In a big hurry

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 12, 2004

Whatever happened to those lazy days spent behind the wheel of an automobile – windows down, hair blowing in the breeze, the Doobie Brothers on the radio cranking out &uot;Long Train Running&uot; – and driving with no particular place to go?

If you now dare to get behind the wheel, you better make sure your life insurance is up to date. Today’s motorists are a far fetch from those of us fortunate enough to learn how to drive by zipping around farm paths on a tractor or a beat-up pick ’em up truck.

I was one of those fortunate souls. I cut my teeth on a Massey Harris tractor and a 1949 Ford truck. By the time I completed Driver’s Education under the watchful eye of Carl Russell Britt, hitting the road was a pleasurable experience. That smooth pavement sure beat the heck out of a bumpy farm path. Plus, there were no mud holes in the highway.

Now in my 35th year since first earning the privilege to operate a motor vehicle, I’ve had ample opportunity to learn that today’s style of driving is much more aggressive in nature. Motorists seem to be in an all-fired hurry, but to get exactly where? Nine times out of 10, when another motorist passes me – and that’s not an easy task as I normally drive at five miles above the posted speed limit – on the open highway, I’ll catch them at a stoplight at the next town or major intersection.

Another thing that burns my chops are drivers not paying attention. Folks, it’s a privilege to earn a driver’s license. It’s not a God-given right. If you don’t know the rules of the road or just can’t seem to get that cell phone out of your ear while zipping down the blacktop at breakneck speeds, then please – park it!

A few weeks back, I was on my way back to work following lunch at home. I was on Jernigan Swamp Road just outside of Ahoskie where one of those huge, gas-guzzling SUV’s came barreling around a curve. The vehicle began to cross over the centerline to the point where half of it was in my lane. I responded by driving my right side tires off the edge of the road, slowing as I prepared to &uot;clean out a ditch&uot; as we use to say back in high school. Then, at the last possible second, this female driver – with a cell phone stuck in her ear – realized her error and yanked her vehicle to the right.

This past Sunday afternoon, I was slowly inching my way along NC 11 in a heavy rainstorm. It was raining so hard that I had trouble making out the taillights of the vehicle I was following (mind you, at a safe distance, not close enough to identify the cologne the driver was wearing). Another vehicle was following me, also at a safe distance due to the nasty driving conditions.

We were all driving at approximately 40 mph. It was raining so hard that water was quickly building up on the roadway. All of a sudden, a vehicle came racing up behind us and blindly passed on a slight incline. It was a passing zone, but given the conditions and given the fact that it was raining cats and dogs, it was an extremely risky maneuver.

A mile or so later, we met two vehicles that were not operating their headlights – a big &uot;no-no&uot; when it’s raining.

But enough of my harrowing experiences behind the wheel. A recent e-mail sent to me by Jill Lucas of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program (GHSP) only verified what I already know – be prepared to die everytime you get behind the wheel.

From June 30 until July 6, North Carolina law enforcement officials conducted the &uot;Joining Forces&uot; campaign. The program successfully mixed buckle-up and impaired driving enforcement during more than 3,300 checkpoints and stepped-up patrols conducted statewide.

Coordinated by the GHSP, the campaign reported 1,298 driving while impaired (DWI) arrests. Counties with the highest number of DWI arrests include Mecklenburg (114), Guilford (67), and

Wake (58).

At a Red Springs (Robeson County) checkpoint, one offender’s breath-alcohol content was measured at .35, which is a record-high reading for the BATMobile program. The legal standard for impairment in North Carolina is .08. At a Raleigh checkpoint, in which two BATMobiles and more than 100 law enforcement officers participated, 23 drivers were arrested for impaired driving offenses. Officers also recorded 21 criminal charges and 279 other traffic violations.

During the weeklong campaign, state and local law enforcement officers also cited 5,437 motorists for safety belt violations and 683 for child passenger safety violations. They also recovered 72 stolen vehicles and apprehended 18 wanted persons. A total of 34,665 traffic and criminal violations were recorded.

In the Roanoke-Chowan area, law enforcement officers conducted a total of 18 vehicle checkpoint stations and participated in a combined 21 saturation patrols. That effort netted five DWI arrests, relatively low for a major holiday weekend, but five too many for my blood. Four of those arrests were noted in Gates County while the other was in Bertie.

As far as occupant restraint, a total of 87 citations were written in the four counties. Apparently, drivers in my native county of Northampton haven’t noticed that the state has a law against not buckling up as an area high 48 motorists were ticketed.

As previously mentioned, motorists are simply driving too fast. During the weeklong program, 129 drivers received speeding tickets in the four counties.

I commend the actions of our law enforcement officers. They are too few in number – the fault of budget cuts – but despite being way outnumbered by motorists, they do a wonderful job of making their presence noted on our local roads.

It would be a wonderful world if they didn’t have to write a single ticket. Unfortunately, that world – complete with kids learning to drive behind the wheel of a tractor or an old farm truck – has passed us by.