When I moved to the Bay Area last month, I knew that I’d have a real commute again (ok, so it’s just thirty minutes, but the past four years my commute was less than half that), but I assumed that Californians, stereotyped as laidback and easy-going, would be polite, unaggressive and defensive drivers. Boy, was I wrong. In just about any other environment around here the stereotype still holds–in general I find local folk really open and friendly–but I don’t think I’ve seen worse or selfish drivers since I left Boston twenty years ago. And it’s possibly worse here because of all the freeways. On the other hand, three- and four-way stops are ubiquitious in Northern California; depending on fairness and taking turns, overall they work really well, with only rare exceptions noted so far (like the jerk in the BMW convertible last night as I was driving home, who stuck to the tail of the car in front of him rather than waiting his turn at the stop sign).
But there are other behaviors I’m encountering on a regular basis that frustrate me much more. First, other than the multi-way stops noted above, drivers here do not readily yield the right-of-way; merging onto or off a freeway is a frightening proposition when everyone believes that the rule of the road is to permit no one to merge in front at any cost. Then there’s the complete lack of signalling turns or lane changes, even on the busiest freeways and amidst the heaviest traffic; I’m beginning to think that San Franciscans believe the earth’s temperature increases a degree every time a turn signal is activated, so assiduously do they avoid their use.
And since driving in so much traffic, at freeway speeds, among all these aggressive, secretive drivers isn’t exhilirating enough, there’s the added excitement of never knowing what’s going to fall off someone’s car or truck, or when. I first heard of this phenomenon in a KQED radio piece my very first day commuting to work, and thought it amusing in its apparent exaggeration. Then the next day alone I heard traffic reports about two separate incidents of ladders having fallen from trucks, and a third in which a sofa was blocking traffic. If anything, the piece had been a model of understatement. Earlier this week there were reports even of a washing machine that had fallen onto the freeway. It’s like a high-speed obstacle course here; praise Lara Croft, at least all that videogaming over the years has amounted to something, giving me the quick reaction time and well-tuned hand-eye coordination necessary to survive on these Donkey Kong highways.