Hit the road, Jack

Hit the road, Jack

I can’t help it. When ol’Jack learned to drive (back in the old days of V8s), I was taught that you should leave some space between you and the car you’re following so you have time to stop if for some unpredictable reason the fool in front of you slams on his brakes. The distance was usually defined as two or three car lengths behind the bumper in front depending on how fast you were motoring. When you think about it, car length, as a unit of measure, is not that precise. Two Smart Cars barely add up to one Prado, so a better estimate might be two or three seconds back.

Hit the road, JackIn Panama, however, driving at a safe distance behind your fellow travelers is often difficult to maintain. The reason is that many motorists, that I encounter on the Pan American highway, for example, can’t seem to resist switching lanes and filling what they apparently perceive as a void between vehicles. See if this doesn’t happen to you while in traffic on the Cinta Costera. Try leaving a nice safe space and watch how long it takes a taxi to slip in between.

Many drivers in Panama are obsessive lane-changers and so if you encourage them by staying a couple of ticks behind the truck loaded with perfectly stacked pineapples in front, suddenly a Coaster bus has squeezed into the space. This happens to ol’Jack so often that sometimes I worry that eventually I’ll have to shift into reverse to maintain a reasonable cushion of safety. It always happens if I don’t move up fast enough in stop-and-go traffic. The guy driving the Kia in the other lane can’t stop himself from filling that open space, even if it’s available for only a moment. It’s a compulsion. With openings being closed fore and aft, I get claustrophobic when I realize that I’m involuntarily involved in a tailgating frenzy.

On the other hand, in rush hour traffic, say on Calle 50 for example, have you ever tried to switch lanes so that you can turn off in a couple of blocks? The Hyundai Tucsons and Toyota Corollas in the next lane over seem to be moving ahead only inches apart. “No way buddy” (That’s “De ninguna manera, amigo” in Spanish) they seem to be thinking. My blinker is ignored, until some good Samaritan—they do exist—relents.

Apparently the local custom is—don’t leave any space between cars because if you do, a pickup truck nearby will feel obligated occupy it. But butters don’t allow butting. Why would they?


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