American Road #11: Clowns To The Left, Jokers To The Right

roadBill Crittenden continues his American Road series with a look at lane discipline stateside: In the past few years, as the internet and Twitter have allowed me to connect to people from all over the world, I’ve discovered a thing many other countries have that Americans do not: “lane discipline”. I’ve noticed this especially recently as the UK has started ticketing drivers who cruise along in the middle lane without anyone to the left of them.

My driver’s ed lessons, which seem to have been filmed in the late 1960’s by the cars featured in them, taught us something very different. (Do remember our lanes are opposite of yours – our right lane is the slow lane!).

1. If you’re on a four-lane highway in town, stick to the left lane because you’ll be able to avoid any cars that pull out onto the road without looking or slam on the brakes and turn into a parking lot without signaling. This is just basic responsible defensive driving. Drive at the speed limit (see Lesson 3).

2. When there are frequent on/off ramps, stay to the middle lane of an expressway so that you’re not interfering with cars entering and exiting the highway. Move to the left lane to pass trucks and slower moving vehicles. Stay at the speed limit, or move to the right lane if you can’t keep up (see Lesson 3).

3. The most important lesson: if you’re doing the speed limit in the left or middle lane, there should be no reason whatsoever that anyone should be passing you on the right. If they do, that’s their fault for speeding. No excuses, the speed limits aren’t polite suggestions.

After being taught in that context, especially Lesson #3, then being thrown out into the real world of bustling suburban Schaumburg, “lane discipline” seemed to be something Eurocentric assholes said that translated into American as “I have the money to buy a BMW and pay my speeding tickets, so regardless of traffic level I need the peasants to all squeeze into the right lane and out of my way. I’m too important to waste time waiting in line.”

This was often reinforced when rolling along in backed-up traffic, all three lanes moving equally slowly, and getting someone in an Audi or Mercedes with a car phone (yeah, I’m old), flashing their lights as though the rest of traffic will realize their relative unimportance to the world and move aside and apologize for wasting the very busy investment banker’s valuable time.

Always the German cars, it seems. German cars have a different group of buyers here, it seems, but that’s another topic for another article, the length of which will be determined by the number of synonyms for “asshole” and “snob” in my thesaurus.

Schaumburg is a fairly decent sized suburb just twenty minutes northwest of Chicago when there’s no traffic, surrounded by other suburbs whose borders are indiscernible. It’s just one huge unbroken mass of suburb from the city to near the county line. What were four lane roads in my teenage years are now six lanes, and there are still constant traffic backups.

Little has changed since then. I’ve avoided a few accidents by staying out of the right lane in the busier parts of Schaumburg. Even today when I visit my dad I’ll see some douche-for-brains coming up fast and they’ll pass on the right doing 25 mph or more over the speed limit even as I’m doing 5 over myself, and I stay in my lane so as not to make any sudden moves that might cause a collision with someone who must be a bit mentally deficient to be weaving between lanes like that.

Sometimes they’re driving so goddamn fast weaving in and around traffic you don’t even see them coming until after they pass!

So here’s what I’ve discovered. Lack of “lane discipline” isn’t the problem here, lack of “speed discipline” is.  First of all, weaving in and out of traffic and passing at high speeds causes a LOT of accidents, and the amount of overtaking wouldn’t be a necessary if most cars were driving at the same speed with the occasional slow truck the exception. NHTSA classifies impatient, egotistical “errybody outta my way!” speeding and weaving through traffic as “aggressive driving,” and their stats are eye-opening. Especially these two:

Only 14 percent felt it was “extremely dangerous” to drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.
62 percent of those who frequently drive in an unsafe and illegal manner said they had not been stopped by police for traffic reasons in the past year.

So, basically, everybody’s got a different opinion of what the speed limit should be and driving their own speed largely without consequence until there’s an accident. From experience I can also say that they’re also getting mad at each other for either going too fast <i>or</i> too slow, and shuffling positions like it’s the last lap of a NASCAR race at Talladega.

It’s a recipe for road rage, made so much more volatile by ( http://aattp.org/two-proud-gun-nuts-second-amendment-death-road-rage-incident/ ) the fact that our pissed off drivers might be armed!

But I had an easy solution: Woodstock. People wonder why I love living out in the country where everything’s at least ten or fifteen miles away, but it’s easy to explain: it takes the same amount of time to get anywhere and I’d rather cruise 55 on a two-lane back road through farm fields than fight through three-wide suburban traffic.

See more NHTSA info on aggressive driving at http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/aggressive/aggproplanner/page05.htm
-Bill Crittenden
Owner, The Crittenden Automotive Library @ CarsAndRacingStuff.com