I think anyone that has driven in the Bay Area knows how awful it is around here. Commuting by car can be a constant test of nerves. There are exceptions though, like when there’s very little traffic and a ton of room. If you’re looking to enjoy some moments of bliss, may I suggest a 5am drive to SFO.
Let’s start with the roads. They leave much to be desired. If you compare them to the ones in Singapore or even many smaller “Tier 3” cities in China, it’s night and day. That said, they haven’t been too much of a problem for me since I’m not exactly rolling around on oversized wheels, which has sort of become a trend lately. The big rims and thin walls on those low-profile tires look sick until they hit a pothole. Then there’s lighting. Most street lamps might as well be non-existent. What only makes things worse are people who don’t turn off their high-beams for oncoming traffic and cars in front of them. Way too many people do that. Way too many. Sometimes I really just want to put two big mirrors in front and behind my car and drive around at night, you know, play the Uno reverse card and all and make those despicable beings feel the same pain.
That’s why you’d almost never hear me complain about the roads. It’s not that I didn’t wish it wouldn’t take months to fill a pothole up, especially given all the storms lately. It’s just that the poor roads seem to be at best a nuisance compared to how terrible some drivers are. One bad driver and one close call is enough to ruin your day.
Cutting people off? Check. Tailgating? Check. Running a red light? Not so often, but check. Driving on the wrong side of the road? It does happen. Going through the gore point (the painted area between the freeway and on/off-ramp)? All the time! Crossing double white lines that even have those red pillars with white stripes in between? You bet. Trying to do a right turn from the leftmost lane on a street with two dedicated left-turn lanes and a straight/right-turn lane? That’s a mouthful, but yeah, why not? It’s impossible to list them all of course, but you get the idea. If there’s anything you can be sure of when you drive around here, it’s that, just as you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll be surprised. They never cease to amaze.
In a perfect world, we’d all be good drivers—we know how to drive, and we drive in a way that’s both safe for us and others around us. In reality, we have a lot of bad drivers. The way I see it, there are mainly two kinds of bad drivers: the ones who don’t know how to drive, and the ones who know how to drive and play nice but choose not to. Among the former, some are simply incompetent, while others are just somewhat inexperienced. Among the latter, some are simply reckless jerks, while others are just bad actors. We do still have some good actors, drivers who are competent, experienced, patient, and courteous.
So there we have it—my five categories of drivers—the incompetent, the inexperienced, the good, the bad, and the ugly1. If I had nothing else better to do I’d add a Venn diagram and a state machine diagram here, but I do, so you’ll just have to make do with my words and use your imagination. We all start off in the incompetent category when we hop into the driver’s seat for the first time. We learn how to drive, we get more experience, and by the time we get our licenses, most of us move on to become drivers who are inexperienced but competent enough to drive safely around good actors. As we get more miles in, we find ourselves gravitating towards either the good, the bad, or the ugly. Of course, there’s actually a whole spectrum between the good and the bad, but most of us are probably somewhere in between. An almost good actor might also lapse into the inexperienced category from time to time. After all, we’re all human2.
Pick any place on the map and you’ll find a good mix of drivers. The problem here is that good actors are often penalized for what they do, and the reckless jerks don’t face nearly enough serious repercussions. Take following distance for example. A good actor would leave a safe distance between them and the car in front of them. That space isn’t meant for others to cut them off. If someone wants to change lanes and they use the blinkers and they actually wait, sure, the good actor makes even more room for them if it’s safe. What happens way too often, though, is that the bad and the ugly cut them off. Occasionally, the incompetent fails to judge how big the gap is, how fast the good actor is going, and overestimate how quick their own vehicle can accelerate, and unintentionally does the same thing. Getting cut off and forced to brake urgently defeats the purpose of leaving a “safe distance” in the first place. So now, taking into accounts what the bad, the ugly, and the incompetent might do, the good actor is better off leaving a smaller gap.
