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Editorial: Hard truth: We all forgot how to drive in the pandemic

When the pandemic first set in, the empty roadways were one of the few bonuses we enjoyed. In an area famous for its highways clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, the wide-open roads were a welcomed novelty when most workers were first sent home for lockdown. Those who did have to commute experienced the unexpected respite of being able to drive to San Francisco in a swift 45 minutes, versus 90 minutes of crawling through choked morning traffic.

By only running errands occasionally, and with most of life’s hectic activities on pause, many drivers saw their weekly mileage drop to the lowest level it’s ever been. The break was not only good for stressed-out commuters; it was even better for the planet, which saw a 20% reduction in nitrogen dioxide, one of the more harmful pollutants from fossil fuels, NASA reports. It was not to last. As the vaccine made its way into communities, and the COVID-19 caseload began to plumet, we all headed back to our cars, ready to make up lost time.

But like bears emerging from months of hibernation, we found our driving muscles atrophied from lack of use. Parking straight between the lines was more difficult. Backing out into traffic was more difficult. And common courtesy on the road went flying out the window like a strawberry stem on Watmaugh in peak summer.

It’s a trend seen across the nation. Despite a massive drop in drivers in 2020, traffic fatalities were up more than 24%, according to the National Safety Council, a 13-year high. Some experts believe, with fewer people on the road, drivers were emboldened to make riskier moves, like speeding and weaving between cars. These same experts say the skills aren’t gone, they’re just rusty, and drivers need to slow down — literally — and remember the basics.

Here in Sonoma Valley, yield signs seem to be especially problematic. We have several high-profile intersections that depend on one lane of traffic yielding to another for safety, like the drivers heading west on Highway 116 who must yield to traffic before continuing north on Arnold Drive. Or where drivers heading north on Highway 121 by Vineyard Inn must yield before making the right onto Fremont Drive. And of course, the circle yield signs that surround the Hap Arnold roundabout on Arnold Drive at Agua Caliente Road, by Hanna Boys Center.

All three of these intersections have witnessed some very near misses this month. Early on Oct. 4, a fully loaded truck had to slam on the brakes, sending a few bunches of wine grapes flying into the road, because a line of cars coming up 116 to Arnold attempted to outrun the truck instead of properly yielding the right-of-way.

A car’s failure to yield at the roundabout on Wednesday caused another driver to squeal their brakes, become enraged, and take off honking and screaming at the car. And perhaps most heart-stopping of all, on Saturday, a line of at least seven cars completely ignored the yield sign at Fremont Drive, causing an SUV to swing into oncoming traffic to avoid a collision.

For whoever needs to hear this: a yield sign means you do not have the right-of-way, and thus you must slow, or even stop, until the road is clear. We’re not looking to shame anyone — the pandemic was hard on all of us and a lot of skills got rusty during those months of isolation. But driving is a team sport — we all have to play our part so we all get home safely. So let’s call this a gentle reminder to remember the rules of the road — and that a yield sign is not a merge sign.

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