Last month I had the opportunity to drive cross country once again, for the third time in three years. I drove from New York to San Francisco in three days straight across the I-80. It was mostly a non-eventful trip in a good way, meaning no speeding tickets, accidents, breakdowns, or traffic jams until I hit day three. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first two days of my trip were remarkably smooth. I made better time than I hoped. Everything seemed to follow a natural flow and rhythm which gave me the time and mindset to think about why this trip seemed so much easier than previous ones.
First a minor but interesting observation. Bugs. Since it was late November there were no bugs splattering themselves against the windshield and coating the front of the car with bio-matter. I didn’t have to shift my head around to find a gap between splats on the windshield to view the road ahead. I didn’t spend an extra five minutes per pit stop scraping off bug guts. This was the first time i had made the trip in cold weather. Every other time had been during the summer when swarms of insects lie waiting to coat the windows of unsuspecting drivers, especially in the Midwest.
Construction. It seems like most of the states along I-80 hold off road work during the cold season.
By far the most important factor and the most interesting observation was that almost everyone driving on the I-80 seemed to follow the passing lane rule (a.k.a the fast lane rule). If a car was in the left lane, it was there only to pass someone, and once it did, the driver moved over to the right lane. that’s the only way traffic can flow so well along a two lane highway especially with all the trucks that use that route. It was a beautiful thing to see so many drivers following a principally unwritten rule of the road, no matter the state or the vehicle being driven. It made it easy to understand the intent of other drivers, almost elevating driving behavior to non-verbal communication. Often there were long stretches for miles where the left lane was completely empty and dozens of cars driving in single file on the right side of the road. It was a rare instance of seeing things the way they should be matching the way they were. It made me feel proud to participate in such an ensemble that recognized that a little effort and conscientiousness from everyone can lead to substantial benefits for all. That’s community spirit.
Unfortunately that all ended when i hit Nevada, but it wasn’t Nevada drivers that showed disregard to the passing lane rule. The first driver i encountered that clearly ignored the rule, whether out of ignorance or selfishness or apathy, had California license plates. Even outside of their state, they were disrupting the flow of traffic. This driver was in a sedan in the left lane on I-80 about half a car length behind a big rig cruising in the right lane. Both vehicles were going at the same speed, neither gaining nor losing ground on each other. I pulled up somewhat quickly behind the sedan to communicate my intention to pass through. In every other instance of this same exact situation i had encountered up to this point, the car in the left lane would either have pulled over to the right lane behind the truck or sped up to pass the truck and then pull over after reaching a safe distance ahead of the truck. In this case, the car just kept driving as if the circumstances had not changed at all with my introduction. After about 10 minutes of this the gap between the sedan and the truck increased to a little over a car length and i made my move.
Perhaps the driver didn’t see me? Was the rear view mirror broken? Nope. Was it dark and cloudy? No, just the opposite–bright and sunny. This driver just didn’t care, and he wasn’t the only one. From that point on the system broke down as more California license plates appeared on the tail end of cars. The closer i got to California, the worse it became.
So, why do California drivers not follow the passing lane rule? Could it be that it’s unknown in California? In other states, i saw road signs that promoted the rule. These signs had wording such as, “slow cars move to the right.” Thing is, I’ve seen those signs in California as well (along I-80 between the Nevada border and Sacramento). No, I don’t think it’s a matter of ignorance. What makes California and it’s drivers different from the rest of the country?
In terms of climate and road conditions California is not that different from its neighbors to the east (Nevada, Arizona, etc.). In terms of traffic conditions, the metropolitan areas are similar to New York City. As far as highway speed limits go, California my not have the highest speed limits in the country, but they’re higher than most of the states east of the Mississippi. And yet the drivers of all those other states seem to follow the passing lane rule.
