When I got my driver’s license at 31 and started driving alone for the first time, I began encountering two types of potentially dangerous situations about which no friend, instructor, driver’s manual or internet forum had warned me.
Having spent my first thirty years (minus the few before I could walk) as a pedestrian in New York City, I learned to tune out the constant wailing of ambulances and fire trucks. Unless an emergency vehicle was about to cut through my walking path perpendicularly, the siren sound’s only relevance was to make me sometimes wonder what catastrophe had befallen someone who wasn’t me. In highschool, we actually had an assembly where a troupe of performers encouraged us to hear that common car alarm tune that goes from oscillating cries to robot-like beeps to a sort of slide whistle, as a song and they taught us dance moves to go along with each part. Such was the drive to reinterpret sounds of alarm into something benign. In a city as dense as New York, if you don’t learn to at least ignore those noises, you’ll be on edge all the time.
Now, behind the wheel, I still think of the siren as something to tune out, a distant cry in a Law and Order episode. I only really get it once the cars in front of me mysteriously slow down and pull to the side. And then there’s still a slow-motion thought process:
Hey! Wait a minute! What’s that guy doing? What’s that other guy doing? What’s going on? … Oh… Right… Shit! Is there room for me to pullover? I’m not sure!
By the time I slow down and pull to the shoulder or parking lane the ambulance has figured out a way around me and my fumbling maneuver was an empty gesture.
Pulling over to yield to an emergency vehicle is one thing in a manual, it’s another in real life. So far, the scenario has not occurred with enough frequency to break my 30-year habit of ignoring sirens. I hope that writing about it here will make this important rule sink in.
While my first unexpected driving hazard is heralded by a warning sound I should heed but do not, the second hazard functions oppositely. I have SIRIUS satellite radio in my car and I switch back and forth between NPR and BBC. It seems like BBC correspondents are always interviewing people on the street during rush hour. In India, China, London… there is so much traffic that it’s all a driver can do to honk out their frustration. Or, is it a tradition to honk at BBC reporters? I’ve stopped short more than once at an alarmingly urgent beeeep meant for some poor driver on the other side of the earth. But, the more time I’ve spent listening to BBC the easier it’s become to hear these horns as background noise. It’s been far harder to break the habit of not paying attention to very real sirens.
The hazards are not the ambulances or radio programs, but my habits, my non-driver ways of processing sound and confusing real and fake signs of danger. Much of the California driver’s manual is geared toward teen drivers. Perhaps the DMV should add some instructions specifically for late-bloomer drivers. I’m sure these dangerous habits will change in time like some of my other pre-Los Angeles habits have. Last time I was back in New York City I had to relearn to jaywalk!
P.S. When you’re taking the road test and you come to a yield sign, crane your neck all the way around really exaggeratedly even if you think you saw out of the corner of your eye that no cars were coming. I just saved you a few points.