Last week, after dropping off my first grader at school, I swung by a local produce stand for fresh strawberries. The U-Pick fields aren’t open yet, but you can buy them by the tray if you get there early enough. I wanted some for my preschooler’s classroom and more for sharing with friends, family, and neighbors. They are so good.
Shortly after I turned onto the five-lane highway in the busiest section of town, I saw an older man and woman standing in the middle of the road. They looked, bless their hearts, bedraggled – like it had already been a tough day, at 8am.
They’d just huffed across a few lanes of traffic and needed to cross two more, including the lane I was in, to whatever destination they had in mind. The speed limit was 35mph, changing to 45mph – people speed up there. The couple was in the way of cars turning in either direction. They were in danger.
There was a truck behind me and traffic behind him, in both lanes, as far back as I could see. That truck had tires so big, my preschooler called it a monster truck. He really likes monster trucks.
I tapped my breaks, put on the hazard lights, and braked fully so the people could cross. It wasn’t fast; I didn’t slam on breaks – I had space and time to do it slowly so those behind me could stop safely.
At first, the monster truck swerved into the other lane, planning to gun it and pass me. I don’t know if he saw the people; I don’t know what he saw.
But no sooner had he switched into the other lane and hit the gas than he changed his mind, slowed, and also came to a stop. Everyone in both lanes slowed, stopped, and waited as the couple shuffled across the road. They weren’t young; they weren’t fast. They shouldn’t have been in the middle of the highway, but there they were. My hazard lights blinked.
They waved, they smiled, and we all went on, the monster truck taking the lead.
The day before, my husband witnessed a horrific traffic accident.
He was driving home from work through a section of five-lane highway, where the traffic had been shifted for road work, creating a four-lane road with no turning lane.
My husband was in the lane closest to the middle. In the oncoming lane next over, a man on a motorcycle had stopped to turn, planning to cross my husband’s side. Because there wasn’t a turning lane, everyone behind him needed to stop and wait for him to turn, or switch into the other, outside lane.
Maybe my husband could have stopped and let the man turn; I don’t know. Instead, he watched the car behind the motorcycle switch to the next lane, quickly, without stopping, without tapping brakes, without hazard lights.
Behind it was a truck, a truck that had been tailgating. It did not know the motorcycle was stopped. It did not have time to switch or brake. I won’t write any more about that.
This is not a traffic report, nor is it another warning story about motorcycles.
It’s a story about hazard lights.
There’s a red button on your dashboard, large and temping to push if you’re of a certain low-digit age. Yet, I rarely notice people pushing it.
It doesn’t cost anything to push that button, and there’s no commitment involved. You can un-push it at any time. In fact, you should – it’s only supposed to be used temporarily.
But when you push it, your car lights up like a beacon that other motorists notice, over the din in their (our) heads, the phone, the radio, the sunlight, the backseat preschoolers.
Huh? Why do they have their lights on? Is there an emergency?
You can push it when you’re driving by a road biker that’s hard to see – whether or not they should be in the road. They’re there, and they’re people.
Going by construction workers, when they don’t have the big flashing signs up. Maybe they should have more safety signs, but they don’t. And they’re people.
Or if you see a dog, wandering by the road. A drunk, stumbling. A car malfunctioning. A sudden stop, anything that could cause an accident.
I hit the lights if I find there’s a spider in the car with me, because I’m about to go crazy, and I can’t guarantee I’ll be a safe driver until that spider is gone.
Slow down and pay attention, those hazard lights say. There’s people here, and right now, they are not safely zipping around in their fortresses of metal and fiberglass. They’re in danger, and I need your help to protect them.
I suppose there’s a risk of overusing the hazard lights; then they’ll become less meaningful and effective. But as far as I can tell, that risk is all but non-existent. Months go by without me seeing anyone else’s lights. The laws concerning hazard lights vary by state, but in my state, you can use them at will.
I’m currently reading American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. It’s the first novel I’ve read in a long time that I just can’t put down. I won’t lie; I’m a little mad at myself right now because I’m typing this instead of finishing that book. It’s exceptional.
American Dirt is about the immigrant experience through Mexico to the US, especially as it relates to human and drug trafficking. The story follows a mother and son as they struggle to reach Estados Unidos. They ride train tops, they hide, they suffer – they are being hunted by a cartel. They are without protection, vulnerable and afraid at every moment.
There is controversy around this book and its author, telling a story that wasn’t hers to tell. I am just glad someone told it and others listened.
American Dirt is a set of blinking hazard lights, bringing attention to migrants and cartels. Slow down and pay attention, it says. There’s people here, and right now, they‘re in danger. I need your help to protect them.
I suppose there’s a risk of overexposing the plight of immigrants, that Americans could become desensitized by all the coverage. But as far as I can tell, that risk is all but non-existent. Months go by without me seeing anyone else’s hazard lights.
I’m paying attention now, thank you. Please keep flashing those lights.
Picture courtesy of Santeri Viinamäki, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons