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.