Can bad luck be good?

Anyone who rides in the car with me eventually notices that I have bad luck in two areas: hitting red lights and driving by on-ramps as cars are merging in. Also, while jogging, I seem to hit more than my fair share of people leaving their driveways or coming from a side street.

I’ve considered this might just be confirmation bias. Maybe I noticed it after an unlucky drive and jog and now every time any of those happens it confirms that bias, while I don’t notice all the times it doesn’t happen.

But, I wondered if the extra attentiveness to those situations helped keep me safe in one particular incident this past year.

As I approach lights and on-ramps, I’ve become accustomed to taking stock of the traffic around me so I will know my options if the light turns red or cars do merge in. That means checking what’s in the passing lane, what’s behind me, to the side of me and their relative speeds.

All of the cars I’ve met on side streets and pulling out of driveways on jogs has taught me to look directly into the driver’s eyes to read their intentions.

In the one instance, I was approaching a photo-enforced stop light on a state highway where the speed limit is 55 MPH.

I’ve hit that light enough to know to watch for the warning signal light about 500 feet before the intersection. If it turns red before you pass it, the light will turn red before you get to it.

I also know that it’s easy to miss that warning light if you don’t know it’s there.

I saw it that day. But, it turned on just as I passed it, which meant two things. First, the light would turn at the last second. Second, those immediately around me may not have noticed that it changed.

As I was slowing down, I remembered that I also had just passed and got in front of a semi before going past the warning light. I remember he was driving faster than semis normally do on that stretch (telling me he wasn’t familiar with that road) and I thought that maybe he did not see warning light, was not expecting the light to change and could not stop as quickly as I could.

My thought was confirmed when I looked into my rear view mirror to see the semi approaching at a speed that I knew was going to hit me.

I also looked at the driver’s face and the look on it told me I was in trouble. I read in it, “How did this guy know the light was going to change? Shiii###!!!”

Because I’m used to assessing the the traffic around me as I approach traffic lights and on-ramps because of my ‘bad luck’, I quickly ran through three options. When I say quickly, I mean — the following thought process maybe took a second, but I was able to go through it because I knew what was around me.

I could step on the gas and run the light, but I didn’t think I could accelerate quick enough to avoid being hit. And, if I did make it, I’d probably get a ticket!

I could pull to the right, onto the shoulder and let him pass me. But, I thought there was chance he might try the same thing at the same time which would do neither of us any good.

I knew I could change to the left lane because I knew there was nobody immediately to my left and the cars behind me in that lane were slowing to stop. I also figured since there were cars next to him in that lane, he was less likely to try changing to the left lane.

I quickly swerved into the left lane and the semi blew past me less than a second later in the right lane with a very relieved look on the driver’s face (and hopefully a ticket in the mail for running the red light).

I also saw looks on other driver’s faces behind me and at the cross street that said while I was waiting for the light to turn green that confirmed that they thought I was a very lucky dude who made split-second, perhaps life-saving decision.

As I pulled away when the light turned green, the thought occurred to me that maybe my perceived bad luck with traffic lights and on-ramps wasn’t so bad, after all.

I credit having taken stock of the situation around me as I was approaching the light to helping me avoid that accident. If I didn’t have as much information as I did, I may not have made as good of a decision.

That’s also changed the way I look at bad luck. It seems crappy at the time, but I wonder — maybe the bad luck is helping me prepare for something.

UPDATE: Just as I clicked the Publish button on this post, I recalled this EconTalk podcast with Robert Frank discussing his book Success and Luck, which I just added to my list to read. In the podcast he discussed a medical emergency he had where he had several lucky things happen that resulted in him staying alive.

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