I could give you many more examples like this, but the idea is kind of similar to the Paradox of Tolerance. Or perhaps the Chinese saying 一粒老鼠屎，坏了一锅粥, which literally means “one mouse dropping ruins a whole pot of porridge”, is a better analogy. The point is, if they want to keep themselves safe, good actors are sometimes better off doing things only bad actors would do in the ideal world. I think being safe matters more than anything else on the road, hence the vicious cycle.
So is there a way to break this cycle? I think there is, but it’d take more than you and I. Reckless jerks need to get punished more often, and that’s easier said than done. What I think we, good actor wannabe’s, can do is to make the roads safer and more pleasant for ourselves in the meantime. And to get there, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years, summarized in the form of do’s and don’ts.
Do use your blinkers and wait. Seriously. Wait. If you’re trying to switch lanes during traffic, please use your blinkers, and more importantly, wait for someone to let you in, and only then you switch lane. Blinkers are not some magical things that if you just use them for a split second before you force your way in, suddenly that’s not called cutting people off. A predictable traffic weaver is better than an unpredictable jerk who turns on their blinkers just as they cut people off.
Do let people who use their blinkers and actually wait for a bit in. These are the real fam. If you only need to gently brake and it’s safe to do so, let them in! If it isn’t safe, like when the car behind is tailgating you too closely, then maybe not.
Don’t force someone to brake. I’m mostly talking about lane switching here. You shouldn’t force someone else to brake, urgently or not. First of all, it’s not nice. Do you like getting cut off? If you don’t want to play nice, then at least do it for your own safety. What if they are distracted and can’t brake in time? What if they are the type of person that easily get in a road rage?
Do gesture when it’s safe. If somehow you get in the situation where you cut someone off, do give them a “I’m sorry” gesture. If someone lets you in, do give them a “thank you” gesture. I’m not sure if there are any standard gestures for these, but I usually do a wave with my right hand they can see through my rear windshield.
Do follow at a distance to minimize surprises. You might remember the “three-second rule” from your driver’s ed class. That’s what’s taught in California I believe. Some places also use the two-second rule. If you look up defensive driving techniques, you might find more “rules” like these. But the thing is, there really isn’t a single rule that tells you what the safe trailing distance is. It depends on the speed, the road conditions, the traffic, and the drivers around you. 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.
Do turn off your high-beams for those in front of you. Yes, the street lighting is garbage, but in case you haven’t noticed, your high-beams are blinding the oncoming traffic and cars in front of you. When I first started driving in the Bay Area, I’d flash my high-beams to remind people to turn them off. I gave up on that after a while. I can’t tell if they just have no idea what I’m doing or if they just don’t care.
Don’t hog the left lane. If you’re doing 50 on a 65 in the fast lane and there’s room on the right, move over. You are making the roads less safe for you and everyone else by forcing people to pass you on the right. If you’re doing 80 on a 65, which happens like everyday, there’s room on the right, and cars are piling up behind you, please do move over still. It doesn’t matter if you’re at or already above the speed limit because you are still impeding traffic. Not that you should ever do this, but let’s say you’re doing 90 on a 65, there’s room on the right, and someone’s tailgating you trying to go 100+, you better hurry up and move over. Whoever behind you is nuts and you should just get as far away from them as possible, even if this means crossing a double while line.
Do always be aware of your surroundings. This has mostly to do with your own safety. Checking your mirrors should be in your muscle memory. Aim to be able to tell precisely what’s around you at all times, be it other drivers or pedestrians.
By no means is this a comprehensive list of things you should and shouldn’t do on the road, but I hope you’ll be a better and safer driver for it. If you find this post useful, I have a favor to ask—start using your blinkers and wait for your turn, and let people who do the same in (when it’s safe), if you aren’t doing it already. Share this post with your friends and family too. If you don’t agree with anything I’ve said or have other tips you would like to share, please do leave a comment below.
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. ↩
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. ↩