Driving in the rain

I’ve heard it repeatedly from people who have grown up in other climes: Southern Californians don’t know how to drive in bad weather.  That may be an exaggeration.  But there is some truth to it.

Last Saturday, I left the house shortly after 7 AM to drive through the rain to Pasadena for an all-day marriage seminar.  I didn’t expect much traffic.  But when I got on the freeway, it was nearly at a dead stop.  One exit further down the road, a pickup truck had flipped, wheels skyward, balancing on its cab.  A few miles later, I saw a car sitting motionless and askew in the fast lane, its front end pushed into the engine block.  And again, in another few miles, a sedan had spun out, pointing east in the westbound carpool lane.

When I arrived in Pasadena, the exit I needed was closed, though I couldn’t see why; I heard later that there was a jack-knifed big rig on the other side.  A pastor at the seminar told me he had driven into Pasadena from the other direction, and in those scant seven or eight miles, had also encountered an overturned car and a multi-vehicle accident.

I began the seminar with a prayer of thanksgiving for all of us having made it there in one piece, and a prayer of compassion for the people whose lives may have been forever altered by one unfortunate traffic incident.  Was it because of their own negligence, haste, or carelessness?  Someone else’s?  A little of both?  Who knows.  But there must be at least some Southern Californians who don’t drive wisely in the rain.  And that’s enough to wreak a fair amount of havoc.

I see it while I’m driving.  Rain is falling down from above; tires are spraying their own showers of water up from below.  Visibility is poor; it’s like navigating through a sauna.  But people are still driving like it’s a clear, dry, sunny day: tailgating at full speed, dodging in and out, like a mad game of Tetris.  I’ve had the experience of driving slowly and carefully down a partially flooded street, only to have someone zoom by, flinging off a gigantic sheet of water in his wake.  For two terrifying seconds, I’m blind, as the sheet lands with a thump on my windshield.  Then the water clears, and I’m fighting the urge to curse.

So here we are, crawling in the rain past the topsy-turvy truck, gawking greedily.  Then the truck is behind us, forgotten; we stomp on the gas and return to tailgating and weaving our way through traffic.  Ah, too bad for the other guy, we might think.  But behind that twinge of sympathy may be the unrecognized and misplaced confidence that we’re not at much risk ourselves.

Social psychologists talk about what they call a fundamental attribution bias: if other people have difficulties, it’s due to their deficits; as for me, circumstances are to blame.  If I may be allowed to hijack a phrase from Paul, that’s only one short step away from thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, instead of with sober judgment (Rom 12:3).  I know what I’m doing.  Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard the research about how dangerous it’s supposed to be to text and drive at the same time.  But I’m really good at it.  No problem. 

Is this confined to how we are behind the wheel?  I doubt it.  We see the wreckage in other people’s upside-down lives.  We tsk and gossip; we shake our heads in sympathy; we pray for God to be merciful to them.  Then we hurry on our heedless way.  Not that we would actually say out loud, “That will never happen to me!”  But what silent conceit allows us to be unconcerned with whether we’re taking sufficient care?

Scripture is full of imperatives.  “Be alert and of sober mind,” Peter commands.  “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Pet 5:8,9, NIV).  Be watchful; be wise.

And to Peter’s voice, we should add Paul’s: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Cor 10:12, NIV).  Do we, without even knowing it, overestimate our degree of competence or control, or our spiritual fortitude?

Be of sober mind.  The world is under no obligation to honor our distorted self-concepts.