Friday, February 16, 2007

Identifying and Coping with Utah Drivers

I cut my driving teeth on the merciless Utah roads back in the winter of 1992-93, a harsh torrent of snow-filled weeks spent navigating the kamikaze terrain of the Viewmont High School parking lot. At first I thought my high school was bad, but as I ventured out into the limits of Utah’s expressways and back roads, I realized that the phenomenon was hardly bound by the demographics of age or the limited geographic boundaries of my alma mater. No, after crossing over time and time again to cities like Evanston, Malad, and Mesquite, I realized that the phenomenon was bound by state lines, strange as that may seem. Once I crossed back into my home state, and especially once I neared the Wasatch Front, the highways seemed to change. Behavior intensified. Speeds increased. And so did my blood pressure. Driving was a passion for me, but commuting in Utah quickly became a purgatory, a mortal prison, a veritable third-circle of automotive Hell.

Categorizing the various offenders that make the daily commute so miserable is at best an impossible task. Each individual driver adds his/her own infuriating nuance to their particular offense. But here is a foundational list, a fundamental attempt to catalog the primary guilty parties that you will encounter while cruising the Beehive State. Like the US Constitution and the rap sheet of the Cincinnati Bengals, this list is a living document, subject to growth and change as further evidence comes forward to better prepare us for the dangers that await. In a state as large as Utah, we may never be able to fully depend on the convenience of public transportation. But if we can but warn our neighbor, we might at least link arms, look each other weary eye to weary eye, and mutter, “I feel you, brother. I feel you.”

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NAME: The King of the Road

DESCRIPTION: The most pervasive of this type can be found in a large SUV or a full-size truck, but the King of the Road is by no means defined by his/her large mode of transportation. Indeed, the King of the Road can be found in the smallest of Geo's.

BEHAVIOR: What makes the King the King is the attitude. The King has staked out the passing lane for the extent of their journey, and has no intention of getting out of that lane no matter how many cars are backed up behind them. Whether this behavior is sprung from arrogance, general obliviousness, or a missing rear-view mirror, the King of the Road has generally forgotten that most critical of road rules: you must yield the left-hand lane to passing traffic.

WARNING: Besides the aforementioned behavior, a driver must also be aware of the King's other distinctive trait: a tendency to cut off other drivers on their way to the off ramp. Here we must also wonder at the possible deafness of the King, as no level of honking can ever seem to dissuade the King from cutting you off on their way off the freeway.

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NAME: The Ghetto Suburbanite

DESCRIPTION: One of the most perplexing of drivers, this is the middle-aged suburbanite that drives an SUV which seems to be better equipped for the Urban Ghetto. The SUV typically features tinted windows and low profile tires, along with extreme chrome wheels that may or may not include spinners. While this is socially acceptable for, say, an up and coming rapper, notice the strange double-takes that occur when a man in a suit exits the SUV on his way to a hard day of accounting.

BEHAVIOR: Aside from typically arrogant SUV behavior (general obliviousness/wanton disregard for other smaller vehicles), the Ghetto Suburbanite exhibits no distinctive driving characteristics.

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NAME: The Headless Cruiser

DESCRIPTION: While this driver most often occurs in large domestic vehicles, best described as “boats”, the Headless Cruiser can be spotted in a variety of vehicles. The only specific qualification is the inherent difficulty other drivers encounter when trying to determine whether the vehicle has a driver at all.

BEHAVIOR: The Headless Cruiser exhibits a variety of ill road behaviors, even tailgating in some instances. (There is perhaps no more perplexing and surreal a situation than a twenty-something male tailgated by an 80-something Headless Cruiser). But for the most part, the HC drives far under the speed limit as opposed to well over it. While many stay far to the right on the freeway, others wander left to create an overlap with the King of the Road category. Also like the King of the Road, the relative ratio of driver size to vehicle size in the case of the HC is quite dramatic. Indeed, the smaller the driver, the bigger the vehicle.

WARNING: One noted side effect of the HC is a tendency for other nearby drivers to become preoccupied with trying to locate the HC, since they are so hard to spot. Be careful with this; If you spend too much time trying to spot the HC driver, you run the risk of becoming a “Multi-Tasker”, which will be described later.

