We have loaded the dog, and are seated in the front of the Subaru ready to depart for a quick trip (very quick as it happened) to the vet. The dog’s two small lumps have changed shape and grown over the past few months – quite rapidly, to me – so I suggest we need to get it checked earlier on the odd chance it is not benign. (The vet was busy so we decided to go later; my mood not helping, either.)

It has been snowing a lot recently, with mostly grey overcast skies dominating. This morning, a rare appearance of blue skies increased the glare but soothed the sun-starved mind. I place my foot on the brake pedal and push the start button to turn the engine on and warm the chilly car.

My wife, God bless her, reaches over, puts her hand through the steering wheel and states “turn the lights to automatic as we don’t need lights now as I can see” as she turns the switch to automatic.

Now, mind you, I admit, I am a bit put out by the “driver in the passenger seat” making such an executive decision for me (confidence bias or arrogance – I must say I am the better driver between the two of us). But, her statement comes on the back of something that has really been “getting up my nose” in a big way lately, something that simply boils down to people living only in their own circle of concern without the slightest thought for others. This is becoming (has become) a global phenomena as examples are easily recognizable on any day in any media, from “king hit” violence to gun ownership debates to not waiting in a line for other passengers to alight before getting on a train. Over the holiday period, this phenomena has been highlighted by the seemingly complete lack of understanding by many drivers as to why their vehicles have head lights.

It is winter so I usually leave for the morning walk with the dog between 6.30 and 7.00 a.m. – about an hour later than the summer months. In the evening, it is an hour or two earlier, leaving between 3.30 and 4.00 p.m. rather than around 6pm. In winter, at these times, even on a clear day, the light is still developing (or is fading quickly) making visibility an overconfidence fool’s game: we believe we can see clearly but fail to think that others may not be able to clearly see us.

In Europe and Australia it is quite common practice to drive with lights on – especially on a highway on a sunny day – but also as soon as it starts to get grey, such as on a day with overcast weather. Turning the lights on is not to help the driver see the road better – that is quite meaningless – but so other drivers (and pedestrians and cyclists) will be better able to notice you. (This is what the driverless cars have yet to figure out, and nor have those automatic light switches! useful only for when it gets dark and one forgets – which technology seems to be encouraging: forgetfulness.)

On my walks, I am amazed and bewildered by the number of cars I notice – dark colored and white colored and grey colored and one’s with stripes – that blissfully drive about without their lights on, and without the slightest concern that they may not be easily seen by others. I demonstrated the difference between vehicles with their lights on and those without by asking my daughter which she could see first and furtherest and most easily. Of course, it was rhetorical. My eyes are not bad, nor are they 20-20, but I have had to catch myself several times when about to cross the street as a car has suddenly appeared (without lights).

A graduate student of mine was stopped by a policeman on a bicycle when she was riding her bicycle at about 5pm en route to our class. To cut the comedy that ensued with that event short, I raise the issue to highlight that the policeman stopped her because she did not have her light on. My student remarked: “But I could see so why did I need to use my light?” I replied: “It is so other people, especially aged people, around the hospital area, can see you!” Did she change her ways? Unlikely.

In Japanese there are two words that can mean safe: anzen and anshin. Anzen refers to being safe and anshin to feeling of being safe. When a driver does not use lights in winter, on snowy or rainy days, at dawn or dusk, they are usually operating in anshin; but they are not anzen. The same is often noticed with seat belts: a parent or driver is strapped in but the child remains unharnessed (but I won’t get started). It results from operating only within one’s own circle of concern.

When my wife reached through the steering wheel when I was driving to turn the lights to automatic from the “on” position and said “we don’t need lights now as I can see” I reacted (quite badly, no doubt). I challenged what she said and explained – well, tried to – that her thinking was exactly the problem I had been discussing with her about car lights nearly every morning after returning from my walk with the dog. “It doesn’t matter whether you can see but it helps others to notice you” I iterated.

A battle ensued with neither side willing to retreat.

Yes, it was sunny and bright and lights to see were not needed. However, the circle of concern is faulty. Firstly, bright or otherwise, lights help other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists see you more easily (as I demonstrated with my daughter) – no less so on bright, winter days with snow and ice abounding on roads and footpaths. Secondly, a failure to admit fault that her thought was only in her circle of concern (my wife is a therapist so I guess I am even more sensitive about walking the walk if talking the talk) bothered me – as the same “does not compute” moment was experienced with my Grad student, and no doubt does with the minions who don’t appreciate the value of using lights. Thirdly, related to the emotional button that was pressed no doubt, that she found no fault when she reached across to make an executive decision about how I should drive without giving it a second thought (something I might be guilty of when talking to students).

My wife is the most wonderful person. This personal story drove (pun intended) me to write about the use of – or lack thereof – car lights reflects the tendency for us to exist only within our very small circle of concern, at the expense of others. The examples of our inability or choice not to think beyond our circle of concern may be different from context to context (physical violence in Australia, guns in the USA, etc), but are common to all humans. Those societies that believe they are above such selfish survival techniques are deluded and deceived. I, too, may be blind to my own examples, but at least I try to consider the bigger picture, and that is what we should all do.

(p.s. I was concerned that as a visitor to Japan that I might be applying my driving standards and therefore my thoughts were misplaced. So, I checked with my neighbour who worked (now retired) at a diving license school. He assured me that drivers were taught to drive with the “day lights” switched on. “They forget” he said.)

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