More Driving in the USA
I took another driving trip this year. My route took me through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa. I spent 10 days driving all day, which gave me ample time to observe other drivers, road conditions, and road signs. On this trip I was particularly struck by driver awareness, “rules of the road”, and driving courtesy (or lack of it), and how these varied in different states.
Example: I was driving north on highway 6/191 in Utah, north of I-70. After crossing the summit at Soldier’s Summit, which is 7,400 feet high, the road was a single lane in each direction; one lane ascending, and one descending the hill. The speed limit coming down this side of the hill is 65. Large trucks, however, as well as people towing large trailers, can’t really go that fast on the curving, two-lane part of the road, so every once in a while there is an added passing lane. I was just behind an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer rig followed by a pickup pulling a large trailer with a car on it. Both the 18-wheeler and the pickup pulling the trailer had difficulty coming down the two-lane portion of the highway at even 50 miles an hour – they just couldn’t go that fast on the curves. But when they came to a passing lane, they both immediately pulled away from me right smartly. I decided to clock both the 18-wheeler and the pickup pulling the car-on-the-trailer. They were BOTH traveling 80 miles an hour in the passing lane. The pickup wasn’t able to pass the truck, and I couldn’t even CATCH either one of them. I thought, “So much for the utility of passing lanes on a road like this.”
I believe it is exceedingly bad road manners to go slow when passing is not possible, and fast when it is. It shows that the drivers lack awareness of the plight of other drivers whom they inconvenience, or don’t care, or both.
Example: I was driving in the mountains of California, heading west on I-80. I had just passed through Donner’s Pass at the summit and had begun my descent of the western slope. At this point I-80 is three lanes wide in each direction, and, as a major east/west highway, was carrying a mixed combination of cars and big trucks. The speed limit was set at 55 mph. Ahead of me were two trucks, both of which were in the right lane, and traveling somewhat slower than the speed limit in a relatively steep downhill portion of the road. The trailing truck moved to the center lane to pass the slower truck. I looked behind me and, seeing that the road behind me was empty, moved to the left lane to pass both trucks. I had just reached the truck I was passing – and so was now committed to completing the pass – when my rear view mirror was suddenly filled with a rapidly expanding view of the front grill of a very large pickup going very much faster than I was. I hit the gas to complete my pass quite a bit faster than I had originally intended, and got out of the way. The pickup accelerated past me and rapidly disappeared down the road ahead of me. I estimate that he was traveling more than 80 mph – more than 25 mph above the posted speed limit, and more than 45 mph faster than the slower trucks.
Example: I was driving west on I-80 in California later that same afternoon. The speed limit was irrelevant, because traffic density was so great that all lanes were completely full of cars and the whole highway was traveling much slower. There were four lanes of traffic, and I was in the next-to-right-lane. I glanced in my right mirror to see a car moving so fast that I concluded there was no way in the world he would be able – even in a full panic stop – to shed enough speed to avoid rear-ending the car ahead of him, who was both braking, and signaling, in an attempt to move to his right into an exit lane. I also braked – there was no way to speed up or move over – and prepared myself to be a participant in what looked to be a certain accident. The fast car to my right apparently decided his best course to avoid rear-ending the car ahead of him was to impact my right front fender instead. As he moved to his left into my fender, my braking cleared enough room for him to just barely clear the front of my car. He continued, with no decrease in speed that I could see, across my lane, across the lane to my left, and into the left-hand lane of the highway where there was a very short clear space, and then on and out of my sight. At no time did I see his brake lights or any signal lights – I concluded he had both hands on the wheel and foot on the gas. I would credit him with driving skills (as he didn’t actually impact anyone), if his judgment hadn’t been so bad. Also, I credit him with bad road manners, lack of situational awareness, reckless driving, and endangering the health and safety of other drivers. And he was also, I suspect, suffering from frustration.
Nevertheless, these were two cases – in the same day (and in the same state) – of driving at speeds that posed an immediate danger to other drivers. I cite them as examples of lack of common courtesy on the road; poor judgment; and a domineering “don’t care” attitude toward other drivers.
