Other drivers

I like to tell jokes about the differences in driving habits of the residents of the different states in which I have lived. I usually begin by commenting on the lack of ability to merge into moving traffic exhibited by some North Dakota drivers. I’ve seen drivers come to a complete stop on a freeway ramp to wait until there is an opening before proceeding. I joke that if those same people found themselves on a freeway ramp in a more populous place, say, Chicago, they might starve to death before they got onto the freeway. I don’t mean it as a literal truth, just a description of how some people don’t seem to have the skills required to drive in urban traffic.

My description of Idaho drivers often includes a bit of political commentary. I’ve been known to comment that in Idaho there are quite a few people who are basically anarchists. They don’t believe in the authority of the government to tell them what to do. They drive as if they don’t submit to the authority of painted lines to tell them where to drive. “Half the road is mine, and I’ll take the half I want, even if it means taking the half in the middle!” This also applies to drivers traveling on roads that have more than one lane going in the same direction. Idaho drivers seem to be particularly poor at lane control.

In Rapid City, South Dakota, drivers seem to think that a yellow light means “accelerate” and a red light means “only three or four more cars can go before the traffic from the other direction forces them to stop.” I’ve felt guilty for going through an intersection as the light turned yellow and observed that several cars followed me through the intersection, long after the light turned red.

I lived in South Dakota for 25 years, so there was time to observe other quirks in the way people drive there. There are a lot of Dakotans who are what I call “flatlanders.” They are not used to winding mountain roads. When they get to the Black Hills in the western end of the state, they drive as if they are afraid of curves. I’ve followed people on curves that I have no trouble taking at the speed limit with my pickup pulling a trailer, yet they seem to need to slow to a crawl just to get around the corner. Flatlanders also cross the center line to avoid driving too close to a drop off at the edge of the road. Their logic seems to be, “I’d rather die in a head-on collision than risk sliding off the edge of the road.”

Whatever biases I used to have about the lack of skill at merging into traffic when I lived in North Dakota, it seems to be equally true that Washington drivers are not especially skilled in that area. It isn’t that they slow on the ramp like North Dakotans, it is that they seem to drive on the ramp as if they expect the flow of traffic on the freeway to adjust to their presence. I’ve seen people come very close to colliding with the traffic on the freeway by simply driving down the ramp without choosing a space between cars. It is like they need to be reminded that they aren’t the only car on the highway.

Another thing that I observe a great deal in Washington is that people seem to have a very liberal definition of “right turn on red after stop.” I’m pretty sure that the law requires the complete cessation of forward motion and observation of the cross traffic, including pedestrians, before proceeding. If we are walking around here, however, we can’t assume that a car will stop for us in the crosswalk if that car is turning. I’ve seen many drivers who simply slow a bit to make the turn, including those who have pulled out in front of me causing me to apply the brakes when I’ve had the green light and they had the red.

It isn’t just red lights, Washington drivers seem to believe that it isn’t necessary to stop at a stop sign when turning right.

I’ve been told that there are many intersections in the State of Washington where there are cameras installed that capture pictures of cars, including their license numbers, when cars fail to stop at an intersection before turning right. The video is then reviewed by an officer who issues a ticket that is mailed to the registered owner of the car. I’ve never received such a ticket, but it seems like it might teach another lesson: be careful who you allow to drive your car. It seems like it would be easy for a family member or friend to cause a fine to be administered to the person from whom they borrowed the car.

I don’t know if they install such cameras at four way stops or just at intersections with lights, but I read an article in the Bellingham Herald that cited safety research that demonstrated a significant reduction in the number of fatalities in intersections where red light cameras are installed. Red light cameras reduce fatal red light running crashes by 21%. That is a lot and clearly justifies the practice of installing the cameras. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that the majority of the victims of accidents when a right turn on a red light is involved are pedestrians and bicycle riders.

And while I’m on the subject of four way stops, everywhere I have lived people seem to have confusion about which car should go first when two cars reach an open intersection or an intersection with a four way stop. It is my understanding that the driver on the right has the right of way and that a driver turning left should yield to through traffic. That should mean that If the other driver is on my left, I must be on that driver’s right and have the right of way. However, I know better than to count on that driver yielding. I also know not to trust the gestures of the other drivers. They might seem like they are being polite, but they are usually just confusing.

So be careful out there. There is some inconsistency in the observation of traffic rules and there are some drivers that have survived more by being lucky than by being skilled. Being safe is more important than being right. Watch out for other cars. It has been my experience that their behavior might not be completely predictable.

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