Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical: Sing a Song of Traffic

The other day, my daughters were playing on the brick patio that constitutes the backyard of our rental house in Berkeley, California. As two of them scooted around on toy cars belonging to our landlords’ son, I observed the following exchange:

Bringing their vehicles to a sudden stop at right angles to each other, one daughter said, “You go ahead.”

To which the other daughter responded, “No, no, you go ahead!”

After they’d repeated this several times, I asked, “Girls, what are you doing?”

“Well, that’s what you always say, Mommy!” they explained.

That’s when I realized the degree to which my daughters have absorbed the anxiety and general distrust I feel while driving in California.

When I approach a four-way stop in Vermont, I know what to do: I yield the right-of-way to any car that arrived at the intersection before me. Should I arrive at roughly the same time as another car, the situation becomes a grace-filled exchange in which the other driver and I wave at each other until one of us finally gives in.

When I approach a four-way stop in California, even if I’m clearly the first to arrive, I alwayspause for a long moment before advancing to make sure that no other car will ignore me and roar through the intersection.

Should I arrive at roughly the same time as another car, the situation becomes fraught with the tension reenacted by my daughters.

I will wave to the other driver and, although they can’t hear me, say, “You go ahead.” (Translation: I’m from Vermont, and full of grace.)

Sometimes the other car accepts my offer. But sometimes the driver waves back at me. At which point, I will wave again, saying, “No, no, you go ahead!” (Translation: I don’t trust you.)

What usually happens next is that the other driver gives me an incredulous, open-mouthed stare and gestures urgently, sometimes adding a little horn for good measure, and I scurry obediently through the intersection, heart pounding.

I’ve seen too much, and I trust no one.

On the first day I drove in Berkeley, a pickup truck reversed out of a parking space right in front of me in a busy commercial district, and then screeched to a stop. As I screeched to a stop myself, it became clear that this driver had stopped abruptly in order to give a tongue lashing to the woman parked next to him, who had dared to open her car door while he was reversing. At this point the woman, who fit the description of “Japanese grandmother,” unleashed a stream of obscenities back at the pickup truck driver. This went on so long that I was finally obliged to tap my horn in order to break up their fight.

Another day, I was attempting to make a right turn across a pedestrian crosswalk. I waited out a steady stream of pedestrians, and when a break in the action appeared I advanced tentatively. That’s when I noticed that another cluster of pedestrians had stepped off of the opposite corner and was partway through the intersection. I stopped again, about six feet shy of the oncoming walkers. As they passed me, one of the pedestrians (another grandmother type – beware of grandmothers around here) wagged her finger at me and said, “Bad girl. Bad girl.”

For the rest of the afternoon, my mind replayed this incident. I stewed over the injustice of the scolding, wondering: Under what ethical system is it permissible to judge strangers (“Bad girl.”) based on a brief, corrected slip-up?

Then there was the time I was driving home on a local road in rush-hour traffic. Actually, “driving” is too strong a word; “creeping” is a better description. In that steady stream of cars, nobody was going anywhere fast. So I was surprised when the driver behind me honked his horn. My infraction, it seems, was “inappropriate slowing.”

Everyone is in a hurry and convinced that their business is more urgent than yours, so any perceived obstacle – even a slower slow-down than you’d prefer – is met with rage.

The norm in California seems to be that things like turn signals, speed limits, and complete stops are optional – and they become increasingly optional the more expensive your vehicle: If you drive a BMW or Mercedes, you have right-of-way forever.

I wonder whether the behavior of my fellow drivers signals a touching faith in humanity, a great confidence in the alertness, vision, and quick reflexes of those with whom they share the road.

Sadly, I think not. I think that the peculiar driving etiquette displayed by Californians is a by-product of traffic congestion.

Los Angeles traffic is legendary, its freeways famous. But the San Francisco Bay Area seems on track to rival its Southern sister city in terms of congestion.

The Bay Area has always been bustling, but since our family moved to Vermont five years ago, the second dot com bubble and steady migration into the area have increased the crowding. “It’s gotten worse,” our local friends say. The U. S. Census Bureau reports that the nine-county Bay Area region’s population grew by 100,000 between 2013 and 2014, with the largest growth in Alameda County, where Berkeley is located.

For much of every day, the highways around San Francisco are choked with traffic, and the crowding extends to local roads. Hour-long commutes to work are common among our friends, with anything under an hour considered “good.” And although the Bay Area has excellent public transportation and ride-share options, whenever I look around on the highway I see cars that are usually empty save for the driver.

When we first arrived in Vermont, my husband was amazed that the radio news devoted ten minutes to the weather report and made absolutely no mention of traffic. (In California, where the weather rarely changes but the traffic is epic, it’s the exact opposite.) The largest Vermont highway is only half the size of a typical California freeway, which has four to six lanes of traffic going in both directions – but then, the population of the Bay Area alone is 11 times that of the entire state of Vermont.

Traffic rules in Vermont are reinforced by a sense of community connection: If you cut off another car, it’s likely to be driven by somebody you know – or at least by the cousin of somebody you know.

But if you’re spending hours every day in traffic, alone in a 4000-pound cocoon of steel and glass, surrounded by strangers, isn’t it possible that you gradually stop viewing your fellow drivers as human? Isn’t it possible that other motorists become merely obstacles keeping you from work and home and recreation?

And a bigger question: Isn’t it possible that these attitudes towards others (“Bad girl.”) might carry over to life off the road?


Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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