Example: Three days later, in Iowa, traveling south on I-29, I watched the following incident take place: A car had pulled out from the right lane to the left lane in order to pass another, (because they were going very slightly faster than that other car). After he was in the left lane, and just as he came abreast of the car in the right lane, a car entered the highway from an entrance lane on the right. The car in the left lane, seeing this happen, braked, (thinking, perhaps, to allow the car in the right lane room to pull over in front of him). But, when he braked, he didn’t actually fall behind the car in the right lane – he just kept pace with it. The result was that the car on the right also began braking, and the two of them were braking side by side.
The car in the left lane, by braking, blocked the car in the right lane from having any way to maneuver. That car had no choice but to brake sufficiently to allow the car coming in from the right to pull in ahead of him. Once that had happened, the car in the left lane pulled ahead again. It was perhaps a good intention to brake in the left lane and thus slow the speed down, and so forth, but its actual effect was that it eliminated any possibility of maneuver for the car in the right lane, who then had to rely solely on his ability to brake to avoid an accident.
There are several things wrong with this scenario: In the first place, the passing car needs to get his passing done and then get out of the way – he was traveling only slightly faster that the car he was passing, and did not increase his speed for the pass; in the second place, the car in the entrance lane needs to control his entrance speed and timing so as to not interfere with the freeway traffic; and in the third place, people need to be aware of hazards that are not necessarily in their own lane, such as, for example, that traffic in the right lane must deal with entrance ramps and may have a need to change speed, or move to the left, on occasion.
Since the 1950’s, modern multi-lane interstate highways have taught generations of drivers that they can drive at their own speed in their own lane, and other drivers will go around them – sometimes on the left (the preferred option), and sometimes on the right (the hazardous option) – and that they can exhibit this behavior in whichever lane they want.
This attitude is wrong on two levels. First, it is hazardous to force others to pass on the right because it is harder to see cars overtaking on the right than it is to see cars overtaking on the left. Even with mirrors on both sides of the car, the visibility on the right is just not as good as on the left. The possibility exits, and it is not just a theoretical possibility, that the car being passed will be unaware of a car passing on the right, and may make a move that will put both cars in danger. Second, it is appallingly bad manners to do so.
Safe driving depends critically on courtesy – the “manners of the road” – these manners (not speed limits) are the PRIMARY reason that travel by car is as safe as it is. Ignorance, or disregard, of these manners leads to sloppy and hazardous driving. It is dangerous, stupid, and unforgiveable to be unaware of, or to disregard, such courtesy.
I often drive on two-lane roads, and there I see the same lack of awareness, poor passing techniques and bad manners that I see on interstate highways. On two-lane roads, however, lack of awareness, poor driving, and bad manners are even more noticeable than on multi-lane roads, because all the traffic is confined to the single lane, and passing opportunities are much more limited.
Example: Climbing uphill out of Denver, westbound on I-70, there are multiple lanes. The right lane is obstructed by trucks that have to gear way down while climbing the hill; the next lane over from the right lane is obstructed by trucks that are passing the trucks in the right lane because they can go slightly faster than those trucks. The next lane over is full of trucks that are trying to pass trucks that are passing the trucks in the right lane. Because of the “trucks passing trucks passing trucks” phenomenon, all of the cars – ALL of the cars – want to drive in the left lane. So, what that does is take four lanes of road and essentially reduce it to one lane where all the automobile traffic now goes as slow as the SLOWEST car in that lane, and believe me, between those people who want to go 20 mph FASTER than the speed limit, and those people who want to go 30 mph SLOWER than the speed limit – and they ALL want to drive in the left lane – it is REALLY exciting driving uphill in Colorado.
Driving downhill is also exciting, because some drivers want to drive downhill at or above the speed limit, and others want to go very slowly downhill because, seemingly, they are afraid their cars will leave the road and fly off into space if they don’t ride their brakes all the way downhill.
When I travel long distances, I prefer to stop for gas at truck stops, as the rest rooms are better, and truck stops have convenience stores that cater to travelers. The only problem with gassing up at truck stops is that you are FOREVER behind big trucks, either exiting the highway or on the streets leading back to entrances to the highway, so you’re always behind a big truck. Well – that’s a small price to pay.
