Traffic and ideology

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ideology: a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture

One of the many ways Americans are different from other people is the way we drive, and the expectations we have about how others should drive.

In other countries, it seems that people drive to get somewhere, and they measure how “well” they’re driving by how quickly and reliably they arrive at their destination. But here in the US, it’s not nearly that simple. You see, around here, how you drive says a lot about what kind of person you are. Are you smart or dumb? Generous or selfish? Aware or naive? Good or evil? Your driving provides clues to all of these things, and other American drivers know how to read the signs.

The reading of these signs is the most important thing going on when you’re driving in America. Destinations come and go, and many people don’t even know or care where they’re going anyway, but American drivers are always paying close attention to whether somebody else is driving in a way that deserves comment or criticism.

One of the earliest driving lessons I ever learned was from watching the Mr. Magoo show. That blind, lovable little guy drives his car right through a barn, smashing it to pieces, and when the chickens all cluck and scramble for their lives, he honks his horn and angrily yells “ROAD HOG!” I love doing that, and feel very patriotic every time I do. That kind of behavior is what driving in America is all about.

Seattle vs. Chicago

I first realized the extent to which culture and driving are intertwined when I moved from Seattle to Chicago at the tender age of 24.

In Seattle, the pedestrian is a saint who can do no wrong, and drivers feel a responsibility to coddle any decision a pedestrian may make. Want to cross in the middle of the block during rush hour? Step off the curb, and it’s like Moses wading through the Red Sea: the drivers all slam on the brakes and smile meekly or wave, embarrassed to be wasting precious fossil fuels while you’re being so healthy and virtuous by walking.

In Chicago, the pedestrian is a chump. Step off the curb and you better be paying attention, because the drivers are busy and distracted, in a hurry and not overly concerned with whether you’re too dumb to survive the day. To a Seattle boy, and one who showed up in Chicago without a car no less, this was a rude awakening.

After I had lived in Chicago for a while, and had fully assimilated into a new driving culture, I found Seattle’s driving habits foreign whenever I returned for a visit. One time I was driving on Capitol Hill and took a free right turn while a woman was walking in the crosswalk at the far side of the intersection. I couldn’t have hit her if I wanted to, or even come close, but she sprinted to my vehicle and kicked at my back bumper so vigorously she nearly fell down. While I laughed and waved in the rear-view mirror, she stood in the cross walk, flipping me off and yelling.

I know what she wanted. She wanted me to bow down and acknowledge the supremacy of the pedestrian, of course. But I just can’t do it. And I can’t receive it, either: it’s just as annoying to me when I’m the pedestrian in that sort of situation.

For example, I often walk across the street between buildings 18 and 20 at work. And I hate the way the cars stop if you even appear to be thinking of crossing the street. So I usually stand there casually, as if I’m just hanging out for a while, and then when I see there’s a gap in traffic I slip across the street without giving away my intentions ahead of time. That feels so efficient: the cars keep moving, without any energy wasted stopping and starting, and life is good.

But even with those sorts of precautions, I’ve found that sometimes a person who has an especially urgent need to demonstrate their compassion and generosity (these people tend to be sadistic perverts in real life of course, that’s why they need to do this stuff while they drive) will stop and hold out an upturned palm as if offering me a free drink: “hey, would you like this generous thing I’m offering you?” And at those times, as a matter of principle, I always shake my head NO. And then I walk across right behind them as soon as they start moving again, although I’ve had people get pissed off about that, fer chrissakes!

So for a while, I thought Chicago and Seattle represented far extremes of driving culture, with everything else in between. Then I visited India for the first time.

United States vs. The World

I’ve blogged about Indian driving before. As I said a year ago, not long after a trip to Bangalore:

One of the things I love about India is the way the traffic flows.

Here in the US, our approach to traffic is very rigid and simplistic: it’s all about rules and standardization and predictability, with a hierarchical “command and control” mentality in place. The traffic lights tell you what to do, and you do it, and people carefully stay within the lines of their lanes. Any variation from the predefined procedures is considered an act of aggression or stupidity, and often elicits an angry reaction from drivers nearby. (I’m quite familiar with that reaction!)

But in India, people just drive. Or walk, or ride a rikshaw, or whatever. The focus isn’t on rules and regulations, it’s on getting to your destination. And this goal-oriented approach works great: in spite of the wide variety of vehicles involved (and variety of species too, but I won’t offend my Indian friends by mentioning any of them :-)), Indian traffic flows very efficiently. It’s like a self-correcting network protocol that automatically reoutes around congestion and keeps the data flowing in conditions that would shut more rigid systems down.

In that post, I linked to a YouTube video of driving in India that’s worth watching if you’re an American who hasn’t seen how other people drive.

And it’s not just India, or just Asia. With the sole exception of Canada, I’ve found the drivers in every country I’ve been to outside the US to be much more attuned to their fellow drivers than we are, and much less concerned with formal rules. North American drivers are very focused on things that aren’t moving — dotted lines, signs, traffic lights — and everyone else in the world seems to be more attuned to the moving objects on the road.

