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LA Drivers, You Suck!

Los Angeles traffic is consistently, by far, the worst in existence. I’ve been to about 2/3 of these United States, so I’ve driven in a lot of cities for comparison. Plus I’m on the road for several hours a day in Los Angeles, not because I’m travelling great distances but simply because traffic and that gives me a lot of time to study how it all works. And listen to lot's of shitty hip hop blaring out of various idiots' open windows but I digress. Point is, I’ve really put some time and energy into this whether I like it or not. In my study, I’ve come to the very strong conclusion that the problem is far less the commonly blamed sheer volume of vehicles on the road and far more the baffling driving habits of Los Angelenos. They’re the worst drivers in the country, hands down. So bad as cause me to wonder if large swaths of the population physically become stupider when they get behind the wheel. Why do I say this? Well, there are a few reasons but let’s start with this one-- everyone here complains endlessly about the traffic and how long it takes to get anywhere in LA, yet they can’t seem to put it together that when you perform an action at a far slower rate than is necessary, in this case anything having to do with driving from point A to point B, it will take longer for you complete that action. I’m not talking about speeding, I’m just talking about NOT driving like everything is in slow motion.

Driving is supposed to be a somewhat collaborative process. It has to be. It requires sharing a resource—the road—with other people while doing something that can be quite dangerous. Everything works just fine if everyone kind of looks out for each other and everyone is generally on the same page that the point to getting in a car is to reach a destination in less time than it would take to walk. The driving culture here has cultivated a whole bunch of driving habits that work counter to this.

Everyone complains about rush hour. The roads get jammed with bumper to bumper traffic. It’s a nightmare. Except that’s seldom actually the case-- there’s almost never bumper to bumper anything here. If you were to take a bird’s eye view of the roads in LA during rush hour you’d see huge pieces of road not being used, huge spaces between cars. I’m guessing you could safely fit about twice as many vehicles on the road at any given time. What seems to happen here is people are slavish about the safe distance in front of their vehicle, going well beyond the general one car length for every 10 mph rule. Another version of this rule is the 2 second rule, which states that if you were to pick a point on the side of the road up ahead of you, it should take 2 seconds between the time the vehicle in front of you passes it and you pass it. It’s a good rule. If you’re actually driving at a consistently speedy clip. When you’re driving at 20, 30 mph you really have to be extremely dense to need 2 or 3 car lengths of space in order to be able to react in time to changes (if you’re paying attention...). Making things worse, the California Drivers’ Handbook* increases the 2 second rule to 3 seconds. You can either have this rule or you can have a functioning city, but anyway… People will vigorously preserve this cushion in front of them at the expensive of reaching any sort of practical speed. Which means an oppressive number of drivers are consistently driving well below the speed limit even though there is nothing in front of them impeding their progress. To even further fly in the face of reason, people will keep multiple car lengths of space in front of them while stopped at red lights, where there is absolutely no danger of having to stop short.

Some might look at all of this and say that people are just very cautious out here. What’s not to like about that? Well, no one is driving that way out of caution. They’re driving like that because that frees them up from having to pay any attention to the task at hand. Just keep that safe buffer zone in front of you and catch up on your emails.

Which is why I encounter this buffoonery multiple times every day:

Since, in the above example, I’m switching lanes for a reason and not just for kicks, I’m going to have to do it whether you assist me or not. So instead of benefitting from some helpful cooperation, I now have to slow way down to get in behind you (if the person behind you happens to notice me trying to switch lanes as well) which means I’m now blocking traffic in my lane.

There’s no sense of working together here. To keep things moving smoothly you have to be paying attention, watching what other drivers are doing, anticipating what they might do or need to do next. Are there freeway on-ramps around that people might need to switch lanes to access? Are you at a red light and the person behind you needs you to move up just a couple feet so she can turn onto the side street? Did a bus just stop in the right lane and now people are going to be trying to go around? Does that person ahead look like they’re trying to get over so they can make a turn of some kind? Varying your speed (maybe even going a little over the speed limit, which IS PERFECTLY OKAY) to help make room for others to maneuver is part of being a good, attentive driver and keeping traffic moving. I know this because I’ve seen it work countless times in many other lands across the country. Everywhere else, they kind of just do it because it’s the friendly thing to do.

The lack of this sense of cooperation is why the freeways out here will always be something that is just broken and will never be right. I have very little to say about this. I’ve read the California Drivers’ Handbook* so I know it says there are supposed to be rules for freeway driving but they are followed by no one. It’s Jokerland. If people can’t grasp the simple concept of a passing lane then we’re futility trying to apply order where it has never existed. Everywhere else in the country, the left most lane is the passing lane, used for passing, not cruising, not fucking off and doing whatever the hell you want. But there are no rules on Fury Road. Feel like stopping in the middle of traffic? Sure. Why not? Feel like driving the same speed you do on surface roads, you go right ahead. Need to switch lanes? Don’t hesitate. Those people shouldn’t be there anyway.