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NAME: The Drifter

DESCRIPTION: The Drifter largely travels incognito, with no particular taste for any vehicle, color, or location. Male, female, young, old, Democrat or Republican, the Drifter can be found in any form on the highway. Laziness and obliviousness, ladies and gentlemen, knows no prejudice.

BEHAVIOR: One of the most aggravating of all drivers, perhaps second only to the King of the Road, the Drifter is a menace primarily because of unpredictability. This is the guy that wanders back and forth across lane lines regardless of whether another driver is in the next lane or not. This is the guy that sometimes swings all the way into onto the shoulder of the road when making even gradual turns. Most of all, this is the guy that must have gotten his license before the invention of the turn signal, since it is never used. While the fault here is more due to obliviousness than maliciousness, the Drifter remains an extremely dangerous and irritating road companion.

WARNING: This driver, perhaps more than any other, justifies the term “Defensive Driving”. This is why whenever you pass by another driver in another lane, you get this suspicious feeling inside that tells you, “this moron is going to veer over into my lane”, and sure enough, the twit is suddenly close enough for him to reach out and adjust your passenger side window. Beware, good driver. Beware.

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NAME: The Frustrated Activist

DESCRIPTION: Here we find the automotive embodiment of Utah's intense political landscape. The vast majority of Frustrated Activists come in either oversize trucks and SUV's or small foreign-made vehicles with extremely high mileage ratings. More importantly, the Frustrated Activist is distinguished by the moderate to obscenely high numbers of message-related bumper stickers plastered towards the back end of their vehicles. Many Frustrated Activists subscribe to conservative viewpoints (typically their stickers are overtly patriotic or make some mention of Charleton Heston, and are always pasted on the backs of large trucks, large SUV’s, or large Cadillacs), but the overwhelming majority of Frustrated Activists lean (if not dive headfirst) to the left. The exact level of frustration per Frustrated Activist is roughly proportional to the number of stickers on his/her car. Some college campus-based FA's have been known to completely cover their cars in stickers, perhaps in an effort to hide the fact that they are in fact driving an automobile.

BEHAVIOR: Even if the politics are extreme, neither the conservative or liberal Frustrated Activist typically harbors any unique driving behaviors. The conservative FA's may exhibit tendencies consistent with other types--IE, Kings of the Road and Headless Cruisers, but most left-leaning FA's can be found in the mid-to-right lanes of the freeway, trying to keep pace in a vehicle that while fuel efficient, tops out at about 55mph.

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NAME: The Overly Defensive Driver

DESCRIPTION: The ODD comes in a variety of forms, and has few consistent characteristics. Other drivers must be prepared to face the ODD at any time and in most any place.

BEHAVIOR: The only way to spot an ODD is through their distinctive driving habits. This is the driver that slows down at green lighted intersections. This is the driver that comes to a complete stop at yield signs. This is the driver that refuses to pull into the intersection while waiting to make a left turn, then waits until traffic is clear for an estimated quarter mile in either direction before making the turn. This is the driver that hits the brakes hard every time the freeway makes an even gradual turn to the right or left, causing the vast majority of rush hour congestion. This is the driver that merges onto the freeway at 45mph, and gets so flustered when other people try to merge that they freeze up and refuse to either speed up or slow down, thus blocking would-be mergers and causing even more highway congestion behind them. This driver also tends to leave a two car-length gap between them and the car in front of them WHILE STOPPED AT A STOPLIGHT.

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NAME: The Suicide Lane Driver

DESCRIPTION: Like the ODD, the SLD also lacks a specific description, though they do not tend to be older drivers.

BEHAVIOR: The SLD is so named for their insufferable habit of making a left turn onto a busy street when there is clearly no room for them to do so. Then, instead of blending with traffic, they continue to drive in the turn lane for long periods of time, inconveniencing other potential turn lane users while waiting for the traffic gap they couldn't find in the first place.

WARNING: 95% of the time you encounter an SLD, you will be prompted to panic, since the only warning sign you get is the quick flash from a vehicle as they barrel across traffic into the left side of your peripheral vision, clearly with no place to safely merge. Even though they only intend to use the left-hand turn lane as an illegal merge lane, they still look like they are going to hit you, and you may be tempted to swing right to avoid contact. And rightfully so. The SLD is a complete idiot.

