Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Californian

I'm going to go a bit off the rails here for once.  Normally, when I take on creationists, alt-med hipsters, general stupidity, there is a smoldering grumpiness that is both fueled and tempered by the dogmatic adherence to reason.  This time, however, while reason exists, there will be an overflowing rage with which I write this.  As such, I will preface this posting with a note that what I say here will be dripping with disdain and anger and should be taken with more grains of salt than the usual fare.

That said, it bears being uttered with all the road rage I have at my disposal.

I can't say that I've lived everywhere in this country, and whatever I have to say about the drivers here in the U.S. is in an entirely different league to the abject lawlessness of India.  But currently, I live in California, and I find a rather egregious incompetence to the drivers here.  I mean, I've seen people in Texas go the wrong way on an exit and actually U-turn onto a highway (feeling as well that they have the freedom to do so because they're in a Hummer), and yet somehow, this state does it worse.

I don't think I can overstate the sheer inability of drivers here to comprehend the nature of inclement weather.  Of course, having lived in Illinois for nearly 20 years, no one in California is eligible to receive any sympathy from me on the matter of crazy weather.  These people have no reference for the the gravity of having 25 inches of snow on the road, and yet they are utterly bamboozled by some paltry trickle of rainfall.  Seriously...  a tiny little drizzle and people are so terrified they don't know what they're doing.  And yet, in spite of that, you'll still see rows of a dozen or more cars tailgating each other at 50 mph in much heavier rainfall.  Granted, in Texas, I'd seen entire towns shut down due to the formation of ice on the roads, as if black ice is the result of a vengeful god sending down an anti-work plague as punishment for working on the Sabbath (well, it is Texas, so I wouldn't put it past them)...  I've seen people in Boston who would sooner shoot a puppy than stop at a stop sign...  And rubberneckers abound in Washington where the sight of an attractive female seems to be cause enough for people not to want to move in traffic.  Nonetheless, that's different from actually having to drive to work and doing it in such a way as to seemingly have the goal of maximizing stupidity.

A lot of people who have experienced traffic congestion elsewhere in the country will at least comment that in spite of it all, there is some degree of rhyme and reason to it, as you still have the expected slowness to the right and faster lanes to the left and so on (unless, of course, there's an accident or something, but that's a special case).  But now I live in California, where logic is illegal on the road!  Where the traffic aspires to be more like that of India or Brazil!

Here in America, there are a lot of people who argue for lowering speed limits in order to reduce accidents.  There is a lot of data suggesting that this would be an effective deterrent against automobile accidents indeed, and lowering the highway speed limits can do quite a bit to make those accidents which do occur less likely to be fatal.  While all this data is all solid, it leaves out a certain factor which is the level of competence of the average driver.  The data only takes into account drivers within the country in which the idea is proposed.  Take for instance, Germany, which has numerous highways with no speed limits at all, and yet their accident rate is lower than that of the U.S. even when you normalize for the lower number of cars on the road.  Why is that?

A large part of it is quite simply egregious incompetence.  In a country like Germany, getting your license is both expensive and extremely demanding because they're not just interested in seeing how well you drive a little loop of residential roads for 5 minutes and saying you're good to go.  You have to show absolute competence in everything, and the testing agents don't accept even the slightest error (such as checking your mirrors in the wrong order)., and even being eligible to take the test requires some 20-40 hours of specific tests under various driving conditions.  A number of things we'd probably consider to be "rules of thumb" in the U.S. are actually the law in Germany.  It's a standard that's rigorous enough that being able to pass the German driver's license testing is a basic requirement for US Air Force recruits.  Well, it all seems very mean-spirited to those who have not become accustomed to the idea of a country that takes driving very seriously, but the whole point is to cull the lackadaisical idiots who don't think on the road.  It's not that they're mean;  It's that you suck.  It's not that people in this country drive too fast...  it's that they're idiots who take actions which hasten their deaths on the road, and they damn well deserve it for being so hopelessly stupid.

California's traffic is not merely congested, though...  you can technically find more congested locations than LA within Chicago or New York and so on.  The real rub is that the congestion here makes no sense.  There is simply no rhyme or reason to it, and it is often triggered by the most mundane of events (such as someone changing lanes).  There's nothing like "it's slower on the right side near all these heavily used exits."  No, there are congestion problems just anywhere in any lane and it's typically a phantom condition, and it will back up for miles at a time just because.  Even the generically valid notion that the HOV lanes will move faster isn't always a certainty, and even when it is, it's not by much...  often times, those lanes which should logically be the slowest are the fastest and vice versa.
You pretty much have all of these going on, often times, all at once in the same spot.

