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Road (Rage) Rules

Anecdotes from a road warrior in the city of angels

For our own safety we assume that other drivers do not see us, and will behave in the worst way possible. They will pull out in front us, potentially run red lights, stop suddenly, change lanes without signalling and without looking, not see us when we brake in front of them, etc. For our own safety, we are always alert to these things and when they happen, we get out of the way as best we can.

When another driver fulfills these negative expectations, we may curse them, but at least we made it home safely. The other poor fool can go kill himself for all we care. This is the reality of the road, and no laws or expectations of human decency will change it.

When it comes to attitude however, we drivers are a much more sensitive lot. Though we assume other drivers’ actions will be negative, we expect their attitudes to be pleasant. We also expect them to follow certain road courtesy rules, which they break as often as they break the safety rules. So to summarize, we seem to be more offended by a breach of courtesy then a breach of safety. When the latter occurs, we are simply happy to have avoided an accident.

I’m not trying to minimize the importance of courtesy. In a place like Los Angeles, certain courtesies are essential to the smooth operation of the system–like not blocking an intersection when traffic is heavy. But sometimes gentility can get out of hand–and be downright dangerous–as in not taking the right of way when it’s yours. The road does not usually reward the meek. But our expectation of driver courtesy is what largely sets us up for road rage.

The first week in February was particularly bad for me on the LA freeways. During my morning and evening commutes, I experienced road rage directed at me nearly every day. Half the time, I had no idea what my supposed offense was. At 37, my driving is a lot better than it was–say–20 years ago. I’m a lot more courteous, careful, and aware of other drivers today. Yet even when younger and less experienced, I never saw the current levels of road rage.

THE TRAFFIC-JAM MERGE

Most of LA driving is spent in bumper to bumper traffic. But freeways and especially merging lanes were designed for flowing traffic. One of the most puzzling quirks of LA drivers is their inability to perform a simple merge by allowing one car from each lane to move forward in turn. Some joker always decides he’s going to be the second car in a row from his lane. This flares tempers and slows down the merge. Even worse, exit lanes for freeway interchanges often back up for miles. Most drivers know where they’re going and get in line. Others see the back up, and stay in the faster lanes until the last possible minute. Then they try to worm their way in. Of course this pisses off those who’ve been in line for 20 minutes.

Lately, though, people have been taking this objection to an extreme. I was trying to move over one day, at least a mile before the interchange, before it was even clear that there was a separation in traffic. As I signalled and moved in, the driver I was getting in front of honked and yelled, “Hey asshole, I’ve been waiting in this line for half an hour!” So what did he expect me to do, miss my exit? I’d have been ahead of the game to pull the same trick right at the interchange. I might have still been yelled at, but I would have saved 15 or 20 minutes. In this case, the road seemed to reward rudeness.

THE FAST LANE

On the rare occasion when we Angelenos actually get a break in traffic, top speeds on the freeways hover around 80. Though the limit is 65, there seems to be a tacit agreement on 80, as if to make up for time lost while we were sitting. Cops tend to look the other way, though it depends on their mood. I did get a ticket for 84 a couple of years ago.

But there’s always someone who thinks they know better–or isn’t paying attention. I don’t know if it’s the Ralph Nader safety people, radical environmentalists, fundamentalist Christians, the Prozac crew, the drunks, the stoners, or the old folks, but someone’s always trying to go 55 or 60 in the fast lane. Worse, when you pass these people and try to wave them over, they either ignore you or glare at you. My therapist would have a field day with these passive-aggressives masquerading as prudent law-abiders.

People can argue this question on technicalities all day long. Yes, the speed limit is 65. But if people behind you in the fast lane are trying to get by, the law and common courtesy say to move over. In Germany where speeds often reach and exceed 160 kilometers per hour (100 MPH) even though the technical speed limit is 130 kilometers per hour (around 80 MPH), you can actually get an expensive ticket for not getting over if you are driving in the fast lane.

This much is clear: In terms of both courtesy and safety, driving against the flow of traffic is worse than speeding. These slugs in the fast lane are the moral equivalent of a toilet clog.

THE JAYWALKING PEDESTRIAN

One-sixth of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians (California Driver Handbook). That’s about 7,000 nationwide in the year 2000 (Federal Highway Administration report 2001). But the risk of a jaywalking ticket in Los Angeles is practically nil. Crosswalks are not common except at major cross streets, and most people in business districts are on their own against the traffic. Two companies I’ve worked for in the past 5 years have located their parking lots directly across a four-lane busy street. This necessitated at least 4 jaywalks per day.

Normally, when busy, it was easier to cross halfway, then wait in the median for a break in the other direction of traffic. Ironically, the biggest problem with this daily ritual was not avoiding cars; it was avoiding overly courteous drivers! When standing in the median, drivers in the closest lane would sometimes stop to allow me to cross. I would wave them on, and they were incredulous that I did not appreciate their “courtesy”. Finally they would roar off in a huff, and I would then cross when traffic was really clear.

Why did I deny their courtesy? I once saw a driver safety film that cautioned against stopping for pedestrians not in a crosswalk. One driver may have the best of intentions and stop, but traffic in the other lane may still not see the pedestrian, who is now crossing with a false sense of security. This is the same reason why it’s illegal to pass a stopped school bus–a pedestrian may be crossing out of view. The moral: DO NOT STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS who are NOT IN A CROSSWALK (unless they jump out in front of you). Misplaced courtesy can be worse than malice. Many people have DIED this way.