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NAME: The Wide Turn Driver

DESCRIPTION: Contrary to their name, the WTD is not found behind the wheel of a large semi or any other vehicle that may actually need to make a wide turn. Rather, the WTD shows up in any standard size vehicle, and can come in any age bracket. It is possible that many WTD's suffer from their condition due to an equilibrium problem, but there is no way to determine this from outside the vehicle.

BEHAVIOR: A close cousin to the Drifter, the WTD usually drifts a considerable distance in the opposite direction to which they plan to turn before actually making the turn, IE, swinging wide left for a right turn, or wide right for a left turn. The heinousness of this move is complicated by the fact that the WTD typically neglects to bother with using a turn signal to let anyone know that they intend to swing back in the opposite direction they are drifting.

WARNING: On a residential road, if the driver in front of you slows down and veers to the left without using their turn signal, it is usually safe to assume that they plan to turn left, since the vast majority of idiot Utah drivers never had the turn signal lever pointed out to them back in Driver’s Ed. However, the WTD stands as a stark warning for any driver tempted to veer right and pass by the supposed turner in the same way STD’s stand as a stark warning for anyone tempted to take the Free Love of the 60’s too seriously.

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NAME: The Mad ‘Gater

DESCRIPTION: The MG, like many local drivers, is known more for his behavior than for any particular choice in automobile. Indeed, the MG could be driving an ’85 Jeep Cherokee just as easily as a fast and furious 2004 Mitsubishi Eclipse. In fact, MG’s frequently appear on bullet bikes. The driver himself could be a 19-year-old high school graduate as well as a 57-year-old soccer mom. But regardless of form, a quick tap of the brakes will turn any MG into a very animated person.

BEHAVIOR: MG’s are so named for their propensity for tailgating, obviously, at high speeds and most often on the freeway. But their profile expands far beyond this one foible. MG’s are also the people, like Kings of the Road, who will sail across multiple lanes of traffic at the last second in order to make exits they would have seen coming if they hadn’t been so busy flipping off other drivers. They are the vehicles that slash in and out of traffic and average about 10mph faster than the driving demographic that is already 10mph over the speed limit. More commuters secretly want to see MG’s get in head-on collisions than any other group.

WARNING: If an MG runs up on your tail, shift to the right, unless you’re in the mood for some high-risk fun. If an MG comes up on your right or left and you get the instinct that they’re going to cut you off, you’re probably right.

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NAME: The Multi-Tasker

DESCRIPTION: The MT is another driver defined by his/her behavior. Demographics in this case do lean heavier towards the young female end of the spectrum, but MT’s frequently come in male form driving sedans and SUV’s as well. The tasks themselves are equally diverse, and come in any or all of the following: cell phone use, makeup application, stereo adjusting, eating, shaving, drinking, talking to a passenger, intimate scratching, text messaging, day trading, tooth brushing, hair brushing, child abusing, nose picking, online poker playing, air drumming, model airplane construction, and farting.

BEHAVIOR: The behavior of an MT is painfully easy to spot. In fact, the title MT is an ironic one, since the MT really has no capacity to multi-task at all. If the driver in front of you suddenly slows down to 25mph in a 40mph zone for no apparent reason, they are likely an MT. If the driver next to you on the freeway suddenly veers into your lane as the road curves (or even if you’re going straight), you’ve got an MT. If the driver in front of you at a stop light fails to move for a full ten seconds after the light turns green, MT. If the driver of the white Lexus SUV in front of you has been speeding up and slowing down 15mph in either direction while swerving in and out of their lane for a full ten minutes before suddenly careening off the road headlong into a billboard for The Blue Boutique, you’ve got yourself an MT, baby.

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So there you go. A mere sampling of the people that make our highways in Utah a singular joy to cruise. Of course, simply listing these offenders without offering a way to remedy or perhaps rehabilitate their behavior is akin to griping about the world’s problems without offering any solutions, and no one likes whiners. That’s why after extensive thought and meditation, fourteen years of driving experience, fifty-seven headaches, half a dozen traffic citations, three wrecks and a bottle of Ibuprofen, I can offer the following solution:

Move to Montana.