Tag Archive: traffic

(Submitted by reader Carl Nichols)

Fifteen years ago or so I was working in London just around the corner from the House of Commons. Nothing unusual there, but one lunch time I was crossing the road and in the car in the front of the queue of traffic that had stopped at the lights was, to my surprise, my parents. My parents live a small village in Suffolk, about 90 miles from London (not a huge distance in the US but Britain is only 600 miles long so a reasonable distance here!)

They would come to London perhaps 3-4 times a year but coming into central London much more rarely. As I’m sure you’re aware London isn’t a small place and I would be reasonably surprised to randomly bump into anyone I knew, even if they lived in the city, and who happened to be in London for the day.

What are the odds on crossing the road in one of the biggest cities in the world at the same time as your parents are driving through that same spot?!

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 197. Take a look and leave your comments below.

I found this story interesting, even though the odds of this happening are much higher than they are in most of the location coincidence stories that we get. In fact, I am actually more interested in why the author did not know that the parents would be in town. It seems that seeing their child might be part of their plans.

Well, the parties involved did not travel thousands of miles and see each other in a remote location, but it still feels unbelievable. I suspect  the car is the reason. A car can move pretty fast, making it feel as though where someone in a car is at any given time is much more variable than someone on foot.

The placement of the car at the light might seem to make the odds of this incident even crazier, but if it was not in front, the author may not have even known that his/her parents were there. When crossing streets, people make eye contact with drivers, both because our parents taught us to and because it’s kind of a natural survival instinct (not that you could tell at my son’s middle school). The drivers in cars that are poised to run us over get our attention, but not those that are not. How many times has a similar incident occurred, yet nobody noticed because the parents were in the second or third car rather than the first?

If you have ever discovered afterward that a friend was at the same event—ball game, concert, trade show—at the same time as you were, yet you didn’t run into each other, think about how many times that must have happened, but because it didn’t come up in conversation, you never knew.

Are coincidences spooky supernatural experiences, or just interesting accidents of timing and geography? I have noticed them all my life, but I’ve never tried to quantify or identify them in any organized way before.

It’s not too unusual to bump into friends in the neighborhood. I seemed to run into my friend Connie pretty regularly at the old garden shop that used to be in our neighborhood before it was razed a few years ago. Frequently, every couple of months, we see each other at the Gelson’s grocery at around five o’clock. My excuse is that I’d discover at the last minute that I was short one or two ingredients for dinner and have to zoom to the market on a mission. I was chugging along pushing my basket one time, and felt somebody’s hand in my pocket and screamed — it was Connie — she was sneaking up on me. A shopper who saw her thought she was trying to steal something from me, and laughed when we hugged each other.

But — is it less common to see friends on the freeway? There approximately 2,000 vehicles per hour (vph) per lane* in rush hour — cars full of strangers, and it seems unlikely that I would see anyone I recognize in one of the cars; but I have seen my daughter in her car on the 101 westbound, which is probably not too unusual because we live in the same neighborhood, except I didn’t know she was about to go out at the same time I was. One time I was on my way to work in the morning, and I was driving along from Studio City on the 134 eastbound toward Eagle Rock. I had the radio on, concentrating on not missing my off ramp, and didn’t notice right away that two guys in a truck next to me on the drivers’ side were yelling and waving “Hey Wendy!” They were my boyfriend’s nephew and godson on their way to a glass installation job, and they recognized me in my car on the freeway!

Another time, I was on the Hollywood freeway, 170 North, and the SUV in front of me had a familiar name stenciled on it, Sharp FX, our friend Nick’s special effects business, except Nick had been living in China for over a year. I called my boyfriend and told him I saw Nicky’s car, and that I think he’s back home.

I was resting on a bus bench with my friend Gilda when we were on a shopping trip along Melrose Avenue, a popular retail area. We were talking with each other, and enjoying peoplewatching. She was sitting turned toward me and I was facing the street, so I didn’t see the boys coming close when one of them leaned over the back of the bench to give me a hug and a kiss. It was my friend PJ… and I recognized him right away, but Gilda didn’t know him, and she thought he was trying to steal my purse.  It seemed normal at the time, but as I look back on it, I go back and forth. I think that these experiences of bumping into friends in public, both in stores, on the sidewalk away from your normal neighborhood, seeing friends on the freeways, are worth counting to see just how unusual, or usual, they are.

Our paths cross by accidents of timing and geography — the phone rings and it’s someone you were talking about five minutes ago — but does that mean it can help you predict the future? Does that mean putting on the shirt you were wearing when you fell in love will bring back your long lost sweetheart? I can understand the surprising nature of unlikely circumstance — bumping into an old friend in a public place, or just noticing the wacky juxtaposition of a pattern of events that seem at once connected, and yet unrelated. Some people seem to have friends everywhere –  can they be the hubs of the six degrees of separation — the people who can hand off a package, and through a series of only single friend-to-friend transitions, transmit it from New York City to a jungle settlement in Zaire? I believe it’s true. There are people who know more than the usual number of other people, and people who nurture loose friendships that are the fiber of such human networks as these seeming coincidences are made of.

But I also understand that there is a “bigger picture”; that once we stop thinking of ourselves as the center of the universe, that it would be ridiculous to think that it is unusual that our paths would not cross more than once, or only when we make and keep planned dates. That seems to be an exaggeration of our ability to control our environment, or maybe an expression of our need to control it. Seen in a context of the randomness, the stochasticity of  all the possible experiences people can have, the tiny, random events that surprise us seem to be just failures of our own imagination, a misunderstanding of the depth of time and the size of the universe. I am not sure what the message is – except that I will probably bump into you soon!