I’ve been holding off writing this one. You need to be in the perfect mood to compose a rant: too much pent-up vitriol and you’ll just spew angry nonsensical drivel, too little and you’ll forget why you’re writing. I’m largely calm, and at peace—for now. But when I get out on the roads of Southern California, my calm turns to fury, fear and frustration.
You see, as it turns out, this state is home to the world’s most dangerous drivers. All of them, it appears.
I don’t know if a decision was made at some point to move all the world’s most dangerous drivers here. Maybe they migrate west for the winter but often struggle with the return journey? Or perhaps being reckless is more fun in warmer climates.
I’ve got some more feasible theories, actually. But first I’ll need to back up my ridiculously over the top claim. And I’ve got the anecdotal evidence and the white male confidence to do just that.
Holy shit where do I start. Okay. Fact number one: not a single southern Californian cares about the slow lane/fast lane system. I’m not even 100% sure it’s a thing here considering how each lane seems to be treated the same.
You know when you’re in the fast lane and someone with ideas above their station speeds past the inside of you and cuts in a few cars ahead? Well everyone does that out here. It’s a free-for-all.
On the other hand, you’ll also get chumps doing 40 in the fast lane, and it turns out aggressively tailgating them DOES NOT make them move over like it does in the UK.
Instead, cars will just dart between lanes, weaving around slow cars like they’re in a pinball machine, bouncing off metal and concrete while they frantically try and beat their high score.
In fact, drivers are just in a constant game of pinball. No matter how fast the traffic is moving, there will always be a slew of vehicles darting among the moving targets, counting down the time before they get thwacked back the other way by the flippers. (The pinball machine flippers. Is this analogy working? I think not.)
While driving is often nightmarish, there's always plenty of amusement to be found
Here’s another hard-to-believe stat. The car I drive is the only vehicle in SoCal with indicator lights! I know it sounds made up, but how else would you explain the fact that, despite having a cute word for them (blinkers), I don’t think I’ve ever seen one being deployed.
If you’re driving on a road with multiple lanes (which is nearly every road around here), something else you need to be constantly vigilant for is sudden lane changes from nearby cars. There’s no way of predicting when drivers out here will change lanes. Sometimes they do it for the hell of it.
Other times it’s because of debris. Of which there’s an alarming amount—whether it’s bits of truck tire or remnants of the last roadwork (oh yeh, it’s singular in US English).
Or, in what was certainly the closest I’ve ever got to that horrifying road-based scene in Final Destination, having to dodge massive barrels falling off a severely unstable flatbed which had wire meshing being used as a wall. At least I had a good excuse for my abrupt lane hopping.
What’s particularly irksome though is the lack of good old-fashioned letting someone in. Whether that’s at a junction, on a slip road or in a parking lot—you’ll be thoroughly ignored by every single car that passes.
The act of letting someone in is carried out so little here that, when a driver is a lucky recipient of some Blighty-style letting in, they have no idea how to react and look at you like you’re the crazy one. (The right response, of course, is a brief raising of one set of fingers from the steering wheel and the below face.)
But are all California drivers just Grade A arseholes who lack any common decency, empathy and humility when out on the road?
Well, I’m sure some are, but I’d hazard a guess that these driving habits are largely down to external factors.
Firstly, the roads are busy. Like, really busy. And not just in LA: every major road I’ve driven on in SoCal is claustrophobically cluttered throughout the main stretch of the day, and 10 times worse during rush hour (which lasts three hours in the morning and four or more in the afternoon/evening).
What’s sad though is that there’s an obvious solution that would drastically reduce the road numbers, but Southern California seems to have rejected it—investing in public transport.
This area’s public transport (or transit as they prefer out here) is a bit of a shambles. Sure, it has its moments: some cities have a fairly comprehensive inner-city bus system and, if you’re lucky enough to live close to a Metrolink station, there is access into the region’s premier destination.
But with the Greater Los Angeles area being home to over 5% of the USA’s total population, you’d think that it would be easier to get from city to city without having to change in LA. Sure, they’re currently building a new train line and making a real song and dance about it, but it will take a hell of a lot more investment to even come close to what the area deserves.
The I-10 is one such notorious road. This image came from an article detailing the current expansion project. Making roads wider instead of encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home.
Add to that the strange sense of urgency that seems to exist among so many Californians. It’s something that’s hard to qualify, but life just seems hectic. It’s like a never-ending pursuit of happiness coupled with the fact that nothing’s ever in walking distance. There’s always somewhere to go and, to get there, you need to get in your car and drive.
The actual real-life stats do help back up my safety fears. In 2019, California reported 9.1 vehicle deaths per 100,000 people. In 2018, the UK had 2.1 per 100,000. However, the Golden State actually just misses out on the top 10 safest US states when measured this way. (Wyoming takes the bottom spot with a whopping 25.4 deaths per 100,000—remind me to never drive there.)
SoCal became a go-to destination for those looking for good weather and a better way of life. Many still couldn’t imagine living anywhere else but even so, the state just hasn’t kept up with needs of its growing population, which has led to a kingdom of drivers whose only collective thought is to get to where they need to be as soon as fucking possible.
In reality, the truth regarding my travel woes is probably closer to this: people do things differently in different parts of the world. And a lot of my sensitivity around driving out here is ultimately down to lack of experience when compared to how much I’ve driven in the UK.
I find that, the longer I’m here, the more relaxed I feel driving. I can anticipate other drivers a lot better, have a better understanding of what road layout might be approaching and have figured out the golden rule when driving in California: if you can’t beat them, join them.