There was once a happy stretch of road.
It used to witness lots of happy people in happy cars go back and forth.
There was a place where the road crossed paths with a railway track. It was called a level crossing. For protection of road traffic (a train is much bigger!!) a barrier was put on the road to ensure no one crossed the railway track when a train was passing.
Cars waited patiently when the barrier was lowered to block the road and let the train pass. When the train had passed and the barrier was raised, the cars went past on their way. Happy people in happy cars on a happy road.
One day, there was an impatient man waiting at the railway crossing and getting more and more restive as time passed. He did not like waiting for the train to pass. He did not like waiting. He believed he had important things to do while others did not and it was the world’s responsibility to make him succeed. He had a manic need to prove that he was better than others, all the time. He was second in the queue on one side of the track.
Determined to get ahead of others, as soon as the barrier was lifted, he swerved his car to the right, overtook the car in front, swerved left again back to his lane, before the first car from the other side could reach him.
He was thrilled at his cleverness. And at the stupidity of the others. And that he had once again bested the others, who were following rules. He thought he was the smartest of the lot and would always stay ahead of others, as was his right. He looked back in glee at the car he had overtaken and drove off.
His feat had not gone unnoticed. Occupants of the car ahead of him, who he had overtaken, mine, were upset. Not so much at being overtaken, but overtaken rashly and then being mocked by the errant driver. The cars on the other side who could see this manoeuvre also noticed. They thought if that guy could get away with it on his side of the road, so could they on their side. They made a mental note of adopting the same strategy next time an opportunity arose.
As luck would have it, in the not too distant future, their cars were arrayed at the railway crossing exactly as they had been earlier. This time, however, he was not the only ‘smart” one. Everyone on both sides of the track had been smarting and turned out to be as “smart”.
Before the barrier opened cars were positioned in their lanes.
As soon as the barrier opened, the car ahead of the “smart” car, mine, moved up swiftly in order not to allow him space to move back into the line ahead of him. The second car on the opposite side swerved right in heroic fashion, to make a dash for cutting back into the lane ahead of the car that was in front. But the car in front moved up swiftly to block the space in front.
At the same time the cars behind on both sides came on fast, and filled up all intervening spaces, whether in the right lane or the wrong one so that no smart driver could manoeuvre in. The result was that while they moved into the wrong lanes, they could not now come back into their own lanes.
Nobody on either side was able to move. They remained there for hours, honking and arguing. Some got out of their cars and started fighting with others. There were babies and sick people in some cars who were crying and getting uncomfortable. There was even an ambulance stuck in the traffic. But nobody could move.
The administration was forced to place traffic police at the intersection, incurring an unnecessary expense for the state exchequer, eventually paid for by everyone through taxes. The “smart” drivers were thrilled. They knew this was a smart move by the administration to help “smart” drivers” like himself, while the cost is borne by everyone. The traffic police, whose job was to ensure movement of traffic, ensured that the “smart” drivers got clearance before others so that oncoming traffic could be released. Punishing the errant for causing the problem, it seems, was not their goal.
Good news travels fast. Each driver involved in this episode took upon himself the task of teaching the same “smartness” to drivers at other level crossings they happened to pass, through personal example. Today, all level crossings are “smart” crossings, where traffic has to wait for hours to be on their way. Sometimes traffic police shows up to ensure “smart” drivers get right of way in the melee.
Roads everywhere are full of idiots behind wheels. Like me. Could I not have let the “smart” driver overtake me rashly and be on his way? Could the idiots in cars on the opposite side not have avoided this unhealthy competition and allowed the “smart” driver to be on his way. Disturbing questions.
One idiot is often all it takes.