Friday, November 2, 2012

Autobody language

Decades ago when I was just a small child, my father taught me to interpret the subtlest of signals that are emanated from the many different drivers on our public road systems.  I would marvel at how perceptive he was, and how he could almost magically anticipate what was going to happen next. 
My Dad would have seen the likes of this coming a mile away.
Photo attribution: Damnsoft 09 at en.wikipedia
I started the same training procedure with my own child when she was very young, referring to the interpretable phenomenon as "autobody language".  "You have to learn to read their autobody language," I would tell her, but she was decidedly more skeptical than I had been at her age.  "There is no such thing as 'autobody language'," she would retort, and from there, we would proceed into the inevitable "my mother is a nerd" conversation.

I would tell her that a car is just a mechanical extension of a person's body and that, just as their body reflects their underlying mood and intentions, so, too, does their car.  The effect is a bit muted by those thousands of pounds of painted steel surrounding them, but it can still be detected. 

And to drive home my point (pun intended), I would give her live examples.  "Watch what happens here next," I would say from my driver's seat.  "That guy in the red car is going to cut off the other guy in the truck."  Sure enough, it would happen.  But all she would reply was, "There is no such thing as autobody language."

Until that one precious day when I heard her muttering to herself under her breath, "Oh my God, I don't believe this... I knew exactly what that guy in the blue car was going to do, because I read his autobody language..."
Occasionally I will read someone's autobody language, but I'm not sure if the driver's implicit assessment of his own skills is commensurate with actual reality. 

Such was the case about a month ago at one of my favorite local intersections - the corner of West Walker and League City Parkway.
Do you notice how I'm hanging waaay back from that fuel truck?  In contrast to the car on the left, which is creeping up on his tail?  I was hanging back because he was driving pretty assertively - while probably carrying enough fuel to blow up a small skyscraper. 

What else do you notice about this scene?  He has straddled both lanes.  Why?  Because he needed to turn right.  But why in particular did he swing so wide in this case?

Once he executed his turn, I realized that he did, in fact, know what he was doing - his autobody confidence fit his actual skill level. 

Did you spot the special hazard here?  It's not the fuel truck - it's the utility pole that is inexplicably planted within about fourteen inches of the southbound right lane.  This trucker wanted to make especially sure that he did not clip it, because a load of combustible fuel plus electrical utility pole equals potential worst-case scenario.  Which is why I was hanging waaaay back until he finished executing his turn. 

I think the driver to the left also figured this whole thing out, albeit a few seconds after I did, because look - he didn't proceed down his lane, even though space opened up.  Best to leave the friggin' fuel truck alone!!
That particular truck driver proved to be smart and situationally-aware.  However, here is my prediction regarding this intersection:  that utility pole is eventually going to come down.  If it's left in its current position, which is impossibly close to the lane of travel, it's only a matter of time before somebody's wheels jump the curb and take it out.  There's a small electrical transformer at the top of it, but it appears to serve only the Gas Dude.  Nevertheless, when it comes down, it's going to make an unholy mess for a while, at this very busy intersection. 

If we get lucky, someone will merely damage it, without bringing it down catastrophically.  Then its owner will realize, "Oh, heck, that's in a bad place" and they will move it back from the lane. 

One of the reasons why I noticed this situation is that I used to live in north Clear Lake, where the light poles are set in crazy proximity to the travel lanes.
Clear Lake City Blvd. eastbound past Highway 3, screengrabbed from Googlemaps ground view.

WHY would any right-of-way designer put the light poles in these positions??  In this scenario, all you need is one car tire jumping the curb even slightly, and it's Game Over.  I spent seven years watching drivers knock these things over like bowling pins. 
Anyway, there's today's anecdote FWIW.  If one day you're approaching this intersection and you see a lot of flashing lights and commotion, remember - you heard it here first.

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