IT IS EARLY IN THE morning and I have come to Chevy Chase Circle and I am going round and round in my car. I have come here at the height of the morning rush hour and I have come here knowing the danger of the place and I have come here not because this is just another traffic circle, albeit a notorious one, but because it is something more than that. It is an American dilemma.
At the moment I am going around the circle. Traffic is pouring in from four different streets, but mostly from the north, and I am steering with one hand and taking notes with the other. I note, for instance, that some of the poles that at one time held traffic signs, have been twisted, mowed down by cars. There have been something like 60 accidents on the circle this year - two of them fatal. Most of the cars have hit the trees inside the circle. There are some people who say the trees must go.
Suddenly, a woman driving a black Ford with Maryland tags beginning with the letter M enters the circle from the righthand side. She does not yield as she is supposed to. Instead, she just barbels into the circle and keeps on coming. I catch her out of the corner of my eye. It is not to be believed. She just keeps coming crossing lane after lane, going from right to left, coming right at me. I drop my pen. I pull at the wheel. I brake. She goes blithely by. There are some people who say it is not the trees that must go. It is drivers like her.
The debate by now has attracted world attention - an exaggeration, to be sure, but not by must. Let's put it this way: George Will has writen about it. He takes the conservative position. You thought otherwise? He mocks those people who say that the trees must go. He attacks their logic, which is one thing, but he also attacks their grammar, which is something else again. He is not to be trifled with on this one. He also makes a lot of sense.
I think it all has something to do with free will. It has to do, I think, with the desire to hold people accountable for what they do. It is an old, quaint concept and people are starting to return to it. They are sick and tired of having mass murderers explained away because they had acne in their youth and they are tired of having poverty blamed for every murder and they get awfully sick and tired of having politicians explain corruption by saving they don't earn much, and sick and tired, in fact, of blaming stationary and stately trees for auto accidents.
But there is even more than that at work with the Chevy Chase Circle controversy, something that has to do with how far we are going to allow the car to push us. You can sense that element in some of what is being said and written - the notion that we have made way more than enough for the holy automobile. There is something to that, of course - something to saying enough. The auto has fouled the air and destroyed neighborhoods and makes a racket and if there is a place to draw the line, it is at trees - beautiful graceful trees. Washington is a city that loves its trees.
Anyway, the thing of it is that you can go up to the circle and any cicle like it and start to look for culprits. It is easy, for instance, to take the side of the trees in this dispute, easier still after a brush with that mad woman in the black Ford. It is easier still to write something about how the time has come to do something about the automobile, to make this into a matter of stopping the car or holding people accountable for the way they drive or something like that.
But there is something else to be said and it was probably said best years ago by Ralph Nader. It is not a quote so much as a way of thinking - a way of saying that people will be people and you have to engineer for that. You have to build cars as if they will be in accidents and you have to engineer highways as if some people can't drive to save their lives and you have to, while you're at it, do something about traffic circles that present some people with a problem.
Chevy Chase Circle is no Johnny-come-lately as a traffic menace. As far back as 1960, articles in this paper cited the traffic circle as a menace. There is apparently something about the circle that people can't handle. They either can't see it or they come into it too fast or it panics them once they're in it or whethever. The point is that something should be done - something like a traffic light or bumps in the road or even, perish the thought, protective rails around the trees. I don't know what the solution is, but do not think the solution is in trying to blame either the motorists or the trees. If there is someone to blame it is highway officials like the one who found the people guilty and the trees innocent.
They are the ones who can't see the forest for the trees.