American Driver, You Ought to be Ashamed


  • Traffic

    Traffic

    How many American drivers can be described as "good"? Probably about as many as can fluently speak a foreign language. | July 01, 2010

Depending on where you land in the sociopolitical spectrum, you probably feel there are plenty of reasons to be ashamed of your U.S. citizenship. Using a disproportionate amount of natural resources, acting with aggression toward foreign nations, Michael Jackson — any of these might be considered just cause for hanging your head.

For the record, only that last item disturbs me, but with Thriller's continued popularity around the world, it's not like we have only ourselves to blame for this one. Plus, I can rest easy in the fact that Mr. Jackson doesn't represent the typical American.

There is, however, one long-standing aspect of American culture that recently sent my shame meter into the red zone: Americans, by and large, are horrendous drivers.

And yes, I know this isn't exactly breaking news. In fact, throughout the automotive publishing world, there have been so many editorial columns devoted to the dreadful American driver that I swore I'd never touch the subject. The repugnant behavior regularly displayed on U.S. roadways is like the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. I'm not happy about it, but I'm not going to sit up at night worrying about it, either. The problem is simply too big for me to solve, and whining about it will only make me look like someone who, well, whines about problems he can't solve.

But my stance on not bashing the average American driver (regardless of how much he or she deserves it) changed during a recent press trip. The vehicle I was driving was a product of Europe and, as luck would have it, my designated driving partner (another member of the motoring press) never showed up. Rather than letting me try to drive the car and read the detailed route book by myself, I was paired up with a company representative to serve as navigator for our 300-mile trek. I always love traveling with company reps when attending a press introduction for two simple reasons: a) You can ask them the questions that inevitably arise when driving a new vehicle; and b) they have no need to drive the car themselves, meaning I get to spend the entire driving loop behind the wheel instead of having to offer my partner equal wheel time.

Because I was driving a European vehicle, it makes sense that my driving partner, and company representative, was also European — an Austrian gentleman who spoke near-perfect English. (This brings up yet another failing of our American culture: How many of us can even order a drink in a foreign language, let alone carry on a six-hour conversation?) As we spoke, it became apparent that this gentleman had led quite an interesting life. Over the previous three decades, he had lived in Austria, Germany and England. He regularly traveled to Italy "for holiday" and his passion for cars had taken him on extensive road trips throughout Europe. He even admitted that, in his younger days, he liked to average about "50,000 kilometers a year by car, 10,000 a year by motorcycle and 1,000 a year by bicycle." Clearly, this man had more than just automotive passion; he had a passion for experiencing the joys of the open road.

So, I was driving 300 miles in a brand-new European car, on a crystal-clear day with a temperature in the high 60s, and with an interesting, well-spoken man who apparently loved to drive even more than I do. How could the day be any better? That answer is easy: if only we'd been in Europe rather than the U.S.

Throughout our six-hour drive, much of it on U.S. freeways, I was constantly dodging fast-lane slowpokes, cell phone-talking zombies and, of course, the ubiquitous SUV-as-sports car (which, if you've got the right SUV and driving skills, can be done, but few SUV drivers have either, let alone both). As one of about 114 good American drivers, I've come to expect these rolling road hazards. Yet I could sense the confusion on my European guest's face every time we became trapped behind a Saturn doing 50 mph in the passing lane, or when an Excursion would drift over the dotted line and threaten to swap paint with us as its driver yapped on a cell phone.

At one point, as we were bearing down on a Kia Sephia plodding along at 57 mph in the left lane of an otherwise deserted 65-mph highway, he calmly asked, "Why do they not move over?"

While there was no hesitation in my answer, a pang of shame shot through my body as I spoke the words. "Because America is full of bad drivers who don't know the basic rules of the road." I tried to sound matter-of-fact, but my driving partner's simple question had been like a splash of cold water across my face. I heard his words echoing in my head every time we approached yet another left-lane lollygagger (which was far too often).

I also found myself thinking about my last trip to Germany and my experiences on the Autobahn. I clearly remember that absolutely nobody "camped out" in the left lane, and anything larger than a station wagon dutifully stayed in the right or center lanes. How many times have you seen a Ryder truck, plumbing van, flatbed diesel or even an 18-wheeler droning along in the fast lane? Did these drivers not realize when they stepped into these vehicles that they essentially forfeited their right to use the fast lane?

Here's a simple rule for anyone entering the passing lane: If it takes you more than 20 seconds to get past a "slower" moving vehicle, you are going too slow yourself to justify use of the left lane. Remain in the right lane, even if it means following the same vehicle for another 100 miles. If you think this rule sounds like a harsh edict meant to keep certain drivers and vehicle types from ever entering the fast lane — good, you're starting to get the idea.

As for the cell phone-talkers/drifters and underskilled SUV pilots, I can only suggest they shut up, slow down and pay attention. But that would be like suggesting to certain foreign leaders they stop chasing nuclear weaponry — I know it's not going to happen, at least not by choice.

Either way, these people are making everyone holding an American driver license look like a bunch of spoiled, self-centered dimwits to the rest of the world.

Hmm, maybe Michael represents us all better than I thought….

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