Driven to distraction

I have a theory: I think you can tell a lot about a person’s character by how they drive their car.

Mind you, I have no emperical data for any of this. It’s just 18 years of accumulated observations and mounting frustrations. Your mileage may vary.

My grandfather would frequently say that “99% of people are good people,” and I can agree with this. I think my grandfather had some kind of generic idea of what “good” meant, and if by good, he meant that 99% of people did not want to hurt others, and if possible, wanted to help others, I’d go with that.

But if I base my judgement soley on how people drive their cars, I’d have to say that while 99% of people are “good” people, far, far fewer are of what I would consider good character.

Last night, while out on a walk, I watched three cars go through a stop sign in my neighborhood without any sign of slowing down. When I leave the metro station, there is often a long line of cars waiting to cross a particular intersection. More often than not, one or two cars will get into the left-hand turn only lane and then proceed to go straight threw the intersection, jumping ahead of all of the other cars that have been following the law.

What’s interesting about this, is that if people know you are watching, they’ll do a better job of obeying the law. There is a 3-way stop sign at the end of my block and cars rarely stop at it–some don’t even slow down. I can watch them from a distance when I’m sitting in the front yard, where the drivers don’t notice me. However, if I walk toward the intersection, drivers do notice me and will slow down and stop at the stop sign.

What this tells me is that people’s mentality goes along the lines that if no one is around to see them break the law–and if they would never get caught–then it’s okay to do it. But this is one of the big fallacies of ethics. I was always taught that the truest assessment of character come forward in how a person behaves when no one is watching. People who stop at stop-signs when no one else is around, do so because the law says you should stop at a stop sign and it would be dishonest not to, even if it doesn’t hurt anyone.

Character is a slippery slope. Someone who doesn’t stop at stops signs might not be hurting anyone. Maybe they are not. But that doesn’t make it right and to me, that’s a blight on their character. That same person might think it’s okay to steal office supplies from work because it’s not hurting anyone. Or they might think it’s okay to keep extra change given to them by mistake, because it’s not hurting anyone. But it’s still patently dishonest.

Given the number of people I see in my neighborhood casually ignoring stop signs, I can only conclude that while people might be good, they have a tendency to be dishonest when no one is looking, and this is a depressing thought. Ultimately, these are the people with whom you live in a community, with whom you work with, with whose children your children go to school.

How many of these people run stops signs on their way to church on Sunday morning? How many of them park their SUV’s in “compact” parking spots in the Church parking lot? People may be good people, may have good intentions, but the more see, the hypocritical I think they are.

I think running the stop sign is a good metaphor to what is happening to people’s character in this country. Republicans seem to define character as some quasi-religious thing that requires undying allegience to the Party. It’s not clear to me how Democrats define character. But I define it, as I said, as how someone behaves when they think no one else is watching.

I’m not perfect myself, believe me. I’ve run a stop sign once or twice–but always by accident. And while I have my lapses now and then, I am always trying to become a better person.

Am I the only one?