On the way to Lassen Volcanic Park

I became convinced the other day that it is only a matter of time before I get involved in a car crash in this country. Mette didn’t like me saying that but I couldn’t help thinking it. The thing is, an awful lot of people here just drive really badly. There’s no other way of putting it. There are a couple of other minor gripes, like all the stop signs, but in general if it weren’t for the other drivers America would be a great place to drive. And I mean that properly: it has thousands upon thousands of miles of great roads that take in wonderful scenery; it’s surprisingly easy, from a minimising-mental-fatigue point of view, to travel really long distances on the freeways… But, yet. People on the roads are out to kill you.

There are three main features of American driving that make it really difficult to remain calm out there. I will list them in ascending order of grievousness, although all are related to one another in fundamental ways.

1) Lane changing. This happens in an almost completely arbitrary way on the freeways: some dude or lady decides he or she (I believe bad driving is a gender neutral phenomenon here) wants to be in another lane, and he or she just goes there. Those already in said lane better adjust.

2) Safe distance. In America, “safe distance” seems to have been translated as “not touching.” There are countless occasions on which I’ve opened up a nice 2-second gap to the car in front, and someone in another lane has gone aha! Look at that great big space! Perfect for my car. So then you’re staring at the back of their kid’s head as though you were all in consecutive rows in a movie theatre and you have to open up the gap again and then some bozo in an F150 goes and jumps in there.

3) Indicating. Holy goodness other cars, just please for once let me know what you’re doing. This is so fundamental to driving that I still find my jaw dropping every time it happens: in heavy traffic in the middle of a city, or on a freeway, cars just pull manouevres as though they were the only people in the universe. HOW DO THEY EXPECT NOT TO DIE? I can’t fathom it, I can’t get in their heads. It’s the arrogance. Every time I see some vehicle make a turn, or go sweeping from one side of the street to the other without indicating, I try to picture the thought process that could lead to such an action. Is it that they think the other drivers don’t care what they do? Or that they actually think they don’t need to know? Like, the direction that someone chooses to drive their car in is nobody’s business but the driver’s?

I guess it’s not their fault. Having taken the driving test both here in California and back in the UK, the difference is night and day: here, you essentially need to be able to make the vehicle move and obey the traffic lights and the stop signs. It is very, very easy to pass. For anyone who’s not done the UK test: it’s hard. There are many ways to fail. Essentially, if you take any avoidable action that causes another car to change its speed or direction, you fail. So everyone has it drummed into them: you respect the other vehicles on the road. You don’t do anything without checking it’s safe AND clearly signalling your intentions before you do it.

OK I expect I sound like an angry geek and an uptight British person (it’s a fair cop), but you know: sometimes you’ve got to just let that stuff out. And besides, people’s lives are at stake. 33,808 in 2009, actually. That’s 11 9/11s, at an economic cost of over $230bn. Just sayin’.