Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Driving me... to Wisconsin

Before we get on to today's festivities, I'd first like to thank the National Weather Service for keeping us in Severe Thunderstorm Warnings for each of the past three nights, thus making me reluctant to turn the computer on and post to this blog, lest this turn into our last-ever posting. As it turns, out, it's our 300th.

I’ve been thinking a lot about driving lately. Partly, that’s because I have a sister who’s on the cusp of getting her driver’s license. And partly, it’s because I’ve had a driver’s license for 21 years now, which means that the little laminated card that once was the gate key to the then-exotic world of alcoholic beverages could, itself, now go out and drink.

But mostly, I’ve been thinking about driving because, well, there are a lot of cars on the road in Wisconsin. (Big surprise, that.)

Now in the 21 years I’ve been driving, I’ve lived in six states and one territory. And after each move, I’ve come to the conclusion in each place that the drivers in that locale are the worst drivers in the world. After seven months in Wisconsin, I’ve again come to that conclusion.

Bear with me, as I break down the habits of the drivers with which I’ve previously been acquainted, in sentences that feature syntax nearly as tortured as in the sentence you’re currently reading. We start with:

Maryland. Okay, perhaps not all the drivers in Maryland were the worst drivers in the world, but I was driving there, and I was certainly one of the worst drivers in the world. The highlight of my early driving career was getting my ’78 Ford Fairmont wedged against a support post in a parking garage – so tightly that I couldn’t move it backwards or forwards. A thoughtful passerby (really, a guy who was stuck behind me) came over and politely suggested that I turn the steering wheel.

Iowa. I went to college in Iowa, and my classmates from nearby states such as Minnesota and Illinois insisted that the letters "I-O-W-A" on the license plates stood for “Idiots Out Wandering Around”. Actually, I never thought the drivers there were all that bad. The only concern was that they would lose control of their pickups in their haste to wave at you as you drove by the other way. This was a concern that most veteran Iowa drivers assuaged by developing the “Wave-With-Two-Fingers-While-The-Other-Three-Hold-The-Steering Wheel” technique. Even older Iowa drivers modified the wave further by – instead of using their hands – making an almost imperceptable nod to you as you drove the other way.

Minnesota. I’m still not sure exactly why Minnesota drivers were the worst in the world. They spend a lot of time talking about the concept of “Minnesota Nice” there. And most of the drivers I encountered were relatively polite. But apparently, the police in every small town and hamlet throughout the state were convinced that drivers in Minnesota were awful. How else would you explain the police cars, poised at the village limits in each of these towns ready to pull me, er, all the bad drivers over?

New York. I lived in northern New York. Way north of “Upstate”. Way, way, north of New York City, where the drivers are so bad, it’s too obvious to write a paragraph about them. In my part of New York, the drivers were horrible too – but largely because the climate was such that you constantly had to swerve to avoid pieces of vehicles that rust had decayed so badly that they were falling apart right in front of you. Also, we were right on the Canadian border, which meant I, er, some drivers, occasionally forgot whether they were looking at the “kilometers per hour” or “miles per hour” part of the spedometer as they headed for the border to buy donuts.

Washington, DC. Dupont Circle. Chevy Chase Circle. Cars with diplomatic plates. And drivers, as Dave Barry once termed it, driving according to the traffic laws – of their own country of origin.

Arizona. The problem with Arizona drivers rested in the 300+ days of sunshine per year. All that sunshine (and in Flagstaff, the pleasant temperatures and clean air) apparently results in a pleasant, glass bubble-like sensation as many people drive there. This means that – unlike on the Washington Beltway, when you can be pretty sure they guy in front of you just intentionally cut you off, thanks to the handy gesture he also made – you’re never quite sure whether the driver of the car next to you notices, you, the stop sign, or even the road itself. On several occasions – really – I was driving up the one-way street to my house when a car would come wandering down the wrong way. The other drivers, rather than doing what a normal driving being would – namely, lean on the horn until drivers in surrounding states were aware of what was going on – calmly, pulled over and got out of the way, smiling a smile of blissful Arizona sunshine.

Finally, this brings us to Wisconsin. (Or rather, Wisconsin.) Now I’ve noted before the odd habit that some drivers in the area have – attempting to break the sound barrier between stop signs on the stretch of road in front of my house, a distance of exactly one block. But a recent trip across the state has clued me in to my other favorite (note heavy sarcasm) aspect to the Wisconsin driving experience. Apparently, drivers here believe they are possessed with super powers. You’ll be driving on, say, a stretch of Interstate 94, in the vicinity of, say, the Wisconsin Dells, or perhaps a famous interchange which rhymes with “Parquette”. You’ll be coming down a gradual decline and see, stretching in front of you, a veritable field of red brake lights. In many parts of the country (even in Arizona), this is generally a signal to slow down and wait for the cars to begin moving again. In Wisconsin, however, the belief apparently is that if you maintain your 65 mph until the very last instant, there is some possibility that the field of stopped cars in front of you will suddenly levitate and make way for a smooth sailing experience right past the Dells, or that famous interchange, or wherever.

I have come up with only one other theory to explain this. Tailgating. More than anyplace else I’ve experienced, we have this tailgating culture here. And largely, it’s seen as a good thing. You can drive down I-94 past Miller Park during afternoon rush hour and actually smell the brats grilling in the parking lot – even with your windows closed. People here tailgate before the bank opens. And so, I imagine that many drivers, having heard of tailgating used to describe a driving habit, naturally assumed this behavior was positive as well.

And so I understand why Wisconsin drivers are the worst in the world, I think. My only hope is that when one of them finally rear-ends me, they’ll also offer me a brat. With mustard and sauerkraut, please.


The Motor Moron said...

Mitch- surely you need to mention that so many of those in AZ come from somewhere else, and that colors your analysis of the locals, since they learned their bad habits elsewhere before moving out to get that bubble feeling in AZ!

Anonymous said...

Disappointed that with the National Weather Service reference, there was no mention of the "official position of the National Weather Service," as uncovered by a former employer.

Bend over & "kiss your butt goodbye..."