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> Driving in West Texas

Driving in West Texas

This, too, is almost a story.

I want to tell you about a thing I've only seen in and around west Texas and the Texas panhandle, but before I can tell you about it, I have to get you to imagine the situation.

So … you're out driving in west Texas. You're not on an interstate, but rather on some back highway, with one lane in each direction. The road's not completely straight, but it's close. There are gentle hills and valleys covered with scrub brush and the like, and there's basically nothing else around. There's the highway, dark gray asphalt with a yellow line and wide shoulders—why not, there's room—and maybe there's a fence on one side or the other, or a line of telephone poles stretching into the distance. There's basically no cross traffic, which is only natural since there are basically no intersections, just a dirt road every few miles or so; so all you see is the occasional car going the other way, getting closer and closer and then flashing by at a relative speed of maybe 150 mph.

And then you come up behind another car. What to do? You'd like to pass, but the visibility just isn't quite good enough, especially given the huge relative speed. So, you're sitting there thinking about it, and then your problem is solved for you: the other driver pulls over onto the shoulder to let you pass … not slowing down, mind you, at least not much, just using the shoulder as a temporary extra lane. If you're polite, you'll wave once you're past, and in the rear-view mirror you'll see him wave back.

So there you have it.

I don't know, and haven't invented, a name for this maneuver, but it's quite similar to the reverse pass, the differences being that the pass is reversed horizontally as well as vertically, and, of course, that it's a real thing rather than an amusing idea.

It makes sense to talk about horizontal and vertical directions here because that's how the little pictures I make appear on your screen, but what would you call those directions in the real world? I'm not sure, myself … the best I can do is name them after particle polarizations, and call them transverse and longitudinal.

The sad thing is, I'm pretty sure the idea, or meme, of driving on the shoulder is dying out. It was only useful under certain conditions, and now those conditions are changing—its habitat is being destroyed, in other words. Some highways are being built up to two lanes in each direction, either along their entire length or in selected passing zones; there are “do not drive on the shoulder” signs all over; and, worst of all, everywhere there are grooves cut into the road to warn you when you're getting out of your lane. The grooves are useful for that, I admit, but they also make it unbearable to drive on the shoulder. So, give it another ten or twenty years, I'd say, and driving on the shoulder will be a thing of the past. That will be too bad, it was a friendly thing.


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@ June (2004)