The Moral Instinct of a Shoulder

Yesterday morning, we decided to go to the beach. It was a Saturday. We live in the Northern part of New Jersey. And many other people in our area tend to make the same decision in regards to how to spend their Saturdays during the summer. Nonetheless, I figured 50 miles down the Turnpike and Parkway couldn’t be that bad.

I was wrong.

Our problems started just after entering the NJ Turnpike. Before we even got to the first exit, almost immediately after grabbing the toll ticket, traffic slowed to a stop, filtering down to one lane over a Turnpike bridge connecting Jersey City and Bayonne to the rest of the the Turnpike. Such was our fate. We had entered the traffic and would have to wait it out or get off at the next exit.

Then things took an unexpected turn. Instead of waiting in traffic like the rest of the traffic jam, a few cars began exiting their lanes, pulling into the shoulder lane and speeding ahead. First a few, then more. Speeding ahead as far as possible in the shoulder, then reentering proper lanes when they couldn’t proceed any further in the shoulder. I understood their frustrations; we were all in the same boat. And a small part of me even respected their decision to not let the mess of traffic beat them. But overall, it was making the traffic even worse than it already was.

Ahead of me, a woman in an SUV in the left lane put on on her directional, motioning an intent to move into the right lane. As there was nowhere for myself or the car I was driving to immediately go, I let her into the lane. But instead of remaining in the traffic, she pulled into the shoulder, sped ahead maybe ten cars, then reentered the right lane aggressively. I asked myself aloud, “Did I really just do that?”

And I did. I had extended a courtesy to a stranger that inevitably made my time in the traffic even more intolerable. And with that one simple action, the little faith I had left in humanity possibly rising to the challenge and righting the wrongs in the world slipped away just a little bit more. I suppose I could’ve let it be, but I tend to unnerve real quick, and when the next string of cars tried to pass in the shoulder lane, I pulled our car over, blocking them from passing. Cars honked, gave us the finger and generally weren’t too pleased with my highway vigilantism. This lasted for a few minutes, and it took a lot of energy, and it didn’t necessarily mitigate anyone else’s wrongs on the road that day.

After a few minutes, I gave up, pulling back into my alloted lane as Ziggy Stardust drew to a close on Q104.3. An exit for Bayonne appeared, and I jumped on it. We had traveled 6 miles in 40 minutes, and I still didn’t know how to interpret the situation. Part of me thought I was right to defy other people trying to get ahead of the pack; part of me now thought I had no right to play god on the highway; and another part of me thought I should’ve pulled into the shoulder lane and joined them.

Our detour took us through Bayonne, into Staten Island, down the Staten Island Expressway and back into New Jersey via the Outerbridge Crossing. Along the way, with a few minutes hindsight in tow, I decided to take local roads to the beach, and it was during this stretch of road when I started to think that the idea of a moral instinct died the minute humans entered into a car and let a machine dictate their actions with other humans inside machines.

Later that day, we ate at a Jersey Shore restaurant near the bay. We sat outside, next to a marina, where two seagulls shared equal time atop a mooring, going back and forth between jaunts into the water.

I thought to myself, “They got it right.”