I’ve been thinking about my father lately, because he died nine years ago this week in an automobile accident. He was one of 42,642 deaths on American roads in 2006, an annual slaughter we apparently consider an acceptable cost for our motorized way of life.1
You might think there’s something Freudian in my subsequent decision to give up car ownership, but the truth is I was already souring on cars. It wasn’t until May of that year that I moved from a small town on the coast to Bangor, where a car-free life is possible, and even then it took me until the end of the year to cut the cord.
My Dad and I disagreed about a lot of things. He leaned conservative and I lean liberal, so we had plenty of fodder for lively political discussions. But he did teach me a valuable lesson about courtesy. He had a nice phrase for it, too. He used to say that courtesy is the grease that keeps the machinery of society running. When I was younger, and surer of everything, I pooh-poohed this as the faux wisdom of an old man. He didn’t live to see the rise of social media. But nowhere is his lesson on courtesy more needed.
Express an opinion on Facebook, or a blog, or any on-line forum, and within about three comments someone is likely to call you a fool, a traitor, or worse. Recently I was trying to make the point that taxpayer-funded public transportation can save a family the cost of owning and maintaining a second vehicle (around $9,000 per year on average, according to the American Automobile Association), and was not so cordially invited to shut up, with the added admonition that I was obviously “just another loud-mouth dolt.”
Few of us would say that to someone’s face, but computer screens and cars seem to shield people from the immediate consequences of being rude. I’ve had horrible things yelled at me from passing cars when I’m on my bicycle. I’ve been flipped off more times than I can count. I have heard drivers express the opinion that bicycling on public roadways should be outlawed, that bicyclists are nuisances, that we are dangerous. Bicycles aren’t killing more than thirty thousand Americans a year.2 Cars are dangerous.
I do realize that bicyclists and pedestrians and bus passengers can be rude, too. But they are not cocooned behind a windshield or a user name. Recently I was on a bus with a young woman carrying on a loud, lengthy cell phone conversation. You could hear her all over the bus. I finally approached her and asked politely if she could wrap it up. She responded with a stream of invective. I told her she was being rude to her fellow passengers, and she replied, “I don’t care.” After I had meekly returned to my seat, the guy across from her leaned over and said, “Will you shut the fuck up?” She told her friend on the phone that people were harassing her and she had to go. Message delivered, in a language she understood. Would the guy have spoken up if I hadn’t said anything? I don’t know.
It doesn’t kill you to be polite. Courtesy can be the difference between reason and resentment, between an agreement to disagree and the harboring of hard feelings. It isn’t always easy, but practicing courtesy is always worth the effort. On line, it can foster respect. On the road, it can literally save lives.
1 – Figures are from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
2 – The 2013 figure was 32,719, including 4,735 pedestrians and 743 cyclists. Fatalities dropped sharply following the 2008 recession and gas price spike.