Driving in Hampton Roads
Updated: Sep 10
Life and Death on Interstate 64
Fifty-six hundred pounds of Escalade hard laid its side. A brilliant red of rescue lights reflects abstract across the SUV’s crumpled midnight black. A pick-up truck points in both directions, its open trailer jackknifed over two lanes, landscaping mowers poised for cutting overgrowth.
The scene invites neither fear nor contemplation. Once traffic rubbernecks’ clear, throttles are pushed full, and the race begins for gaining another position from anyone daring to hesitate. Rapid random lane changing, bumper riding intimidation, the only goal is me first.
The traffic moves as raging river. Seventy miles per hour keeps me pacing in whitewater always rising over shoulder. I pass no one. The speed means I synchronize my space with the few others understanding the river’s offering for moving easy with the flow. I am the few. We see the river. We want to flow with the river.
The westbound transition from Interstates 264 to 64 is classic Hampton Roads design; the entrance lanes are the exit lanes. Coming on. Coming off. At 70mph. In the same lane. The chance for transition is narrow and short. No one yields.
Speeds increase on I-64. Settling in at 75 mph lessons opportunity for being re-ended. Still the rage runs up back bumper, swerving right or left for the near miss. There is no passing lane. There is only space available for immediate occupation. Spilt second, I’m taking it now opportunities for another car length. Passing is often done in the same lane, as the rushed can’t make it across the dotted white, so dare pass in half straddle. After grazing right comes sudden swerve left in a desperate two-lane change. Maybe they missed my front bumper by a few feet. Maybe it was less. If my speed had increased that moment our vehicles would marry and spread across every lane.
The highway’s design narrows in approach to the water. And gets rougher. Third-world condition feels appropriate description. Leaving one baffled how engineer or official could deem it safe with conscience. The conditions bring debris as lose car parts, truck bedded housewares, roof carried essentials, shed as obstacle. Toolboxes, 20-foot painter ladders, a rowing machine, a Lazy-Boy in full recline, all items I’ve veered to avoid in the past four months.
A car blurs along side doing at least 85 mph. The driver holds her phone high face front. I suppose she can see around her screen during the precious time of face. We are not driving. We are texting, sexting, streaming, and scheming every distraction. Driving has completed transition to being the distraction. Driving is the other thing we’re doing in the way of what we want to be doing, which is being on our phone.
Humanity and machines struggle nonstop through the barrier island tunnels and bridges.
The tunnels are about chance. About maybe. Maybe we’ll ground to halt for hours, maybe we’ll get through in one push. Maybe.
Their constant disintegration requires endless construction as the American system decades out of time rebuilds itself to continue being decades out of time. The bridges bring Jurassic scenes. Massive creatures of claws and cables growl in agitation. Everything below sprawls as carcass. More death than birth. More destruction than rebuilding. Rebuilding more lanes for more machines to rage side by side, bumper to bumper, walls within feet, four lanes become three and then two and now we’re crammed inside the underwater passages completely dependent on another driver’s lack of skill. There is no space. There is no choice. Only in and maybe out.
And the out becomes an alligator’s back. Straight but never level. Straight but strewn with jagged imperfections. Gaping seams perpendicular bring oscillating pitches of suspension and springs. Patched parallel cracks shape opposing negative cambers, a blender of ups and downs, rolls and spills, and still we manage to move forward with increasing momentum.
I love to drive.
I was the kid with the Formula 1 posters as wallpaper. With the Hot Wheels. The racing magazines.
I started driving when I was 14. Learned on my brother’s four-on-the-floor pick-up truck. I figured out how to double-clutch, heal-toe, flat shift, and fishtail. At 15 would often drive by myself on short errands. I grew to join a local racing team, pit crewing stock cars. I later attended professional driving schools, then went to a road-racing school, and soon began working at the school.
We taught G-men how to J-turn stretch limos, ambulance drivers how to smooth slalom their rigs, coppers how to catch the bad guys faster by slowing everything down. And racers. We taught people how to drive racing cars.
Racing small formula cars was the most serious expression of my own driving. Packs of us would drift at full throttle through the downhill at Lime Rock. Race wheel to wheel through the esses at Watkins Glen. Play high-speed chess through Road America’s carousel, cheating slip streams for another 100 RPM through the kink that would carry you a car length ahead before being on full brakes, downshifting for Canada corner.
We didn’t drive with rage. We were inches apart in little open wheel cigars, our asses a few inches off the pavement, and we drove with respect. With understanding. Yes, the process of winning, of wanting to be faster completely selfish, but it was always about sharing the road. Even as amateurs at the lower levels of racing, we shared a practiced skill and deeply respected each other for that skill. The rules were clear. If we didn’t respect the driving, respect each other, we could get hurt or worse. Drivers not understanding this respect were sent back to school or banned from the track.
Americans slaughter each other in cars. We have always slaughtered each other in cars. Today the slaughter is unprecedented.
The aggressors grow in numbers, using two or three tons of vehicle as weapon. The violent undercurrent in traffic palpable and common. Short jaunts to the gym become riddled with near accident scenario. Lights turning red means the car behind will dart desperate around, chancing through while I am stopping. Medians are for jumping over with oversized tires. A weekly sight has become a vehicle using a local wide grassy median as extra lane.
The danger and unpredictability morphs with time of day. Half asleep drivers bring the morning rush. Gorging fast-food breakfast, slurping triple caramel wake up concoctions, all while making their first work call. The drunks are out by lunch, and it gets worse for the evening commute. Like our current death tools, driving drunk is fast on the rise. Regardless of time, pharma drivers’ rule. Zoned dull, or hyped full, Americans are on pharmaceuticals. One in six of us is on antidepressants. Mix with a drink after work and the driver has lost the spatial awareness required for keeping their engine bay out of my backseat.
I hate to drive.
Though it has become a time of mindfulness, of immersion, of complete concentration, it is only about managing stress. Neither meditative nor relaxing, driving in our congested violence on our unkept infrastructure becomes unwanted. I’m thankful to have been professionally trained but cursed with knowledge and empathy for the physics of driving. As our machines have become more technically advanced, our disconnect, or even disbelief of the science involved advances further.
But there is no other choice. As I live in a community, and a country, that view public transportation as being for the poor. And since it’s for the poor, there is very little available. Everything we do must be done with four wheels.
And as I start the car, fasten my seatbelt, and prepare for an hour or more of practicing intense situational awareness, of defensive driving to my utmost ability, I think of a mentor's advice. A friend, a professional racer. A driver who won national championships, finished in the top ten at Indianapolis, who would often lean into my cockpit before I was about to race and utter the memorable wisdom:
“Don’t hit anything.”
© Copyright William Hazel, 2022