So in America, when the car next to you veers into your lane a bit, the unspoken rule is that you should honk your horn, make angry faces and gestures, and thereby assert your moral superiority for all to see, even if the other person’s actions had absolutely no impact on how fast you get to your destination. If that driver crossed the little line painted on the pavement, you have a right — no, a responsibility! — to draw public attention to this terrible crime.

The way we use the horn is different, too. In America, your horn is a quick and easy way to say “fuck you” to other drivers. That’s what it’s for, and that’s the message whenever you honk it. But in other countries, your horn is a way to say “I’m here” and nothing more.

So the sound of busy traffic in other countries tends to be beep-beep-beep, horns honking constantly. American tourists hear that, and their ears don’t hear “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” but rather they hear “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” and the American thinks “gee, these people are so uncivilized, they don’t follow basic traffic rules at all, and they’re all pissed off about it — don’t they know there’s a better way?” Uh, yeah, right.

I mentioned Seattle’s “the pedestrian is king” mentality, and it seems to me that other countries have more of a “might is right” approach. Pedestrians make sure they don’t get in front of moving vehicles, motorbikes avoid cars, cars avoid trucks, and the larger vehicle always has the right-of-way. It’s a simple system, and there’s never any doubt about who’s responsible for avoiding a collision.

Now, maybe that might-isight concept is offensive to the Puritanical culture we live in, where we calls toilets “restrooms” and parents don’t smoke in front of their kids, but I have news for my fellow Americans: that approach works better than our system. Everyone gets where they’re going faster, and they also don’t kill each other with their vehicles (or guns for that matter) nearly as often as we pure and free Americans do.

Drive in the carpool lane. Always.

There was an email discussion this week at work about how we can all do more to “live green” and avoid wasting energy or polluting the environment any more than necessary. And one person voiced a common complaint here in Seattle: the observation that some people drive in the HOV/carpool lane, even though they’re driving alone. Ooh, doesn’t that just piss you off!

But another person pointed out that if the other lanes aren’t moving, and the carpool lane is moving, then the best thing to do for the environment is to get in the carpool lane and get moving, rather than sitting there idling and burning fuel without going anywhere.

I love it! This is non-US thinking in action, exactly the kind of results-oriented perspective we need if we’re going to remain competitive in the rapidly changing world.

The other side of the coin: in my last trip to India, I saw an angry exchange in traffic. Two drivers were yelling at each other, and they hadn’t even crashed into each other! It was like a little glimpse of American road rage, and it worried me. If this is the price of progress, it may be too high.

Anyway, enough of this rant. It’s a nice sunny day, our first anniversary, and I’m taking the wife for a drive. I will not use my turn signal, horn, or middle finger the entire time, I promise.

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12 Comments

  1. Happy Anniversary! Megan, give Doug a kiss for me.

    No, wait, I think I got that wrong.

    I never realized how American I am. I’ve been of the opinion for years that your horn should give you a low-voltage jolt — not enough to kill or harm you, but enough to make it unpleasant enough to honk that you’ll only do it for the “I’m here” or “look out” times. That could have come from living right ON Sheridan Road, though, where there was constant honking all day and night — it ran the gamut between greeting and editorial comment, but honking was rarely used in what I would call a valid, practical way.

    Of course, I do realize that my strategy would make certain deviant members of society who dig that kind of thing very irritating and loud, but at least we’d all know where those weirdos are and when they were passing through.

    Interesting point about American drivers being focused on everything BUT the other moving cars on the road. Very true — just today, I sat through a huge hole in traffic waiting to turn left because I was paying more attention to how much longer the light would be green.

    And I’ve always been amazed at the power of a painted line here, too — from what I’ve heard about traffic in other countries, the painted lines are simply there for reference. Here, crossing those lines gets you honked at, flipped off, and (in L.A.) shot. It really does feel like a wall you can’t pass through.

    Hey, do you know if there’s driver’s education in India, or if you can just get a car and start driving? Most of these quaint driving traditions here can be traced back to driver’s ed.

    We live right near the Devon Street area in Rogers Park, one of the largest Indian neighborhoods in the U.S. And you want to stay the hell away from the “Delhi Driving School” cars you see around. It seems like teaching drivingelated tentativeness to people from a country where there is none kind of overshoots the mark most of the time.

    All I know is that from the footage I’ve seen, I have no interest in EVER driving in India. I just don’t think I have the moxie for it.

  2. As a chronic pedestrian in Seattle, I appreciate the approach, except I then feel I am taking my life in my hands when I am walking in other cities (such as Santa Fe, most recently) where I felt that I had a target painted on my butt and forehead.

    What really gets me is the drivers who stop in the middle of an intersection (a moving violation here) and then insist that I cross in front of them, when I have not stepped into the road and I want them to stop blocking traffic and making it more dangerous for all of us. So I have to turn my back on the buggers or just relent and cross the street since it is the fastest way to get those passive-aggressive maniacs to move along.

