In Praise Of Bad Drivers (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Los Angeles Traffic)

I complain a lot about the drivers in Los Angeles. Mostly, to myself, while I’m driving. I believe the French would call them insufferable. Los Angeles boasts one of the world’s finest collections of bad drivers. We have ignorant shitheads who grind the gears of super expensive German automobiles. There are self-satisfied Prius drivers who seem to think the fact they get such good gas mileage means they don’t have to pay attention to anyone else on the road. We have gaggles of lost tourists and plenty of the fifteen mile-an-hour variety. We are rife with minivans packed sardine-full with families that apparently hate everyone else and really need to get to band practice. We also have our fair share of utterly flummoxed foreign drivers, misguided teens, arrogant Uber drivers, slow-moving and forever-stopping tour buses, as well as those dudes who make you just hope a cop is at the next intersection. I’m sure racists could have a field day in Los Angeles breaking down the bad driving by ethnic division, but not only is that déclassé, it’s also unnecessary since most bad drivers, regardless of color or creed, are bad for the same reason — they don’t know how to be one in a chorus of many. And that’s what traffic is. It’s a flock of birds. A school of fish. The tectonic flow of the 405 in rush hour.

The other day, I was stuck behind this annoying sumbitch in a giant old American car — a Chevrolet Caprice station wagon, if you’re into that sort of thing. And this dude was driving me absolutely nuts. He was driving just faster than I could push myself in a wheelchair and there was no getting around him. It seemed like this self-absorbed asshole did not give a single shiny shit about anyone else. What, you’re late for your audition? Suck my tail pipe! After the heat of frustration reminded me how unpleasant it was to react like a child, I got lucky and was finally able to get around a moving truck and pass the Caprice. At the next light, the asshole pulled alongside me. I turned to face him. He was an old man, painfully hunched forward and curled around the steering wheel like a question mark. If there was any doubt left, the blue placard hanging from his windshield confirmed that the gnarled man driving so poorly was handicapped. And then I knew it wasn’t him, it was me — I was the asshole. I was a judgmental prick. The dude might be headed to his doctor. Or he might be going to buy pornography. He doesn’t need a noble reason to be on the road. They’re his roads, too. My expectation — that everyone pay attention to other drivers and generally not crowd the road — is just that: my expectation. The gnarled man, who may or may not have been on his way to pick up pornography or visit a back specialist, made me realize we all have our own pace.

Which brings me to my backwards point: We are all blessed with bad drivers.

Now, when I say bad drivers, you may think I mean to include dangerous drivers, like, those assholes who cut you off and nearly cause you to crash, or worse, who do end up getting into four car pile-ups on the freeway. I’d say drivers like that cross the line. They’re reckless or dangerous drivers. No one is blessed by their presence.

Of course, there are some bad drivers who border on reckless but they’re nothing more than a cautionary tale. I’ve been one of those bad drivers, and on enough occasions that it would make most folks want to guarantee that I will never date their daughter.

When I was in school in San Francisco, a friend asked if I wanted to drive with him to Los Angeles. I asked when. He said in an hour. Three hours later, we were on a freeway, splitting the darkness in a ’63 ragtop Volkswagen bug. My friend is a notoriously bad driver. He flutters the gas pedal, which makes passengers queasy. And he has the bad habit of bumping into pedestrians and parked cars. His car did not help matters. The headlights weren’t set properly, so they were aimed up. When we passed under a freeway overpass we could see the cement above us far better than the road in front of us. It was a four-cylinder car but only three cylinders were working. Somehow, we made it to Los Angeles.

It was on the drive home that things became questionable. Coming down the Grapevine descent. If you’re unfamiliar with it, imagine a ribbon of road following a long steady mountain descent that’s decorated with runaway truck sandpits on nearly every curve. By this point, we only had two working cylinders but going down the Grapevine, steep as it is, we were still picking up speed. It was raining. This meant I had to stand up out of the ragtop and use a spare t-shirt to wipe the windshield — because, oh yeah, the windshield wipers refused to work. To make matters a touch more fatalistic, the front right wheel was cock-eyed. I don’t know if it was the axle or the wheel mount but as fast as we were bombing down the mountain, the front wheel would make a wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka sound. I kept thinking it was like a drummer that secretly had plans of going solo.

A friendly couple pulled up alongside us and rolled down their window. I rolled down the passenger window, uncertain if it would go back up. The driver, around thirty years old, looked like he sold toner cartridges for a living in Bakersfield. The concern on his face was kinda touching. He yelled, “Your wheel! Your wheel! Your wheel’s about to fall off!” That was our opinion, too.

I yelled back, “We know! Thank you!” His pinched look of concern shifted effortlessly into a softer look of puzzlement; and we went wakka-wakka-wakka-wakking on down the mountain. As I stood up and wiped the windshield free of rain, I remember thinking, “Man, we just gave them a helluva story to tell at choir practice. You wouldn’t believe these two idiots we saw on the Grapevine. I’m fairly certain they’re dead now.” In that moment, we were the bad drivers. For them, we were a cautionary tale unspooling in real time. We were a gentle midnight reminder that the toner salesman made better decisions than we did. For him, and who I presume was his wife, we were a blessing in disguise. We made them realize how well they lived.

Personally, I don’t need such reminders. I don’t believe in good and bad, at least not that way. I don’t want to be good. But I sure do need a ton of reminders of how to live well. Thus far, the greatest one I’ve learned (yet struggle with daily) is a simple ABC: Always Be Compassionate.

For the longest time, I didn’t even understand what it meant. I thought telling an asshole he drove like an asshole was compassionate — for all the other drivers on the road. But then a friend’s mother once told him (and by proxy, me): we are all the walking wounded. I liked the way she put it. Or, like the gnarled question mark of a man, we are all the driving wounded. Everyone is hurt and possibly doing their best in that moment, even if they’re acting like a complete asshole. Every one of us needs a little tenderness. When I drive around Los Angeles, all the bad drivers remind me of this. Every. Day.

They’re a great lesson in how to deal with the flipside of being compassionate: Don’t Be Judgmental. If you go around the world judging all the annoying drivers, and then, if you act on that emotional assessment of a stranger, you will rarely make the world a better place.

Every time I catch myself asking: How the fuck do I attract so many goddamn bad drivers? What am I, a nut-magnet? Like, why do I always get stuck behind the slowest, most self-absorbed jerks on the road? Rather than answer that — I flip it. It’s not about them. It’s about me. For most of my life, I was looking at it backwards: bad drivers aren’t a curse; they are a supremely powerful lesson in compassion. One that assholes like me really need. They’re like sandpaper polishing our rough and knotty parts. Bad drivers are basically like Buddhist boot camp for judgmental assholes, myself included. That’s why, as some of my favorite basic bitches would put it, the terrible drivers in Los Angeles make me feel #blessed.

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If you wish to enjoy more of Zaron Burnett III’s work, here’s a link to his latest collection of humorous essays: How Do I Survive This Sh*t?

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