The thing that distinguishes California drivers from others is attitude. But wait, you say. Other states have drivers with lots of attitude. New York City drivers are some of the most aggressive drivers in the country. Yes, that’s true. But the difference is the attitude of drivers from all the other states (with some possible exceptions, given that i haven’t driven through every state yet) involve some aspect of “consideration” of other drivers. Now hold on, you say. NYC drivers are some of the least considerate drivers in the world. Yes, that’s true under the common usage of the word, considerate. What i mean by “consideration” is that NYC drivers are aware of the presence and position of other cars, because they have to be. When everyone is in competition to get to their destination as fast as possible every drive in NY becomes a race. There’s not a lot of room for error, let alone carelessness or neglect. This type of aggressive and competitive driving requires a tremendous amount of concentration and awareness. It requires drivers to take into consideration the speed, position, and intent of other drivers. This is what i mean by “consideration.”
In states and areas with less congestion, consideration is a result of different motivations. Most of the country outside of metropolitan areas follows the passing lane rule because most highways are two lanes and if there is no designated passing lane, then many cars and trucks will get stuck behind a pair of slow moving vehicles driving side by side. Big rig truck drivers universally follow this rule. I’ve never heard of a driver getting ticketed for not moving over into the right lane when a car behind wanted to pass. But they still move over, because at one point or another, they’ve been the one that wanted to pass. They understand that even if they don’t benefit from the rule in a particular drive, they will benefit from it overall.
California drivers however don’t care about the overall benefits that the passing lane rule yields in other states. While other states take a community approach to driving, California takes an entitlement approach. For Californians, it doesn’t matter if practicing the passing lane rule would result in an overall increase in driving efficiency (getting the largest number of drivers to their destination in the shortest period of time). For them, it only matters that they get to drive wherever and however they want within the limits of the law. If they want to drive 60mph in the left lane of a highway with a 65mph speed limit, than that’s their right and no one can take it away from them. But wait, you say. Californians are some of the nicest and most considerate people in the country (well, at least in northern california). These are the people who are promoting environmental issues, clean energy, slow food, etc. My response is, they aren’t inconsiderate in a traditional sense. When these people get in their cars, they’re not trying to block the flow of traffic intentionally. It’s just that their own individual sense of comfort and propriety is prioritized on a completely different level than those of others. To be specific, California drivers don’t like to be taken out of their comfort zone. This is the flip side or by product of the chill laid back ethos that they are known for. Since driving, especially in traffic congested areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco, is inherently a stressful activity, California drivers face a dilemma every time they get behind the wheel. How do they stay in their stress free zone while engaging in an activity that requires a high level of concentration, quick decision-making, and diligent multi-tasking? The answer is they do everything they can to minimize all these stress-inducing factors even if it means inconveniencing others.
California drivers ignore things that might lead to stress, like taking other drivers concerns into consideration. Good driving requires the driver to think about many different factors, but California drivers want to reduce the amount of thinking they do while driving. Thinking about other drivers detracts from stress-free bubble that Californians prefer to live in. Taking other drivers into consideration detracts from the mystique of the laid back surfer dude hipster hippie persona who is never in rush. Thinking is the activity of people overly concerned with work and responsibility and that’s antithetical to a mentality that wants to shed stress, pressure, and anxiety. If a driver wants to pass it just means they should chillax. Californians would rather be relaxing at the beach, or in wine country, or in the mountains, or in the forests, than on the road and yet isn’t it ironic that that desire for a more relaxed attitude can lead to more traffic congestion, longer car rides, and less consideration?
Another permutation of this sense of entitlement (to be relaxed at the wheel at the cost of others) is when California drivers spread out into all lanes of a highway no matter how many lanes there are or how fast (or slow) they’re going. It’s uncanny how evenly they spread themselves out, slowing down traffic in all lanes. This is because close proximity to other cars increases stress and that is not a cost they’re willing to bear for the benefit of overall efficiency. In terms of speed they’re probably going no faster in five lanes than if they were in three, but it feels more comfortable to have more space around the car so they fan out.
In conclusion, I declare Californians the most selfish self-centered drivers in America. Congratulations.