Thursday, November 10, 2016

Driven to distraction by direction seekers

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published April 25, 2007, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

It often happens that when I’m running along the streets of Delaware County, people will stop their cars to ask for directions.

What they really need to do is pull into a gas station, but I guess that’s like admitting defeat. By asking someone on the run, they must think our more casual encounter doesn’t count against their navigation skills. What they don’t know is this: They’re asking the wrong person.

My running buddies and I meet in Media, in Upper Providence, in Springfield, in Swarthmore. Occasionally, we run in Collingdale, Aldan, or Secane. We know the courses because we’ve been doing them for years. What we don’t know are all the street names. Or where a certain business is. Or the nearest ATM.

Even if I did know, it would take a few minutes for that knowledge to break through the mental fog as I get my bearings. I first have to catch my breath, figure out where I am, see if I know where the target location is and then try to simplify the directions between Point A (where I’m standing) and Point B (where they really want to be).

I might be able to do all that given enough time. But when traffic piles up and horns blare, my mind jams. Even if I do know the way, I have a hard time translating my backstreet routes and shortcuts into the roads most traveled.

What drivers don’t seem to realize is that if I’m running, I’m not going to be too happy about unplanned stops. Yes, it’s nice to help strangers find their way, and I’m most eager to be of service when I’m walking around town. When I’m in mid-run, it can be hard to stop and equally hard to start again. 

That’s not just a personal problem, that’s the law. According to Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, the natural tendency is for a body in motion to remain in motion—and a body at rest to remain at rest—unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. I don’t know how balanced these drivers are, but they certainly are clueless.

Never before in history have there been so many tools available to help people find their way. Haven’t they heard about the online mapping sites of Google, Yahoo or Microsoft Live? Didn’t they stock up on printed maps at AAA? Can’t they navigate by satellite with GPS? There are now global positioning systems available for any car, motorcycle, boat, laptop computer, mobile phone or wrist.

When you consider the near ubiquity of mobile phones, there’s really no reason to ever be lost. I’ve seen people use their phones to find loved ones on crowded streets in Singapore and busy arcades at the Jersey Shore. You would think drivers could pull over and call their destination for directions as easily as stopping a crazy runner on the street.

Some coast-along drivers won’t even take “No” for an answer. They follow you at low speeds, even as you shake your head and shrug your shoulders—the universal sign for “You got me.” There are times when I don’t even slow down for drivers’ questions. I’m not being rude, I just know that I won’t be of much help. There’s also the strong possibility that I would end up sending them in the wrong direction—unintentionally, of course.

There are no take-backs once the driver pulls away and you’ve suddenly remembered that he should be on Route 252, not 352 or 452. A simple misspeak in numbers can put someone miles off course. The only bright side is that by the time he realizes that he’s way far from his destination, he won’t be able to find me either.

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