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Interstate 5

Jan 2023

Between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Interstate 5 freeway is astonishingly simple. The four-lane road is straight as an arrow, goes through no towns, and boasts no confusing merges. Because of its simplicity, drivers have felt it necessary to complicate this stretch by inventing their own traffic rules. These include driving over a hundred-miles-an-hour in the right lane, passing on the right, cutting off left-hand traffic, driving at extraordinarily variable speeds, and loitering unnecessarily in the left lane at slow speeds. Unfortunately, these rules of the road are not just adopted by a few agents of chaos. The average driver is forced to accept these rules if he wants to survive, which scales the issue up to unbearable proportions.


Countless drivers attempt aggressive passes from the right lane. They weasel their way back left and leave a cascade of braking vehicles in their wake, causing more frustrated drivers in the left lane to merge right, pass, and propagate the slowdown.


Drivers have little patience for semi-trucks making passes. These passes can take close to a minute, meaning slight slowdowns for more than a mile’s worth of cars. Drivers affected by this but unable to see the semis ahead will find the left lane unsatisfactory for their taste, leave it, make a right lane pass, and propagate the slowdown.


It might seem strange to spend time writing about such a seemingly dry and trivial issue as driver behavior on a freeway through the central valley, but anyone who has driven this stretch of road realizes the seriousness of the topic. It is nearly impossible to drive this road without seething at the situation one is trapped in. A drive that should be easily navigated with cruise control set to seventy-five miles-per-hour and a passive attention to the road instead involves several near accidents, multiple incidents of road rage, traffic shockwaves [1], and an entirely hellish experience for everyone involved. This is not a trivial problem.


Fortunately, this is one of the few essays I have ever written that actually offers a solution to the problem raised. I did not derive it, and it is in no way novel. It is a rule we all learned in driving school and one we see on numerous roads to ensure it is never forgotten. It is a simple rule that would make the drive on the 5 between Los Angeles and the Bay infinitely more pleasant, not to mention considerably safer.


Keep right except to pass.


There it is: simple and easy to follow.


I am usually not interested in contemporary politics, but surely in our 1,039-page-long, $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill [2] we can find modest funding to plaster the rule on signs all over this section of road. Signs should be placed with comforting regularity, maybe every mile or so. Then, perhaps, Interstate 5 drivers will enjoy California’s vast plains and undulating golden hills with their cruise control set, favorite album on the speakers, and low blood pressure, all with one phrase singularly thumping in their minds, like a sort of Buddhist mantra: keep right except to pass, keep right except to pass, keep right except to pass.


Or maybe I am delusional. Perhaps driving as people do on this section of the 5 is an exercise of free will that must be carried out. What other way does the driver have to prove to himself that he is indeed alive? A driver follows so many rules on and off the road that he may doubt if he decides anything at all for himself. Maybe no amount of signs, traffic school, or discussion will ever fix this stretch of the 5. Maybe there are a diminishing number of places for man to feel like man. Unfortunately, many of these remaining avenues of human expression allow it only in facile ways, and man knows this, even if only implicitly. And so he seeks to prove his aliveness elsewhere, like shooting up a school.







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