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Saturday, April 17, 2004

JAPAN LITE

Old folks at the steering wheel of fortune


On a recent trip home to the U.S., I realized that Japan lacks something central to highway driving: old folks behind the wheel. Although Japan's population is aging fast, it seems like most of the old people here do not drive. I rarely see the sticker on cars that old folks must display to drive in Japan. But in the U.S., the "home of the brave," people drive well into their 70s and 80s. I had forgotten what it was like to not only have to drive behind old folks poking along the shoulder of the highway, but to actually be in the car with one.

You'd think that after 50-plus years of driving experience, the old folks would have it down. But if they're like my father, they depend on sight and memory rather than experience when driving.

This is what it's like to be in the seat next to my father, hunched over the steering wheel with his horn-rimmed glasses on, as he looks for a turn:

Me: "No Dad, don't turn here -- that's a building!"

He jams on the brakes, swerves and continues down the road at a snail's pace in the opposite lane.

Dad: "Damn, they never put up enough signs."

Me: "Dad, get back into your lane."

Dad: "They need more street lights."

Me: "Dad. Hurry, there's a car coming.

He gets back into his lane, the turn signal still flashing.

Me: "I think the turn is up there at that traffic light."

Dad: "You can see a traffic light?"

My mother, however, drives automatically, the same way she has all her life. She is so accustomed to driving that she can't break her daily routine. If she adds something extra to her errands, like stopping to pick up medicine for the dog, she'll go home after the grocery store anyway. She'll get home, see the dog passed out on the floor, then realize she forgot the medicine. She should put the dog into the car in the first place, as a reminder.

Imagine a woman 150 cm tall, driving the biggest car in America: a Cadillac. It's not a boat, it's like a luxury yacht -- and Mom is the captain. She even has a compass stuck onto the inside of the windshield.

My mom is one of those people who talks while she's driving. She has the whole route planned out before she leaves home: "They're doing construction on I-75, so I think we'll avoid that mess and head down Rupert Drive until it gets to that big intersection, which we can avoid by cutting down Humpty Lane, where it becomes one way; then we'll cut across the parking lot and zip over to the other side of the intersection, and we should be able to get through the next traffic light before it turns red."

Mom loves highway driving. She starts out by giving a full report on the traffic conditions: "The traffic is very heavy for a Wednesday. Look at all the big fellas (semitrailer trucks). Where in the world could these folks (everybody else) be going?"

With the cursory observations of the traffic conditions stated, she enters the highway, picks up the pace until she's pushing the speed limit, and soon she is tailgating semi trucks.

"There is a hill in the distance," she advises me.

We gain momentum and start climbing as the Cadillac kicks into full gear.

"Looks like a rainstorm; the sky is black ahead."

We start down the back side of the hill. "A truck is going to pass us."

Our big yacht trembles and rocks from the side winds. When I look behind us, I notice that cars are piled up behind us -- we weren't going very fast after all.

Now I know why we don't make old folks display a sticker on their cars to drive in the U.S. We have Cadillacs instead.

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