RIGHT OF WAY

This is such an everyday experience, so unremarkable that it almost doesn’t deserve mention. But it does, because people can’t seem to figure it out. Most times at four-way stops, people do not observe right-of-way procedure. Not taking your right-of-way is just as bad as taking it out of turn. I’ve had overly courteous drivers insist on letting EVERYONE ELSE at the intersection go first. Because this is against expectations, it causes confusion, anger, and could cause an accident. Yet these people continue to believe they are being courteous and righteous. This is another example of how false courtesy just screws things up. 100 years into the age of automobiles, and we still can’t seem to get it straight: When cars arrive at the intersection at or near the same time–please–the one on the right goes first!

THE JAYWALKING PEDESTRIAN PART DEUX

The man’s fist hit my fender with a “thunk.” I glanced up at him in the rearview mirror with a start. I was in a long line of cars sitting motionless on “little” Santa Monica Boulevard in Century City (just south of the main Santa Monica Boulevard). “Thanks a lot, jerk,” he yelled. I then realized what had happened. This man had been waiting to cross the street. The line of cars was inching forward. I had just pulled up in front of him, closing the six foot gap between me and the next car, and now he had to cross behind me.

Had I seen him, I’d have been happy to let him pass. Wouldn’t have cost me anything, and would have been courteous. But I DIDN’T SEE HIM until I heard his fist. He assumed that I was being deliberately rude. He judged my motive, crossed the line into potentially damaging my car, and could have caused a major incident with me. His false expectation of driver courtesy led to road rage, and he wasn’t even driving. What if I was ill-tempered and had a gun? God help this poor bastard if he ever has to drive defensively.

THE AIRPORT LOOP

Now the shoe is on the other foot: Here’s a story of my OWN road rage. Since 9/11, all airports have become a nightmare. I have not had occasion to fly since then, but I’ve been to airports several times to meet passengers. On this occasion, I was picking up my sister Tatiana. Her flight was late, and security does not allow cars to stop at the terminal for longer than about 2 minutes. So I had to drive around the loop 4 or 5 times–me and everyone else. Of course, LAX was designed in quainter times, and the airport return was only given one lane. Then, this lane merges with the regular traffic.

The first couple of times around were uneventful. But by the third loop, traffic was getting heavier. Along with the “flyaway” buses, parking and hotel shuttles, countless cabs and regular traffic was one obstinate white Nissan SUV. This man broke merge protocol and refused to let me in. Even though it was my turn and another car had already gone in front of me, this man was determined. As traffic inched forward, he looked over at me and inched forward just enough to prevent me getting in. I motioned to him, hey, come on, let me in. He shook his head and inched forward more. My fist hit the inside of my window in his general direction, several times. As it was, all I got was sore knuckles. But If I’d had a weapon, and if I were the violent type, this man would have been truly sorry.

THE LINE UP

Some people have never accepted the reality of where they live. LA is a traffic nightmare. AVERAGE one-way commutes are approaching 45 minutes. (Which means some people, like yours truly, are often driving 75 minutes one way). Yet some people still think they can get ahead. They lane-hop, furiously hoping to get ahead a few car lengths–to save a few minutes. When the freeways are choked, they zoom around often byzantine routes on surface streets. I wonder what these people are thinking sometimes. Are all of us who sit on the freeway just a bunch of poor stupid saps?

I’ve made a few admittedly unscientific attempts to prove whether alternate routes really save time. Over the course of 20 years, the answer I’ve found is largely negative. If you do save time, it’s in the range of 10-20%, which in my book is not worth the uncertainty or aggravation of surface traffic. Usually, when the freeway is busy, so are surface streets. The ‘invisible hand’ of a million random choices allocates traffic in an equal division. In cases of accident or obvious freeway closure, getting off is certainly the best choice. But absent GPS navigation and real-time-traffic-aware-computer-planned routes, the fastest way is usually the most direct. Which in L.A. is the freeway.

I understand the emotions of those who are frustrated. Traffic is damn frustrating. It wastes hundreds of billions of dollars of productive time each year in America. So if it makes people feel better to zip around city streets, more power to ’em. One less car in my way on the freeway. And, at least they have the illusion of being in control.

These same surface-street-zippers who have A.D.D. (attention deficit disorder) on the freeway also can’t seem to sit still on the surface streets. If there’s ever a line-up anywhere in L.A. that lasts for more than a couple of minutes, you can be guaranteed that someone will pull a U-turn and head back the opposite direction. I always wonder if these people suddenly decided it wasn’t worth the trip. “Gee, I’d like to go to work, but there’s traffic, so I think I’ll go home now.” or “I have a doctor’s appointment, but with all this traffic, it’s too much of a hassle. I think I’ll go another day.” After the first U-turner breaks out of line, often a rash of other cars flip around as well, as if to say–in groupthink–“See ya, suckers!” But the majority wait it out, and ironically after the gaggle of control-freaks have departed, the line up usually begins to move just fine. I often visualize these people, on their adrenaline-crazed rush through residential streets, terrorizing kids or old folks walking their dogs. And do they really get there faster?

Many areas of LA have gotten hip to this reality, and instituted what are known as “traffic-calming” measures in residential areas. These amount to permanent speed bumps across residential streets, which I find to be a monumental hassle. But certainly understandable given the manic habits of frustrated freeway-phobics, who’ve succeeded in ruining it for the rest of us.


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