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Open Diff: Has driving become joyless?

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Photo by Eddie Welker.

There’s a certain romantic ideal that comes with owning a convertible sports car. Being part of the environment while enjoying the song of a multi-cam engine combine to create a magical atmosphere, one that makes the suffering of a long winter easily forgotten. That’s what drew me to small convertible sports cars in the first place, and it’s what has always brought me back to them.

For me, twisty-road trips on a temperate spring day were once the stuff dreams (and stress relief) were made of. Not long ago, the keys to happiness on such drives were simple: Leave early, before traffic builds, and stick to roads less traveled. Now, those pointers are no longer valid.

On a recent Saturday, my wife and I jumped into the Miata to take the long way — the really long way — to meet friends at a restaurant roughly equidistant between us. We wound our way south, into Massachusetts, then west, into New York, headed for the small-ish hamlet of New Paltz. We weren’t 20 minutes from home before we ran into the first road clot.

I should probably preface this by saying that I no longer drive on public roads with reckless abandon, and these days, it’s rare to catch me at more than 5 mph above the speed limit. Increasingly, however, I seem to encounter those who refuse to drive in reasonable proximity TO the speed limit, even in dry conditions during daylight hours. Stuck at 45 mph in a 50-mph zone can be annoying, but driving at 35 in a 50 is downright maddening, particularly when safe passing zones are few and far between. It’s even worse when one gets to a safe passing zone, only to find the driver — young and old, male and female alike — with a cell phone glued to their ear or staring intently at a smartphone, blissfully unaware of what’s going on around them.

Ultimately, I lost count of how many times this happened to us on that Saturday. Some bad drivers stand out, like one in a tattered Saab 9-5 who repeatedly crossed the fog line and the center line, driving either well-below or well-above the speed limit as she carried on an animated cell phone conversation. I also lost count of how many dirty looks I received passing on a dashed center line, with a clear line of sight, from drivers traveling 15 or more miles per hour below the speed limit.

Sure, cell phones are frequently to blame, but as a whole, modern cars and trucks isolate drivers from their surroundings all too well. I’m sure several drivers overtaken had no idea I was behind them, since use of the rearview (or side) mirror appears to be a lost art. Even those not distracted by the latest electronics were probably sipping a Big Gulp, eating a McTasty Double, or learning to speak Tagalog via cassette tape. Ultimately, the point is this — no matter what they were paying attention to, it most certainly wasn’t driving.

Which, for the first time since I received a driver’s license at age 17, has led me to a somber conclusion: Driving has become a joyless task. There are no more uncluttered roads — even in the hinterlands — and smartphone-addled motorists exist even in places one wouldn’t expect to find cell phone coverage. After 37 years of fighting the good fight, I’m about ready to concede defeat — the driving-indifferent, in their sensory-deprived cages, have won out.

Prove me wrong. Give me a restored faith in humanity, or at least tell me where I can go to once again enjoy a Saturday morning drive — at reasonable speeds — without risking life and limb.