George Davis looks at the difference between breaking laws and breaking social contracts.
Massachusetts is posting along her highways on portable electronic billboards a little known traffic rule long since forgotten by the driving public. Usually the portable billboards say something innocuous.
Until recently, they’ve been flashing “Drive with Caution“. I’ve never been able to quite understand what the author means by that statement. The cautious drivers I see are hell-bent on driving in the middle lane at fifty-five in a posted sixty-five. The latest command says “Left Lane Travel Permitted Only When Passing“. In fairness to the State, these signs only lasted a couple weeks until the Police discovered no one was obeying them and changed them back to “Drive with Caution”.
Like many States, Massachusetts has volumes of unenforceable laws on the books. They sit in dusty tomes somewhere on back shelves at the State House as evidence law makers had to find something to do to justify fat salaries and out-sized benefits packages. The Left Lane Law is just another example of a law written by people who don’t even drive, but take a chauffeured limo to work. Similar laws folks around here shrug at dismissively are “Yield Right of Way” “No Texting While Driving” and “Illegal to Brake with Left Foot“. Ask any run of the mill Bay-Stater like Ben Affleck or Matt Damon about such laws and they would just brush you off like some kind of gnat and ask for a serious question.
I confess right here I am guilty of breaking almost all the rules, and probably hundreds more besides. I have traveled in the left lane at a riotous seventy with the wind in my hair just for the sheer joy of passing everyone else. Like I ruled the lane, or something. I no longer text while driving, but I see countless folks still doing it, including real police officers, which is reasonable given that you can’t understand the general population’s obsession with texting unless you do it yourself. And a cop is not about to enforce a law he sees others breaking he himself breaks. I always yield right of way, except in New Bedford, where drivers don’t understand the concept and literally sit at an intersection and FORCE you to make a left turn in front of them. They will hold up traffic until the next light cycle until you do so.
But I ALWAYS brake with my left foot and will until I’m dead. This broken law has actually saved my life on several occasions when I was cut off and had to brake heroically.
I’m bothered, though, about those among us who break the rules and seem to be clueless about it. Like folks that will pass a line of traffic at an exit then cut into the line at the last possible moment to jump in front on everyone else. I get angry at such behavior because the guy/girl didn’t wait in line and pay his/her dues like the rest of us. They cheated to get ahead of everyone else.
I wrestle with these kinds of rule-breakers, because they flaunt their rule breaking badly. It’s the blatant in your face-stick-it-where-the-sun-don’t-shine-get-ahead-of-everyone-else kind of selfish actions that breach the social contract we once had with each other as a Country that irritate me as an aging baby-boomer. Now it’s every man for himself. Or so it seems.
According to a recent article in Science Daily, breaking rules gives the rule-breaker an illusion of power. The theory is that the powerful people in the world have fewer rules to live by than the rest of us, so breaking rules makes us feel more powerful.
In the August 2012 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science researchers wrote of studies done with toddlers uncover the fact that as early as two and three years old kids understand the nature of the social glue that holds us all together. They know what is fair and unfair behavior. They know when rules are broken and are able to express outrage because the social construct, the agreement humans have with one another, has been violated.
This is why crimes like flying fully loaded aircraft into office towers and placing pressure-cooker bombs at the feet of unsuspecting children enrage us all. Why walking into an elementary school and unloading a deadly rampage of murder makes us all crazy with anger. Such actions flaunt the unspoken social rule that innocent people not engaged in warfare are to be spared violent, unprovoked death.
The feeling that rule breaking gives, of power over others, over social structure, over the common contract we have with one another is also the very same motivation taken to such a horrific degree that is the seeds of texting while driving. Or line jumping. Or traveling in the left lane except when passing.
Or even braking with your left foot.
photo by jeffk / flickr