Remain Aware, Northern Michigan

We’ve all experienced that moment when we pull up to a light alongside another person driving their car and we do everything in our power to avoid eye contact. Summer is perfect for this as we normally have sunglasses on and people can’t really see where we’re looking. “Oh they’re just looking off into the distance,” we think but really they’re looking right at us while we look right at them.

Humans subconsciously love closed spaces, it’s why our beautiful downtown feels so nice when you’re walking through, those buildings being right on the street to make you feel comfortable and confident. The trees separate us from the street. We all walk like we’re ten feet tall. Vehicles tend to create this feeling as well. Those tight spaces with four wheels make us feel comfortable and confident. It’s probably why we avoid eye contact, we subconsciously refuse to believe that anyone outside our space is there next to us. It’s safer.

The problem with comfort in a vehicle is just that, we are comfortable in a vehicle. A 3,200+ pound moving sedan is not our bedroom with the door closed. It’s not walking downtown. It’s not coffee at your favorite coffee shop with a good friend. It’s a large moving vehicle.

The other day I was driving my boss’s truck (oh my gosh! Shea!) and I tried to note the feelings I had. I definitely felt extra safe in the air-conditioned, cushy seated, closed cab. And I started to let my guard down a bit and I definitely found myself speeding up ever so slightly. It’s funny how those silent cabs can allow your foot to push the gas pedal closer to the floor.

Everyone remembers their first car and if you were anything like me it was… a junker. I remember going over 35mph and the steering wheel would rattle a bit and the car as a whole would make all kinds of odd noises. The trunk refused to open and the tires barely held air. The air conditioning was just more heat on those hot summer days. But those frigid winter days? Oh, baby, you got even more cold air pumped into the cab. Needless to say, because of all these odd quirks I was never comfortable in that car and because I wasn’t comfortable I felt I was more alert than I am in cars today.

Biking for me is such a great way to engage with my surroundings. I come to a stop light and instead of ignoring that person next to me on their bike, I say hello or just a simple nod to acknowledge their existence. I wave or ring my bell (ding, ding) to people riding by on the TART trail. I feel so much more aware of traffic because I’m basically forced to be aware. I’m out there in it.

If my experience in the modern car is not unique to me, then other drivers are also getting rather comfortable in the cab. They are losing that awareness that there is a world outside. This is what forces me to pay more attention to what is happening around me, knowing that there is probably at least one driver who is a bit too comfortable.

Thinking this way about the experience of driving a vehicle versus biking has humanized the drivers. I feel as though they may not be maliciously crowding me while I ride downtown, they may just be victims of their immediate surroundings. This does not give them the right to crowd bicyclists but it does make me think twice about becoming overly angry. They are not simply chunks of metal welded together to create this giant vehicle, they are human.

Also, I think simply acknowledging that I become a bit too comfortable while driving a car has caused me to remain aware. To not give in to that air-conditioned, cushy seated, closed cab. To say to me, there is a world outside of these four walls and that world is full of people.

So, this is a call to action for anyone using our roads during these busy summer months, to remain aware that you are surrounded by people and that they are all probably very nice. Don’t become too comfortable and don’t become too angry. We are all victims of our brains and that’s a subject too complicated for a single blog post. We are all human.

Let’s ride fast, let’s ride hard, let’s ride but remain aware!





Shea O’Brien is a Traverse City native, Civic Center neighborhood resident, Traverse Heights Elementary alum, Clubhouse member, Marketing Specialist at Superior Physical Therapy, lifter of weights, Traverse City Advocate Academy participant, and proud book worm. Follow his adventures at @shea.m.obrien.