In the seventh annual GMAC Insurance National Drivers Test, a written test that poses twenty multiple-choice questions (pulled from state DMV exams) to drivers from fifty states and the District of Columbia, Maryland finished a dismal 49th in driver knowledge. Scanning the standings from this year’s test, I spotted the other two states I’ve lived in, New York and Rhode Island, getting cozy with Maryland near the bottom of the list. And I thought I might be able to give some context to the ranking. Absent from the simplistic, one-dimensional ordering is a realistic sense of the widely differing styles of poor driving between and within states, which is what I hope to rectify here to some small degree.
In neither New York nor Rhode Island will you find a driving experience quite like Maryland’s. Here the most conspicuous violation is failure to signal. I assume that the drivers, at least the ones in Baltimore, who opt not to turn on the blinker when turning or changing lanes believe that, whatever the rules say, it is always safest to draw as little attention to yourself as possible when traveling in the city. And you never know, someone might be tailing you. A common problem with nationwide tests is their failure to take into account local custom, and this poll is no exception. In Maryland, tradition teaches us that it’s legal to run a red light if it’s fewer than three seconds old and that broken traffic lights are considered green for all directions. Of course, that’s not how the laws read on the books, but a diligent driver must stay conscious of the custom.
New York, my home state, ranked 45th this year, which was an improvement from finishing dead last in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Honestly, I was surprised at the poor showing. I grew up in Central New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario, where every 4-way stop is handled with fairness and poise. As a child I might stand at one corner and stare in wonder at the legalistically flawless execution of right-of-way, an automotive water-ballet. I can only assume Downstate drivers are upsetting the state’s average. That said, though New York City drivers may cut each other off with complete disregard for the safety of those around them, they are almost completely predictable in this, and if you go in expecting it you should do fine. Hey, at least we don’t allow them to turn right at a red light.
In stark contrast, Rhode Island drivers, who ranked 44th in the poll, seem determined to kill you with kindness, yielding the right-of-way whenever possible, no matter how dangerous. Having lived there for two years, I can assure you it’s absolutely standard for a motorist heading straight to wave on all left-turning vehicles in the opposing lanes of traffic when the light turns green. Just as often, a driver without a stop sign will burn his brakes out to wave on another driver who’s waiting at one. These gratuitous wave-ons are so rampant that, in Rhode Island, “wave of death” is a common phrase among auto-insurance and auto-mechanic types to denote an instance in which a motorist, ecstatic with mercy and a feeling of omnipotence, waves on a car (or pedestrian) across multiple lanes of traffic.
One final thought: we really ought to cut D.C. (who finished last this year) some slack In a city whose roads are a gonzo superimposition of concentric circles, radial spokes, and a rectangular grid, I’m sure that the fundamental lesson imparted to students in Driver’s Education is “Look everywhere; try to survive.” And whether it’s legal to drive onto the shoulder to pass a left-turning car on the right side could seem perfectly trivial to someone who has to navigate scores of acute-angle intersections, avoid rear-ending bewildered tourists, and dodge lemming-like Segway tours every day just to live to do it again tomorrow.