The Butterfly effect is probably the worst of these because it's essentially a 2-d extrapolation of either or both of the other two.  An example scenario of this may be something along the lines of 1 slow guy slowing down everyone behind him in his lane...  this causes other people behind to want to change lanes, and everybody in those other lanes reacts to that effectively slowing down those lanes as well (since slower traffic is merging in), and the process repeats until every lane suffers for a single action.  This is something that was probably only realized because of the fact that Californian drivers exist.  Nonetheless, every one of these is pretty definitively pervasive here in CA.  In other regions of the country, congestion most often takes the form of the latter two, but in California, the Butterfly effect is virtually an immutable absolute certainty.

There is a certain sense of entitlement which I think is extremely prevalent in this state which presents in the "Tragedy of Commons" scenarios.  People can merge in comfortably and without disturbance provided that there is room to do so...  but giving people room means adjusting to the needs of others, and that's unfair in most Californian's minds.  "I'm the more important one here...  others should be accommodating of my needs."  This in turn results in people who have to merge into the road in more reckless ways (i.e. cutting people off), and then you end up with people who in their anger at being cut off work harder to minimize space the next time around and feed the same ego monster, which makes future merge operations more and more reckless and more and more full of rudeness and anger.  Guess what, you worthless barrels of human sewage!  The problem is not the other guy, it's youYou are the cause of all the congestion on the on/off ramps.  Those other guys who jump in right in front of you?  You created them.  But no!!  This is America!  Nothing is ever my fault!!!  It's always the other guy's fault!

In a more generic sense, the problem rests a lot on a sort of cascading overreaction to any sort of otherwise minor disturbance.  When only one or two people on the road do it, it doesn't snowball into a ghastly mess, but when the majority of drivers on the road do it, it's pretty much the wholesale stoppage of traffic flow.  People who overreact as a rule without much of any genuine stimulus are generally just inexperienced drivers who are still a little nervous behind the wheel.  That at least, is something that disappears with experience, so I'm not that worried about these types...  moreover, if other drivers on the road were even remotely safe drivers, this issue would also not only be cleared up quicker, but it would be less of an issue to begin with.  People who overreact because of a genuine stimulus that merits reaction are often doing so because their reaction is coming too late.  When you have to react more quickly, you tend to have to react more dramatically as well.  Brake harder, swerve more wildly, jump into tinier spaces, whatever the case may be.  So why does this happen very often?  Well, it's not always that people are just slow to react.  That might happen if many drivers frequently high or drunk, but seeing as how I don't live in San Francisco itself, this is unlikely.  No, there's a simple reason why it happens -- out here, drivers, as a rule, tailgate.  When there is not enough space between you and other cars, guess what?  100% of your reactions to any stimulus will be overreactions!  You will be the guy who slams his brakes too hard.  You will be the guy who swerves suddenly and cuts someone off in order to avoid someone else who braked too hard.  You are wholly, and without exception, complicit in the causation of traffic congestion in your area.

Everybody actively takes measures to minimize the space between themselves and the car in front of them.  It's one thing to be less than a yard behind the driver in front of you when you're stopped at a red light...  it's another thing entirely to do it when you're moving at 70 mph on the highway.  Nobody in this state seems to comprehend the difference.  Moreover, if you even so much as suggest it, there are pretty standard excuses why they don't.  The most common one is...  "but if I leave space between me and other cars, people will cut me off."  Hey, genius...  people cut people off not because there IS ample room, but because there IS NOT ample room.  You get cut off because the room you leave is just barely enough to squeeze in.  The kind of space I'm talking about is at least an order of magnitude larger.  Wide spaces means people can merge in and/or change lanes at confluent speeds and actually do so safely with  huge margins for error, and that means there's simply no such thing as cutting people off in the first place.  It also means that minor disturbances do not demand a severe response.  Cars packed together is exactly what traffic congestion is in the first place, and so in saying that you're a causal agent in traffic jams can never possibly be overstated.  The faster you're going, the wider the margin should be.  It's friggin' unsafe to tailgate people at high speeds even in clear weather, but the drivers of this brain-dead state do it even in heavy rain at high speeds in spite of their inexplicable terror at the sight of water mysteriously falling from the sky.  What you are doing invites your own death.  And by that, I do not mean that I will hunt you down and murder you even though you damn well deserve it.  I mean that what you're doing is dangerous, reckless and prone to fatal consequences.  PERIOD.  This is on top of the fact that you are literally creating traffic congestion in an effort to avoid the effects of traffic congestion.  This happens because you're an insufferable moron whose death in a fiery crash may well be a boon to drivers everywhere.