  3. In Vermont (where my wife’s family is from), cars have to stop immediately for any pedestrian in a crosswalk. I thought that was interesting (being from Chicago, where as Doug said, pedestrians are not only not protected but scored on a point system like Bezerk), and tested it out as a pedestrian in Montpelier a few times. I learned very quickly to check license plates before stepping out — Vermonters will stop, but others may or may not. Massachusetts plates, for example, are as good as death on wheels.

    I was only in Seattle with Doug and Megan for a few days, and we didn’t walk much of anywhere (except on golf courses). I did notice a few painfully polite drivers, but really only in the city — it seemed to peter out fairly quickly when we got a bit out of the urban areas. Is it just Seattle proper where this happens? You’d almost expect it to be the other way around.

  4. Well, Tom, it happens way out in the sticks on Vashon Island, too. We walked out of a bar and there was a bunch of traffic at the moment, so I started walking up the sidewalk. But suddenly there were a bunch of cars stopped, so we hurried across.

    And yes, Dennis, I agree: when somebody stops on a multi-lane road to try to get you to cross, it puts everyone involved in greater danger than if they just let you wait for a gap in all the lanes. Some people!

  5. Thomas Schmidt on

    Hi Doug!

    And now… My 5 cents worth words on traffic in Vietnam – you guessed it.

    It seems to be a lot like in India. From what I saw on YouTube, it looks alike – alas there are more bikes and less cars today. With the number of both rising.

    In Vietnam there is a driver’s license. You have to take a written test (in vietnamese language) and a practical test (drivin’ an eight on the bike). Having a license helps… But if you’re driving a bike in the cities you won’t get stopped so you don’t really need one. You can rent a bike and don’t get asked. An international license document is not accepted AFAIK. I heard a time limited national license can be made if you have an international one and have enough time to wait for it (at least a month).

    From a truck driver I know that most of the trucks are supercharged – double! If they get caught they have to pay a fee or get a mark on the license. Three marks or so and they keep your license. But maybe as a truck driver ou have another one…

    But the times are achangin’. You now need a helmet – driving on the highway. You’d better not get caught on a rented bike without a helmet or a license on the highway. They’d confiscate your bike for a month – you pay the rent. If you’re looking like a viet (no shorts, t-shirt) and wear a helmet you might get through the traffic check.

    The main rule in vietnamese traffic is: Always look in front of you. If you’re too anxious to turn let you’ll never do. You have to take care what your predecessor does. If he likes to cross all the lanes in order to turn left it’s OK. Maybe the big truck behind you buzzes his ship’s horn – you’d better let him pass by. Or move to the left side of the lane early enough.

    There are many accidents in traffic. And they are much more severe than you might guess. If you see a cluster of people on the street – it happened again. I think the high numbers of traffic death’s and rising numbers of vehicels are the reasons they are hardeneing the rules now.

  6. Hi Thomas! Thanks for the overview of Vietnamese traffic. I’ve heard that thing about always looking in front of you before, from an Indian friend. Probably good advice wherever one happens to drive.

    Do you really think I’ll look like a viet if I don’t wear shorts and a t-shirt? 🙂

  7. No, Maybe not. But sittin’ in the back of a Honda driven by your wife costumed as a viet woman (hat, sunglasses, very long gloves, …) might be OK.

  8. [I’m the RL incarnation of one of your neighbors on Horus.]

    Are you sure the third world approach is working well for them? I just did some cursory Googling and found a lot of gristly pronouncements and a handful of statistics to support them. That hardly constitutes thorough research, but it sounds as though the roads of India and other third world nations are actually much worse than ours. They’ve more deaths per 100,000 people despite far fewer motor vehicles per capita. Then again, somebody who spent an afternoon researching instead of five minutes might get a very different answer.

    I’m right there with you on the point of awareness though. I ride a motorcycle in city traffic and encounter a never ending stream of four-wheeled drivers who aren’t paying a lot of attention. About once a month or so I even see somebody with a book or magazine propped up against the steering wheel. It’s stunning.

  9. Damn, I was afraid I might be on thin ice with that claim, mkb. Sigh. It worked so well, as a rhetorical device. 🙂

    I rode a motorcycle for a few years long ago, and I remember the same sensation, that many of the 4-wheelers were barely paying attention at all.

    I’m in Sao Paulo now, and the traffic here is very crowded but not as intense as Asian cities in general. But the motorcycles all do that thing where they go real fast between lanes while traffic is backed up. I could never trust all the cars enough to do that — one person changes lanes quickly, and the high-speed motorcycle’s in a heap of trouble.

  10. I read somewhere that the rate of traffic deaths per capita in India was actually surprisingly low, but that could well be urban legend. Doug, don’t you have some Economist annual stats book that has stuff like that in it?

    I remember Ireland having a rather high traffic death–not surprising giving all the one lane country roads between pubs.

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