Right of way: a lesson in perspective

A few weeks ago on a very hot day I walked from Sea Point to Hout Bay. For most of the way, in common with so many large roads in South Africa, there is nowhere to walk except the emergency lane in the yellow line.

On the steep rise just past Llandudno, for no apparent reason, there’s a sudden road sign informing walkers that we’re not allowed to walk there, although by the time you’ve reached that sign you’ve already invested three hours with only one to go, so you’re hardly likely to turn back. Also it seems obscene to have a long stretch of coast and no legal way of traversing it unless you have a vehicle or can pay to ride in one. It’s not a highway, it’s not the Korean DMZ or a sacred Apache burial ground: I’ll walk beside the road if I damn well please.

I didn’t mind walking in the yellow line. It was fairly wide and generous and the principal hazard was oncoming cyclists but the cyclists you encounter in the yellow line tend to be the decent ones: they acknowledge your shared humanity; you can make eye-contact and negotiate to pass each other in peace. This is not my usual experience of cyclists, that pestiferous breed, but then again I normally encounter the species of cyclist who use the road rather than the yellow line, and they’re an altogether more jerkish and entitled brigade. Also, cyclists and pedestrians on public roads have a common interest, which is staying alive despite the cars.

Cars are wretched, murderous things, I mused as I trudged along. From the perspective of the side of the road on a lovely bright morning there’s no excuse for cars. They’re an alien infestation of a beautiful scene, an introduction of something inhumanly fast and hard and loud to an otherwise human-scaled landscape. I formed instant moral and aesthetic judgments of the drivers of each new vehicle, based on their speed. Look at that guy driving at a decent 55 km/hr. See how his wheels stay within the lane and don’t drift across the yellow. That man won’t kill anyone today. That man is balanced, grounded, in touch with nature. That is a beautiful man, and if the world were more like that man it would be happier and better and the polar ice would not be melting.

But look at her, weaving behind him, trying to overtake, thirsting to go 70 or 80. She’s the kind of person who causes racial conflict and people to have strokes. The world is doomed because of selfish, violent people like her. What an ugly, ugly woman.

I felt these things wholeheartedly and unironically. I formed patterns of identification and animosity: those people driving thoughtfully are my people. I would stand surety for them or bail them out of a late-night scrape. Those others are not my people at all. I would shout at them on social media. I wouldn’t care one bit if they lost their jobs. The world of humans was suddenly divided into clear camps: the drivers and the non-drivers; the fast drivers and the slow drivers.

But the thing is, just the previous week I had in fact driven that road myself. And I remember being stuck behind some laggardly slowcoach creeping along at 55 and how I huffed and snarled and weaved, looking to overtake. “Guys like this are the ones who really cause accidents,” I’d growled.

There were some people walking in the emergency line. “Get off the damn road,” I’d muttered. “Do you have a death wish?”

I don’t believe I’m a dangerous or a reckless driver – who ever does? – but I’m certainly an impatient one, and I learnt to drive in Johannesburg so I do believe that all of us in Cape Town could live more fulfilled lives if only people would stop driving like hippies and ninnies. But from the side of the road I looked with disdain at the people trying to drive faster, and I wondered what corruption of character would make them think that an extra five minutes was worth such a violation of good sense and proportion.

We all know that the world looks different in someone else’s shoes, but seldom have I occupied such diametrically opposed sides of the same road in such a short period of time. The walking me occupies a different universe to the me driving past: two universes in which the laws of morality and aesthetics and physics themselves are utterly at odds.

The moral of the story probably isn’t that I am going to be more patient and pokey the next time I’m behind the wheel. I’d like to be, I’ll try, but I’ve known myself long enough to know I can’t guarantee it. I’m a different person in different situations, and you probably are too. But I do hope that some residual fragment of the other me will linger, and I hope wherever I am, whether it’s behind the wheel of a car or my computer keyboard or out in the world, the next time I’m convinced I’m entirely right I’ll stop and imagine myself on the side of the road, seeing myself coming fast around the bend.

The Times, 27 March 2018