cause the exact same thing to happen somewhere behind him in that lane. Here's why.

Let's imagine a thought experiment. You can try to actually do this if you think the results will be different than predicted, but I think you'll agree with what I'm about to propose. Let's imagine that you have a large jar, but it doesn't have to be bigger than a gallon, and would probably be better if it were smaller. Then get a funnel with an opening on the bottom that you would be able to plug something in to make it allow less fluid to flow through. Maybe a piece of cork cut to fill half the hole. Lastly, you will need a source of water to pour into the funnel, like a bucket or a garden hose, but something you can control somehow.

Now, if you place the funnel in the mouth of the jar and begin pouring water into it, you will find that the funnel will fill up to a certain point where there is a kind of equilibrium. The water flows down into the jar through the funnel at about the same rate the water gets poured into it. It make back up into the funnel a bit, but it would still flow out at about the same rate that it flows in. Imagine what happens now if you were to plug up the funnel with the cork and begin pouring water into it at the same rate as you did before. Obviously, the flow out the bottom would not be the same as it was before, and the water would begin to back up into the funnel faster than it did before. In fact, depending on how clogged up the hole is, it might even be necessary to stop pouring water into the funnel in order to avoid spilling it onto the counter. Why does this happen? Simply put, more water is flowing in to the funnel than is able to get past the cork and flow into the jar. Does that make sense?

Well, instead of a jar we have an interstate highway (like I-684, the one near my home.) And instead of water, we have cars. And instead of a cork in the funnel, we have one guy going slower than everyone else around him. He may be a Pokey at the head of the line, but he may also be a Gapper. Because the line of cars flowing onto the highway behind him in that lane is going faster than he is, the traffic starts to bunch up, not unlike the water in the funnel when the bottom of it gets corked. Eventually that traffic has to slow down and not pour in so fast. It may even have to come to a complete stop. This is the reason, believe it or not, why you sometimes come to a complete stop on the highway without any visible reason for needing to do so. It's because someone up ahead of you is going slower than you and most of the people behind you want to go. As I said, it may be a Pokey at the front of the line, but it could also be a Gapper somewhere in the middle. Remember that at the time the Gapper had to come to a stop, there were still cars coming onto the highway, many miles behind him, who were picking up speed and traveling along at 65-75 MPH. They may not even see the backup up ahead but, like the water that continues to pour into the plugged funnel, they're going to just keep on coming. Sooner or later they're going to come up on the guy who's gapping and going at a slower pace, no less. They will have to start to slow down and a bunch up will occur behind them. So instead of "smoothing things out" by leaving a large gap, he's just causing the same thing to happen behind him. He has become the second cork in the funnel. And that's why I don't like Pokeys and Gappers. As far as I'm concerned, they can go cork themselves.

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