Thanks to recent upgrades in consumer technology, drivers can now literally talk to their cars, telling their vehicles to tune to a favorite satellite radio station, summon roadside assistance, send a text message or call a family member on the cell phone hands-free. Here’s a suggestion of where such automation might take us in the future: How about the ability to contact a fellow driver to offer a constructive suggestion? The current real-time alternatives — shouting out the window, pounding on the horn and flashing lights and perhaps offering a single-digit salute — might be momentarily satisfying, but, let’s face it, amount to road rage.
Some sort of car-to-car email link would have proven useful Wednesday at approximately 8:30 a.m. when a woman driving a silver Lexus RX 350, a vehicle with a base price of $45,000-plus, casually tossed a lighted cigarette butt from the driver’s side window on the inner loop of the Baltimore Beltway near Harford Road. No doubt she gave greater thought to her cell phone ring tone, the day’s lunch options and maybe upcoming Netflix movie choices than she did to that bit of tobacco, charred filter and paper wrap she unceremoniously dumped on the pavement. The consequences of that litter as an environmental threat (they can stunt plant growth, leach arsenic into the soil and cause wildfires) evidently concerned her not a whit.
Are there worse problems facing society than cigarette butts in the road? Absolutely. But there aren’t many antisocial acts more easily corrected than a person of means policing his or her own waste stream. Perhaps she was even among those who tut-tutted this summer’s kerfuffle over West Baltimore’s excessive trash and accompanying rodents that drew presidential tweets. One imagines the internal monologue: “How can those city residents living in abject poverty, dealing with intolerable levels of crime and violence and exposed daily to the harmfulness of drug addiction not pick up after themselves?” Maybe she even flicked away a cigarette butt while thinking such thoughts, careful not to spill any ash on her favorite designer blouse. Is that a lot of hostility to heap on one anonymous luxury car owner? Why, yes it is, and that’s the point.
Recently, City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett proposed legislation that would require owners of vacant homes to post a sign in front of such properties to show all the world the name, address, phone number and email of such individuals who would allow such squalor to continue. While we don’t think that’s the best housing policy for the city to pursue, we admit to its visceral appeal. This sort of public shaming has long had a place in society. And although cyber shaming is all the rage on social media, albeit often anonymously, distantly and unfairly, one has to wonder whether there’s enough of the old-fashioned sort — the kind where acts like littering are identified as the antisocial behaviors that they are and perhaps are immediately remedied.
The nostalgic among us often recall the days when a youngster who misbehaved in view of neighbors soon learned that parents and grandparents had some kind of unwritten code of tattling. Eyes and ears were everywhere. Maybe we just need more of that. Not just directed at 8-year-olds but 18-year-olds, 28-year-olds, even 78-year-olds. Good manners never go out of style, but, apparently, they need to be nurtured. Today’s unrepentant butt-tosser might be tomorrow’s dumper of paint thinner and motor oil down the local storm drain. We can’t always rely on government to police our neighborhoods, sometimes we just need to be in touch with our judgmental side.
Still, we should remind ourselves that the first rule of guiding others toward their better selves is to assess our own shortcomings — removing the proverbial beams from our own eyes before attacking the motes in theirs. And we will also stipulate that it’s usually best not to assume the worst in our fellow travelers. Maybe the cigarette slipped out of her hand? Maybe the Lexus is a rental? Last but not least, we would remind drivers everywhere there is always the possibility that the vehicle right behind your own includes a passenger with access to the editorial page of the local newspaper who might just be tempted to vent his or her frustration for about 700 words for hundreds of thousands of people to read. It’s not the most efficient way to ensure appropriate social behavior, but sometimes it does come in handy.