January 19, 2011

Low Visibility

It's amazing that the government - or the Department of Motor Vehicles - allows people behind the wheel in weather like this.

I mean, you absolutely cannot see a thing.

You're driving behind some kind of truck on the New Jersey Turnpike South, even though you thought you selected the "Cars Only" ramp, and its rear tires are kicking up a killer mist onto your windshield, which does not shield you from the wind that carries water from above, below, and straight out in front of you.

To make matters worse, your windshield wipers are ticking frenetically back and forth like a metronome, clicking off the beat of your heart as its rate increases with the intensity of your blindness. It's daytime but it's dark, the water and wind casting a gray film in front of your eyes, as though driving in shadow, a shadow cast so widely that you cannot find any light source.

A momentary short stop and an entire sheet of ice slides off the roof of your car and descends upon your windshield, completely intact in one solid piece. The wipers cast it aside, with some difficulty, and if you're lucky, they don't get stuck.

Your eyes want to follow the wipers back and forth across the windshield, distracting you from where the real action is: the truck in front of you, and now the one sidling up to your right. Mist rises and scatters everywhere. The lines on the road disappear. You have no sense of lane and little sense of direction.

Yet you keep driving. You cannot see anything, but what else is there to do but keep driving?

You somehow have a sense of the road, whether you've ever driven on it before or not. You catch fortunate glimpses of road, shoulder, exit, sign, pylon, toll booth - anything that helps guide your way while you keep pressuring the gas pedal, despite your better judgment.

If you dozed off behind the wheel, you'd probably drive just as well.

But you are very much awake, and aware that some things are happening around you, yet you're not quite sure what. You hope that others can see you, that your clouded vision is an anomaly exclusive to you. If the other drivers know where they're going, how to get there and what's happening along the way, then maybe they'll let you amble past them, swerving and straddling lanes, scrambling for toll money, leaning forward over the steering wheel and squinting, as though that would help. You try following them, but their shifts in position don't make any sense, passing on the right, neglecting to signal and foregoing the use of headlights.

Who lets anyone behind the wheel in those conditions?

What makes anyone want to drive when they can't see where they're going?

Is this wet winter blindness no worse, no different than driving a convertible with the top up, peering through a tiny slit of a rear windshield, casting perfunctory looks over your shoulder to check a blind spot that has grown to encompass your entire rear field of vision?

Or crossing an intersection in the rain and snow, eyeglasses fogged and wet-speckled, with no idea whether the light is red or green or whether cars are coming or going? In New York, we walk with our heads down anyway, black umbrellas hoisted in front of us (rather than above) as a shield against blowing rain, with no regard of what other umbrella-toting pedestrian is about to crash headfirst into us.

Once after getting my pupils dilated, I walked home once from the eye doctor's office with my eyes shut tightly nearly the entire way. I would occasionally crack them open just enough to let some light in through my lash line, but I witnessed no more than the ground in front of me and the entropy of feet around me. Otherwise, I relied on the sounds of footsteps, engines, tires, whistles, and the sense of activity around me.

Who let me do that? And how in the world did I get home OK?

In the dark, your eyes can adjust, your pupils dilating naturally to let in as much light as possible. Your eyes can't adjust to being closed.

Your eyes can't adjust to the countless slings, arrows, distractions, debris, floods, storms, and other acts of God that are cast before them.

So you have to rely on that which you cannot see - only that which you can feel.

But that never feels like a very good idea.

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