Which brings me to turn signals. All over the country, turn signals are a great tool for communicating to your fellow drivers that you’d like to, for instance, switch lanes or that you will be making a turn up ahead and will therefore be decelerating. In Los Angeles, the purpose of the turn signal is to tell the driver in the lane next to you that you’d like them to speed up. Yes, this is one of the few times LA drivers are awoken out of their stupors-- when you threaten to move into their buffer zone.

Turn signals are generally ignored on LA roads and that’s if they’re used at all. Usually, the only heads up you’ll get that the car in front of you is turning is when it makes a split second surprise stop and hairpins into the 7 Eleven. This is an example of when you’re supposed to use your turn signal. Or when I’ve been sitting at a stop sign waiting for you to pass so I can turn into the intersection after you, only to have you turn into where I’m coming out of and I could’ve actually gone thirty seconds ago if you had simply signalled. Or we’re in the left most lane, ready to go when the light turns green. It does—and only then do you signal that you’re turning left and now I can’t go because no one’s going to let you make your turn while they have a green and I can’t go around you because there’s not a chance in hell anyone is going to let me into the other lane for the same reason. Its just courtesy, man.

When a turn signal is used by LA drivers, I get the distinct impression that the person signaling knows how to signal but he doesn’t know why. A general rule-- if you’re already stopped when you flip the signal on, you’re too late. To reiterate, the signal is a heads up warning that you are planning to turn in the near future so that your fellow drivers can safely navigate around you. According to the California Driver’s Handbook*, it’s supposed to be done 100 feet from where you’re turning. If you are actually in the process of turning, you no longer need to turn the signal on and tell me you want to turn because it’s now very obvious.

I’ve saved perhaps the most insidious problem for last. It’s not entirely the fault of drivers. LA has a stoplight problem. While stoplights are a necessary nuisance in any city, Los Angeles takes the idea far beyond nuisance into some Byzantine farce. There are so many stoplights littered throughout the city that they actually, no shit, cancel each other out.

The commute from my current residence to my current place of work is about 11 miles. Along that 11 mile trip I have to go through 39 stop lights. If you’re of a mathematical bent, that averages about 3.5 per mile. Say the average red light lasts about a minute, if I manage to only get stopped at half the lights on my journey, that’s twenty minutes added to my commute. I’m guessing you could eliminate a third of the city’s stop lights and be perfectly fine. Every little piddily-dink neighborhood side street doesn’t need it’s own light. All these lights are doing is creating unnecessary traffic problems.

But you know what might make this problem less a problem? Actually going when the light turns green. Because that’s what a green light means. It means “go”. Not wait a few seconds and go. Not “go when you feel like it” or “go as soon as you’re done with that text message” or when you’re finished arranging whatever it is you’re arranging on the passenger seat. An LA green light sets off a competition to see who can accelerate the slowest and still be in motion. Being stuck in the cluster of sloth is like trying to will some great, lumbering beast into motion. It’s as if everyone chose one of the fat Mario Kart drivers. People seriously sit at green lights like the light turning green was an event they just weren’t prepared to encounter today.

I’ve heard some say that no one goes right away because people run red lights in Los Angeles all the time. Yet I’ve only seen this happen a handful of times while living here, no more than any other city, so this can’t be the real reason. Even if someone did run the light, if you’re paying attention while the light is still red, and you’re supposed be doing just that because you are in fact supposed to be paying attention at all times while operating a motor vehicle, you can watch the oncoming traffic and anticipate when someone is going to run the light. If so, wait. If not, GO!

I’ve also heard the excuse that it’s to save gas. The light up ahead is red so hauling ass up to the red light is just burning unnecessary fuel. I’m not sure how much gas you’re saving by sitting idly in traffic for several hours a day but as far as hauling ass to the next light, there’s actually a significant middle ground between that and driving like an old lady. Most every other city I’ve ever driven in, people simply get to the next light as quickly as is reasonably possible. If you simply try to get up to the speed limit as quickly as you can, it works wonders in simply keeping things moving. I never even thought twice about it. Where I come from, we always just assumed it was the polite thing to do because there are people behind us waiting to go.

It’s common sense. The person behind you can’t go until you go. And the person behind them can’t go until they go and so on. I understand there may be a red light up ahead for you but for the people behind you, there is a green light and they can’t go through it because you’re driving like you’re the only person on the road. Or texting, or putting on make up, or talking on the phone…

The way I drive is considered aggressive out here. Which means that aggressive driving is simply when you try to get up to the speed limit. It’s simply called driving back east, so I think it’s more apt to say LA drivers are passive drivers, which means that you kind of let the driving take care of itself. There is a minimum of thought and effort put into the actual process of driving because your attention is elsewhere. You’re making those important calls or responding to those emails or texts or putting on your make up and doing your hair or surfing the web. If you were actively involved you’d be seeing the very simple ways your commute could be quicker and more efficient.

You need to be an active participant on the road. You need to have your head in the game. If you don’t want to step up your driving game, that’s fine. It’s a free country. But don’t complain about traffic because you’re the reason there’s traffic.

LA's new expansion team, The Los Angeles Traffic. It's the ONLY appropriate mascot.

*I was surprised to find you had an actual full handbook. I was almost positive you were just given a printed handout with a few bullet points, but I stand corrected.