Dialects of Driving

by Arlene Weiner

On September 21 a blog post here by Songyi Zhang complained of the habits of American (that is, U.S.) drivers, and contrasted them with Chinese and Canadian drivers. What Songyi Zhang doesn’t know is that there are considerable local differences in driving habits: dialects.

Pittsburgh, where I live, has been called “The city that lets you in.” Yes, generally speaking, if you are waiting to enter a long line of moving traffic, Pittsburghers will let you in. It’s also the habit in Pittsburgh, when cars are waiting at an intersection for a light to turn green, that the person going straight through will allow a car traveling in the opposite direction to turn left in front of him or her. After long residence in Pittsburgh, I lived in New Jersey for three years, commuting to work on heavily traveled two-lane roads. At first I would wave an opposing driver signaling for a left turn to turn in front of me. But they didn’t. They didn’t expect this opportunity and didn’t respond. So I gave up the habit.

I won’t make a moral generalization about this. Maybe it’s not that Pittsburghers are more polite. Maybe it’s that traffic is generally less heavy and drivers less frustrated. Other Pittsburgh habits are not so considerate. They are just cultural differences.

For example, there’s a phenomenon I call “the Pittsburgh glide.” When a light (and by the way, Pittsburghers call this a REDlight, accent on the first syllable, not a “traffic light” or just a “light”) turns yellow, Pittsburghers don’t stop for it—they go through. They go through if the light is yellow when they approach it. It’s my impression that they go through if they’ve SEEN the yellow from a distance. Recently I’ve seen people who simply follow the bus or truck ahead of them through the light. Since they can’t see that it’s red, it’s okay, right?

The dialect in New York City is, or was some years ago, in conflict with this habit. In New York, the culture was to “jump the light”—that is, to anticipate a light’s turning from red to green, to start through as soon as the light facing the perpendicular street turned red. (This habit started when there were no yellow lights, only red and green, and maybe is influenced by taxicabs.) This must be the origin of the phrase “a New York minute,” meaning no time at all.

I’ve driven through Pennsylvania and into New Jersey on interstate highways many, many times, and I think I could tell when I get to New Jersey just because cars zoom past me (in the middle lane) on the right-hand side as much as on the left-hand side, and I think they actually prefer to pass on the right. At one time many left-hand lanes in New Jersey were reserved for vehicles that carried more than two passengers, but I don’t think that’s the reason. Someone from New Jersey will have to explain it.

Based on her experience in Quebec, Songyi Zhang mentioned speeds in Canada versus speeds in the U.S. Some fifteen or so years ago my family spent a number of vacations in Ontario, and the speed at which those Canadians drove took our breath away. I attributed it then to it’s being a bigger country. Either Canadians have driving dialects too (and why not? many Quebecois think they’re a department of France—but French drivers are another story) or habits have changed a great deal since then—either ours or theirs.

Now, Massachusetts. I learned to drive in Massachusetts, but I am not, not, not a Massachusetts—at least not a Boston—driver. I hate to tailgate or to be tailgated. When I drove in Massachusetts, if I left a reasonable space between my car and the car ahead of mine, inevitably another car would insert itself into that space. I was an adult when I learned to drive and my driving instructor knew I came from New York City–one of the few places in the U.S. where people can never learn to drive without being or feeling deeply deprived. He said, “The difference between New York drivers and Boston drivers is that New York drivers don’t know how to drive, and Boston drivers know how they ought to drive, but won’t.”

When I moved from Massachusetts to California (long, long ago), even though I had a driver’s license, I had to take an over-the-road test to get a California license. And I failed! Why? The examiner explained: “Remember when you were going through an intersection and you slowed down? That wasn’t necessary. The other driver (opposite) was signaling for a right turn.” (“Ha!” I thought. “In Boston, the other driver might have been signaling for a right turn and turn left in front of you.”) “You know how to handle a car,” the examiner said. “You just haven’t learned our California style of driving yet.” Style? Style? I could have spit.


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