Life is a Judgment Call

The bar patron asked the bartender, “Is life worth living?”

The bartender replied, “It depends on the liver.”1

In other words, it’s a judgment call.

Most of us crave simple patterns to explain life. We crave simple rules to guide our behavior. We often don’t get them.

I encountered an example on the road after lunch today.

In the last few years, our city government has gone on a binge of replacing stop signs with traffic circles. The theory is that they speed up commuting. The reality is that many drivers still don’t know how to navigate them.

As a result, even simple traffic circles are accidents waiting to happen. Multi-lane traffic circles, because they’re more complex, are even more accident-prone.

Today after lunch, I was on a two-lane road approaching a one-lane traffic circle. My lane, on the left, led into the traffic circle. The other lane, on the right, was a right-turn lane.

I had a feeling that the driver on my right would cut in front of me and enter the traffic circle from the wrong lane, so I hit my brakes. And he did exactly as I’d expected. If I hadn’t braked, we would have crashed, with the front of my car hitting the driver’s side of his car. Not good, especially not for him.

Apparently oblivious to what had happened, he zoomed through the traffic circle. I followed behind him.

About a half-mile down the road, we came to another traffic circle. He zoomed into it and barely escaped being hit by a truck. I waited for the truck to pass and then drove through.

He either wasn’t paying attention to his driving, didn’t know how to use traffic circles, or was prone to taking unreasonable risks.

On the other hand, he hadn’t actually caused an accident and I’ve seen lots of incompetent driving. He did manage to avoid the truck.

So I thought, “what should I do?”

Call the cops? That seemed a little excessive. I’d witnessed a couple of traffic violations but no harm was done.

Catch up with him, stop him somehow, and explain his driving errors? Oh, yeah, that would work. Unsolicited criticism from strangers is always appreciated.

I finally made a judgment call: If he stopped somewhere and I was still within sight of him, I would pull over. As gently as possible, I’d try to explain how close he had come to causing two traffic accidents in two minutes. I didn’t expect him to react with anything but anger, but I would at least have done something.

He turned off the road at the next intersection, and I had to get back to work, so I didn’t chase him.

I hope that his driving improves, and that he doesn’t hurt anyone in the meantime.

I made a judgment call.


  1. In case you didn’t get the joke, excessive drinking can damage the drinker’s liver.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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