I was taught to drive by a teenage boy from southern California.
And it showed.
Okay, my parents taught me too, but they had my brother do a lot of the work. There were certain advantages. He used to make me drive this mile-long, hilly, curvy, pot-hole-pocked dirt road—backwards. So I am much more proficient in reverse than I would be otherwise. I also learned to start a dead car by popping the clutch. A good thing too, since I inherited his ’72 VW bug, which required this boost rather frequently. I got so good at it, I could pop the clutch off a driveway.
Nevertheless, I also picked up some typical male teenage driving habits and attitudes that lasted well into my adulthood. I drove fast, boldly, and with a sense of superiority. I was not only proud of my skill, but also my prudence—which as a devout Catholic, I thought I should have, and managed to believe I had by comparing myself to reckless drivers. I regarded the speed limit (then 55) as ridiculous and impossible to obey without becoming a road hazard. Since most drivers in southern California drove well above the speed limit, our family considered driving with the flow of traffic as the responsible way to drive.
Upon this foundation, I added the stipulation that I could drive faster than the flow if I was in a hurry, provided that I never went faster than I could handle and that someone else nearby was going even faster (thus a more likely target for the police). This philosophy was indispensable to someone chronically running 5 to 15 minutes late. Tardiness led to my trying to make up time by taking every opportunity to save a few seconds. I took this effort so seriously I lost sight of consideration for my fellow drivers. The anonymity I gained within my car diminished my usual politeness.
The Bumper Sticker
When I moved to Maryland, I automatically found myself, an average California driver, a bit more aggressive than the average Maryland driver. I modified my habits slightly for this new environment, but I didn’t think much about it.
What finally got me thinking about it was a bumper sticker. When my husband and I put a pro-life bumper sticker on our car (with a picture of Pope John Paul II to boot), I suddenly realized that raising ire from fellow drivers by darting in and out of traffic was not a good witness to the pro-life movement or to the Church. With plenty of prejudice against both already, any false moves on my part wouldn’t help to bolster public opinion for either.
I realized I had been compartmentalizing my driving and my faith. I had to change: I had to be as polite in my car as I was in public.
The Sacred Heart Auto League
I had been trying to modify my driving with only middling success, when it came: a package from the Sacred Heart Auto League.
They wrote about the importance of driving well, saying that Christ cares about every aspect of our lives—driving included. They invited me to pledge to drive in a way pleasing to Him. I thought, “I need this.”
So I signed the pledge card and sent it back, making a firm commitment in my heart. The pledge included saying a prayer every time you “got behind the wheel," one asking for God’s protection and for the grace to drive cautiously, courteously, and obediently. That last one was the sticking-point.
What did obedience mean here? A reliable moral theologian said that according to Aquinas one is not required to obey a civil law that isn’t enforced. A police acquaintance told my husband that they usually don't pull someone over unless the person is going at least 10 miles over the speed limit. That seemed reasonable. But once I tried to implement it, I was surprised at how slow that felt at times. I hadn't really noticed before how fast I was going.
The Influence of Prayer
It wasn’t easy, but with the support of my commitment and the grace of prayer, I was able to change. The prayer was essential. I prayed it faithfully. But whenever I got to the word “obediently,” I felt a twinge of conscience. Was I really being obedient?
Then my brother did something mind-boggling. Once when I was visiting, I noticed he was driving the speed limit! On a freeway in L.A.! He didn’t want to get any more tickets, so he had decided to drive the speed limit at all times. I was stunned. He said it felt so good. He said he was no longer anxious when he saw police—he was glad to see them. He even started telling me I should drive the speed limit. (Big brothers.)
I went on praying the prayer for two years, but it began to get to me. Praying for the grace to drive obediently day after day after day was having an effect like the continual dripping of water on a rock. I thought about how Jesus was baptized not because he needed it, but "to fulfill all righteousness." I thought about how much I believed in and preached obedience as a sign of love for God.
Finally when I realized that I could take it on as a penance and offer it up as a prayer, I decided to do it. It turned out to be very penitential!
Until this decision, I never realized how much pride I had wrapped up in my driving. It revealed itself now, when suddenly I was not cool. I remembered how I had looked down on people who drove the speed limit. Now I was one of them, and I knew what annoyed thoughts others were thinking about me. (I used to exclaim, "This person is actually driving the speed limit!" as if it were deviant. As for people who drove below the speed limit, I thought they simply shouldn’t be allowed to drive.)
The hardest part was single lane streets, where someone on my tail had no way to pass me. Early on, I had decided that I wouldn’t force others to drive the speed limit (they might have a serious need to hurry.) If I were holding someone up, I’d pull over as soon as possible. But some streets have long stretches with no shoulder. I was probably in more agony than the impatient person behind me.
I had to change the prayer: I added a heartfelt plea for grace to Mother Mary and offered up the difficulty to her Immaculate Heart for a particular intention. Without her, I never could have done it. Doing it as a penance for the times I’d driven rudely also helped. And the cruise control was critical: between habit and temptation, it would have been impossible without it.
Over time I saw that this experience could strengthen me in living by my principles even under pressure or despite the disapproval of others.
The other problem was that if I was running late I could no longer make up for it on the road. I just had to be late. But that eventually led to two personal improvements: preparation and dependence on God.
After being late several times, I finally figured out I needed to leave earlier. With four kids, that in itself was another reality check. I also had to learn to start getting them ready a lot sooner. So driving this way has helped me with my late problem (if not completely cured me).
But stuff happened sometimes, and I’d run late. Seeing the impossibility of arriving on time if I drove obediently would be extremely stressful. Then I’d realize I had to make a choice: cave in on my resolution, “lose it,” or accept the situation and beg for God's help. My need for God became more obvious to me: I had never been able to get anywhere or do anything without Him, but now I knew it. I would remind myself that for Him nothing is impossible and that He actually wants me to depend on Him.
So now when faced with an impossible situation, I try to accept and I pray. And the wonderful thing is, when I put it in His hands, He takes care of it. Either I get a lot of green lights, or the other person is also late, or somehow everything turns out all right. When tempted to speed, I ask myself, would I rather face a few seconds of embarrassment I'll soon forget or face the Lord on Judgment Day and tell Him that my reputation was more important than keeping my promise to Him?
I can’t say that everyone is called to strictly obeying the posted speed limit. I think a case can be made for driving the enforced speed limit. In fact, driving the speed limit on the highway at moments can even be hazardous. And of course, some emergencies require speeding.
But I can say that God has called me to it and has produced some valuable fruits in my life as a result. Less stress and more character. Better habits, like leaving earlier and being generous to others. Growth in humility and trust, patience and courtesy. In a word, maturity.
I used to be too worried about being late to be courteous. Now I have time to be magnanimous. Now I see driving as another chance to witness Christ's love. People are usually pleasantly surprised and grateful when I let them in front of me. I’ve found that driving “courteously, cautiously, and obediently” means driving lovingly.
I’m finally growing up: now I try to drive like my big brother Jesus.
Originally published as "No Need for Speed," Faith and Family (Spring 2009).