There's another aspect of the common American driver's psyche at play here.  When there is a gap between you and the driver in front of you, rather than perceive that as a cushion that enables you to drive more securely and consistently and safely, they view it as a failure to cover some distance.  "If I go faster right now, I can cover that distance, ergo, I'll get to work sooner because I'll have gone faster."  But of course, they don't mind if there's no space between them and and other cars because then, they're going as fast as possible given the other traffic...  and now, it's the other guy's fault.  They can't stand the idea that anything is their fault.  That they're the cause of any problem that affects others.  Well, this can only be true so long as you have a private road all to yourself.  Until then, it cannot be overstated that you are no more special than anyone else on the road, and yes...  you are at fault for traffic congestion.  Either change your attitude or roll over and die.  I wouldn't mind that much if the 73.205%* of drivers in California who are completely and hopelessly incompetent simply disappear from this Earth, but only because I hate you all when we're both on the road.

I would add that currently, in a lot of higher end cars and luxury vehicles, you will find nowadays a number of active safety features like those that warn you of lane drifting, check your blind spot for you, and also cruise control that checks your distance from other cars and adjusts.  It's not going to be that far off that this trickles down into options packages for common econoboxes...  and that itself is only a few notches away from projects like Google's self-driving car.  There are quite a lot of people who might find this a little bit annoying, and this includes the minority of drivers whose licenses aren't a waste of paper/plastic/ink.  Americans love their cars, and the cultural image of having your own car is associated with the freedom to go about on your own volition.  Having the car take over with all nature of nanny systems gives the impression that all the control of being a driver with his own car is wrested away from you.  But these things even exist because there are drivers who fall prey to the associated failures.  Why do you think traction control exists?  Because the cars themselves are overzealous?  Why do you think adaptive cruise control was invented?  Just because somebody felt like it?  It's because there are more and more useless drivers who are a menace to others on the road out there now.  It's not because manufacturers don't like giving you control.  It's that they recognize that more than likely, your performance if given control would be utterly disgraceful...  and they're right.

Here are the two rules that the majority of Californian drivers not only violate, but seem to act as if they're wrong
Rule #1 :  Keep a wide margin between yourself and other drivers; the faster you go, the wider it should be.
Rule #2 : Get off your goddamn high-horse and realize you're not the center of the universe, you low-life sub-human filth.

If I could believe in a god, these would be among my god's 10 commandments.

Also, I'll add just as an aside, that when everybody drives more consistently and keep space, react earlier to disturbances, and make it possible for merging traffic to "zipper" into place efficiently and ensure that mundane actions do not cause massive cascading disturbances...  it not only means that everybody saves time... it also means that everybody saves gas, as well.  And I'm sure anybody would see the value in that.  If you don't, then I've been giving you too much credit by merely designating you a brain-dead disgrace to humankind.

I know the basic principles of defensive driving are really rules of thumb, but I see varying degrees of merit in making them law.  We wouldn't have to mess with people who argue for slower speed limits if drivers weren't such useless lumps of flesh without a brain cell to go with it.  I know it seems a bit overreaching, especially if you're a fan of smaller government, but the problem is that people are too stupid ever to do this of their own volition.  Libertarian philosophies can never work in inherently self-destructive systems which invariably tend towards infinite failure with the passage of time.  The thing is that creating laws that lower speed limits or making adaptive cruise control and blind-spot warnings required standard equipment on all new cars or something...  these are all measures which simply make the laws of the land accommodate the lack of ability of drivers.  I would rather not create laws that account for the stupidity and inepititude of the masses.  We should be trying to get rid of it.  If that means that 73.205% of Californian drivers have their licenses revoked because they're a detriment to the remainder, then so be it.

* Yes, the 73.205% figure is pulled out of my ass as a product of sheer rage.  BTW, it's sqrt(3) - 1.