Surviving the Wild West of Bay Area Driving

We’re veering into the wild frontier of Bay Area driving, a place where the concrete jungle meets the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It’s a ride, my friends, a ride that jolts your nerves like a mechanical bull in a honky-tonk bar. But every so often, you catch yourself a break, like a 5am drive to SFO—a moment of tranquility in the midst of chaos.

Now, let’s talk about those roads. Compared to the silky asphalt of Singapore or even some of the the smaller cities in China, our Bay Area roads feel like the rugged, untamed trails of a classic Western movie. But, hey, I ain’t complaining. I’m steering clear of those fancy big rims, tempting their fates against the gods of potholes. And street lamps? More like a candlelight vigil against the obsidian night, especially when you’re blinded by an oncoming vehicle’s high-beams. Sometimes, I think about rigging my ride with mirrors to bounce those glaring high-beams right back at the perpetrators—a taste of their own blinding medicine.

But the potholes, the darkness, they ain’t nothing compared to the cowboys and cowgirls behind the wheel. One slip-up, one close shave, and your whole day’s shot.

We’ve got folks who treat the road like it’s the Wild West. Cutting people off? Check. Tailgating? Check. Running a red light? Less common, but check. I’ve seen some driving on the wrong side of the road, taking shortcuts through the gore point, and crossing lines as if they’re outlaws on a high-speed pursuit. Who, in their right mind, would make a right turn from the leftmost lane on a street with two left-turn lanes? It’s a circus out there, and each day brings a fresh spectacle.

In a dream world, we’d all be like Clint Eastwood, cool and collected, handling our steeds with respect for our fellow riders. But this ain’t a dream world. We’ve got the folks who need a refresher course and the folks who knowingly flout the rules. The rookies and the renegades, the saints and the sinners, and the good, the bad, and the ugly.

But don’t get me wrong, there are some model drivers out there too. These folks are the seasoned, the experienced, the patient, and the courteous. They’re like the sheriffs of the road, maintaining a semblance of order amidst the pandemonium.

From my perch, there are mainly two kinds of poor drivers: those who don’t know how to drive, and those who know but choose not to. Among the former, some are simply incompetent, while others are just inexperienced. Among the latter, some are merely reckless, while others are bad actors. Thankfully, we do still have the good guys, drivers who are competent, experienced, patient, and polite.

So here we are—at the intersection of my five categories of drivers—the incompetent, the inexperienced, the good, the bad, and the ugly1. If I had all the time in the world, I’d sketch this out with a Venn diagram and a state machine diagram. But since time’s a luxury, you’ll have to make do with my words and paint the picture in your mind. We all start off in the incompetent category when we first sit in the driver’s seat. As we gain experience and competence, most of us evolve into mostly safe but still inexperienced drivers. As we clock more miles, we gravitate towards either the good, the bad, or the ugly. Of course, there’s an entire spectrum between the good and the bad, but most of us likely fall somewhere in between. A nearly good driver might occasionally lapse into the inexperienced category. After all, we’re all human2.

The catch is, the good guys often end up with the short end of the stick. They aim to play it safe, but the renegades and rookies take advantage of their caution. It’s like the paradox of tolerance, or as the old Chinese saying goes, 一颗老鼠屎,坏了一锅粥, which loosely translates to “one mouse dropping ruins a whole pot of porridge.”

The point is, to keep themselves safe, good drivers sometimes find themselves doing things only the rough riders would do in a perfect world. Since safety trumps all on the road, this sets the stage for a vicious cycle.

We got ourselves a situation here, don’t we? A cycle that seems to spin outta control. Breaking it? Well, it ain’t gonna be easy. The bad guys gotta face the music, and we gotta keep our cool. So, sit back, let me share some of my secrets to surviving the wild west of Bay Area driving.

Blink and wait, my friends. If you’re looking to switch lanes in the middle of this highway dance, let your intentions be known. Flash those blinkers and, this is crucial, wait for your opening. Don’t just bust in there, assuming folks will clear a path. Remember, patience ain’t just a virtue, it’s a lifesaver, especially on these roads.

Make way for the good guys. If they’re signalling their moves and biding their time, give ‘em some room, if it’s all clear. If it ain’t, like when you got a tailgater breathing down your bumper, then maybe hold off.

Don’t force a showdown. Making someone slam on their brakes is like calling out for a duel in the middle of town. It ain’t civil, and sure as hell ain’t safe. Let’s keep the brakes for slowing, not for dodging bullets.

Own your mistakes, thank your saviors. If you happen to cut someone off, throw ‘em an apologetic wave. When someone lets you in, give ‘em a thank-you wave. There ain’t any standard gestures, but a simple wave or flash of your hazards can speak volumes.

Keep your distance to minimize surprises. Like a coyote trailing its prey, give yourself room to react. You might recall the “three-second rule” from your driver’s ed class. That’s what they teach in the Golden State, I reckon. Some places might preach the two-second rule. And if you dive into defensive driving techniques, you’ll find a bunch of these “rules”. But truth be told, there ain’t a one-size-fits-all rule. It all depends on your speed, the road traffic, and your fellow drivers.3 You gotta adapt, read the road, make your moves.

Dim those high-beams, partner. We’re all trying to make our way through the dark. Sure, the street lights ain’t the best, but blinding your fellow travelers with your high-beams ain’t the answer. When I first came to the Bay Area, I used to flash my high-beams as a gentle reminder, but not everyone got the memo.

Don’t be a left lane hog. Doesn’t matter if you’re a tortoise or a hare, if there’s room on the right, slide over. Let those in a hurry pass, even if they’re pushing their luck a little.

Stay sharp. Keep your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel, and your mind in the game. Be aware of your surroundings. That’s your ticket to surviving this concrete jungle. Stay cool, stay safe.

Alright, so if we aim to master this high-octane ballet, we gotta be ready to anticipate the surprises and counteract the reckless, all the while holding onto our own standards of respectful and savvy driving. It’s a delicate two-step, my friends, and finding that balance, well, that’s the secret sauce.

And you know what? That’s just the thrill of Bay Area driving—a roller coaster ride that keeps us on our toes, a test of wit, instinct, and skill. And despite all its flaws, there’s something about it that’s inexplicably endearing. It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s a reflection of life itself—chaotic, unpredictable, and beautifully imperfect.

So, buckle up, compadres. Keep those eyes on the road, those hands on the wheel, and remember, we’re all in this crazy ride together. Here’s to navigating the peaks and valleys, the twists and turns of Bay Area driving with grace, patience, and a dash of adrenaline. Keep it safe, and happy driving!


  1. I’m really only using “reckless jerks” and “ugly” because I want to keep this post PG. Feel free to replace them with much less polite words.

  2. Yes, I know, self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles, yada yada yada. I’m not opening that can right now. Let’s leave that for another time, maybe another post.

  3. If you’re coasting down a two-lane street with heavy traffic, leaving a three-second gap might encourage people to cut you off. You might be better off leaving just a car length or two to deter people from cutting you off and minimize surprises. If you’re on the freeway with no traffic, then three seconds could even be too close to drive somewhat relaxed and comfortably.