When the pandemic first hit, empty roads were one of the few bonuses we got. In an area famous for its bumper-to-bumper cluttered highways, wide open roads were a welcome novelty when most workers were first sent home. Those who had to commute experienced the unexpected respite of being able to get to San Francisco in a quick 45 minutes, compared to 90 minutes crawling through muffled morning traffic.
By shopping only occasionally and with most of life’s hectic activities on hiatus, many drivers have seen their weekly mileage drop to the lowest level ever. The break wasn’t only good for stressed commuters; it was even better for the planet, which saw a 20% reduction in nitrogen dioxide, one of the most harmful pollutants in fossil fuels, NASA Reports. It was not to last. As the vaccine made its way into communities and the number of COVID-19 cases began to mount, we all returned to our cars, ready to make up for lost time.
But like bears emerging from months of hibernation, we found our motor muscles atrophied from lack of use. Parking directly between the lines was more difficult. Backing up in traffic was more difficult. And the common courtesy on the road flew out the window like a strawberry stalk on Watmaugh in midsummer.
This is a trend observed across the country. Despite a massive drop in drivers in 2020, road accidents have increased by more than 24%, according to the National Security Council, a peak of 13 years. Some experts believe, with fewer people on the road, drivers were encouraged to take riskier actions, like speeding up and squeezing between cars. Those same experts say skills aren’t wasted, they’re just rusting, and drivers need to slow down – literally – and remember the basics.
Here in the Sonoma Valley, road signs seem to be particularly problematic. We have several high-profile intersections that depend on one lane giving way for safety reasons, such as drivers heading west on Route 116 who must give way to traffic before continuing north on Arnold Drive. Or where drivers heading north on Hwy 121 through Vineyard Inn must give way before turning right onto Fremont Drive. And of course, the circle gives signs that surround the Hap Arnold Roundabout on Arnold Drive at Agua Caliente Road, near the Hanna Boys Center.
All three intersections have experienced near misses this month. Early on October 4, a fully loaded truck had to brake sharply, sending a few bunches of grapes on the road as a line of cars approaching Arnold 116 attempted to outrun the truck instead of properly yielding the right. -de-way.
The failure of a car to yield at the roundabout on Wednesday prompted another driver to apply the brakes, become enraged and run away honking and yelling at the car. And perhaps most upsetting of all, on Saturday a line of at least seven cars completely ignored the sign to yield to Fremont Drive, causing an SUV to pass through oncoming traffic to avoid a collision.
For those who need to hear this: A traffic sign means you don’t have the right of way, so you need to slow down or even stop until the road is clear. We don’t seek to shame anyone – the pandemic has been tough on all of us and many skills have rusted during these months of isolation. But driving is a team sport – we all have to play our part in order to get home safely. So let’s call it a sweet reminder to remember the rules of the road – and that a surrender sign is not a merge sign.