I was traveling on I-70 towards St. Louis, from the west. About 50 miles away from St. Louis, the speed limit was 70 and the traffic was generally moving at about 75. If I went slower than that, I got passed a lot. If I went faster than that, I would be passing other people, so I didn’t go faster than that. As I approached St. Louis, the speed limit began to go down, first from 70 to 65, to 60 and then to 55. When it went from 70 to 65, nobody slowed down – I saw only two people who did. But generally it was similar to driving before the speed limit changed. Then traffic density began to go up, as more people joined the traffic going into St. Louis. The speed limit went from 65 to 60, and NOBODY slowed – NOBODY! At 65, I was being passed on both sides by people going faster than that – and some going a great deal faster. At one point I saw, in the right lane, a garbage truck. He was going much slower than the traffic, and had his flashers on so people wouldn’t run into him. Out of curiosity, I clocked him. He was going 60 miles an hour, which was the actual speed limit. But at that speed, he felt that he had to put his flashers on, to warn people that he was going slowly. At about the same time, I was passed by a string of cars that sort of left me in the dust, so out of curiosity I clocked them, too. I clocked them at 82 miles an hour, which is faster than ANYBODY went back when the speed limit was 75.
When the speed limit dropped to 55, traffic speed remained a good 15 to 20 mph over the speed limit. I mean, I was being passed by everybody. NOBODY was obeying the speed limit. (And virtually ALL of those cars passing me had local Missouri plates, which gives some insight on the cultural habits of the local drivers in a big city.)
I believe that one of the problems that causes this disparity in speed is that, out in the countryside, people are in it for the long haul, and they realize it is going to take them some time to get where they’re going. But in the city, most people aren’t driving all that far, and they’re in a big hurry to get there. They have things to do, and they have schedules to meet, and they’re frustrated with their inability to navigate through traffic and get to where they want to go in a reasonable time – reasonable to them, that is. So, there are two factors at work here: one is the relatively short distance that people drive in and around cities; and the other is that they are not in a “long haul” mentality. They’re in the “I’m in a hurry and these people are in my way” mentality.
Another factor that causes people to drive fast in the city, is that these are people who are very familiar with the roads they’re driving on – they’ve driven them many times, and they are mixed in with other people who may be coming through the city for the first time, who are long-haul distance travelers, who are NOT as familiar with the roads – they don’t know what’s coming up, so they may be more cautious. And, the people who have driven the roads before – here comes one around me now on the right, having crossed three lanes without signaling, in order to take an exit – aah, what was I going to say – the people in the city, who are very familiar with the roads, and who know what’s coming up, where the curves are, how fast they can take the curves, and so on, they’re just frustrated by people who don’t know the roads as well as they do, and a high level of frustration is one of the principle causes of bad driving.
Anyway, when you get near a city, the spread in speeds that you encounter goes up. Out on the main highway you don’t get much more spread than about five miles an hour. Even the trucks don’t go all that much more slowly than the cars out on the main highway, so the spread in speeds is relatively narrow. But in the city, although speed limits go down, the speed spread goes up – it goes WAY up. People are now going 20 miles an hour over the speed limit instead of five. And even when speed limits have dropped – in this case 15 miles an hour – there are a percentage of cars now traveling faster than the original speed limit out in the country. In the city you have probably a 30-mile-an-hour spread in speeds, instead of just five. And it is this disparity in speeds between cars that causes city driving to be so dangerous. The greater the spread, the more dangerous it is to drive, and in the city that spread is remarkably higher than it is in the countryside.
For your reference, there are four states where the speed limit reaches 80 mph. They are Kansas, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming. Speed limits of 75 are common west of the Mississippi River, but are generally no more than 70 east of the river.
Roads in the USA are terrible. Even the best of them degrade rapidly and are in need of constant upkeep. Generally, roads are supposed to be designed to last 20 years, but in reality they seem to only last about 5 years before they need to be repaired, and when the repairs begin, they never end. As soon as a road is improved, it invites a heavier traffic load as drivers move to that road to escape the more inferior ones they previously had to use. Road closures and repair zones are ubiquitous throughout the country. It is best to recognize this issue before leaving on a road trip, and include those delays in your planning.