IT WAS PUSHING 11:30 A.M. last Wednesday when I stopped at Belvedere Avenue and Northern Parkway. I was going to be a little late for the doctor's appointment, but I stopped at the red light anyway.
Next to the stop light was a sign, clearly legible, in plain English, that read "NO TURN ON RED, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m." That didn't stop two cars from not only turning, but barely even stopping.
Two days later, on my way to an interview in Northeast Baltimore, I was stopped at a red light at Frankford Avenue and Belair Road. A guy to my left was in a lane clearly marked "LEFT TURN ONLY." Of course, when the light changed, he gunned his car in front of me and almost crashed into another emerging from a parking lot half a block a way. A serious accident was avoided by mere yards.
Monday night, as I drove down Hilton Street toward I-95, two more cars ran a red light. Those were just a few of the incidents of horrible and reckless driving that occurred within one week of the burial of Baltimore police officers Sgt. John Platt and Officer Kevin McCarthy.
You know the story by now, or you should. Platt and McCarthy were killed this month when a man driving a pickup truck allegedly ran a stop sign and crashed into their patrol car. Last week, the press was filled with stories about their sacrifice. They were proclaimed heroes at their funeral. Hundreds of people lined the route along the Beltway as the officers were driven to their final resting places. Tears flowed.
I hate to be a cynic, but it all smacked of the biggest lie this side of the Nazis claiming Commies burned the Reichstag.
If we wanted to show how badly we felt about the deaths of Officers Platt and McCarthy, it would be reflected in our driving, not just our weeping. For one solid week, at least, we could have slowed down, driven sensibly and reflected on the harsh truth that it was bad driving, not allegedly drunken driving, that killed these two men.
Police have charged the man driving the truck with manslaughter and drunken driving. At least, if he was drunk, he had an excuse, albeit a poor one. What was the excuse of those characters running red lights last week? They were probably stone-cold sober. That's what's so frightening.
Running red lights and stop signs used to be an anomaly. It happened occasionally. Any driver reading this column knows that he or she sees someone running a red light or stop sign daily. Sensible drivers - who are fast becoming a minority - know that if they drive along the Beltway, where the speed limit is 55 mph, and they kick up to 65, they'll still have plenty of cars zooming past them. If they dare go to 70 mph, they'll still be among the slower drivers on the road. Doing 10 mph above the speed limit used to be considered acceptable. Now 20 to 25 mph above the speed limit is the norm, and woe betide you if you're doing 55 or 60, even in the "slow" lane.
Speeding, running red lights and stop signs, tailgating, failing to yield the right of way, idiotic lane changes: Welcome to driving in 20th- and 21st-century America. It will continue, no matter how much angst and wailing were displayed last week over the deaths of Platt and McCarthy. We've been through this before, haven't we?
Five years ago, another driver lost control of his car and smashed into some people standing at a Woodlawn bus stop. Five people, including several children, were killed. We shed tears then, took flowers and gifts to a makeshift memorial and wept copiously. The driver was charged with manslaughter and acquitted for lack of evidence. The tears were barely dry before we went back to the same insane, reckless, won't-slow-down-to-save-a-life driving we'd been doing before the accident.
And the driving has gotten worse in the past five years. Police in Baltimore and surrounding counties know this. They probably figured they'd be considered gauche if they mentioned it. But yesterday, Baltimore police Commissioner Ed Norris stepped up to the plate. He said he has discussed having state police help crack down on bad drivers. A spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley said he might comment later.
They should've stopped being so nice and reserved a while ago. You should have insulted us, gentlemen. You know we deserve it and need to hear it. Driving is at its absolute worst in Baltimore. There are drivers who hit the street with a devil-may-care attitude, who figure they can do anything they want. They need to be reined in, and soon. Because if the public grief displayed last week is anything approaching sincere, we'd better break out tons of Prozac. We're certain to see officers killed in traffic accidents again.