Perspective is everything, as they say. With this in mind, let us consider a pair of recent road trips that provided me with an education on the interrelated matters of speed, efficiency and human behaviour.
My first trip took me to Germany, where I spent nearly a week on the autobahn in a new Porsche 911 S. Three days later, I was back in North America, heading south to Georgia on Interstate 75 with my wife in a 2014 Toyota Venza.
The 911 and the Venza were both excellent, in their respective ways (the 911 was a leather-lined F-22, while the Venza was a road-going Airbus) and yet the two trips were like journeys to a pair of totally unrelated planets.
On the German autobahn, I cruised for hours at speeds in the 170 to 220 km/h range, slipping between cities like a road going Learjet. In six days of driving, I was held up by slower traffic only twice.
On Interstate 75, I found myself in the vehicular equivalent of a fat-clogged artery. Our trip was 1,400 kilometres each way, and about two-thirds of it was spent stuck behind other vehicles – most of the route had three lanes, and American drivers like to use them all. We were in the Land of the Free, spiritual home of the left-lane hog.
As we approached the Ohio border, we found ourselves behind a woman in a beat-up Chevy Cavalier who was brushing her hair in the fast lane while she cruised at 50 miles per hour (80 km/h). (The speed limit was 70 mph.) The two lanes to the right were dense with traffic – and now the pace of the left one was artificially limited to the speed of a mobile beauty salon.
I flashed my headlights to let the woman in the Cavalier know we were there. No response. I flashed again. Nothing. The Cavalier was a ghost ship, drifting down the left lane. We finally got around the Cavalier by passing it on the right. As we went past, she was still brushing her hair.
Getting around the Cavalier wasn’t much of a triumph. Moments later, we found ourselves stuck behind a beige Oldsmobile with a rusted roof, then a dawdling camper van with a stuffed dog in the back window and an ATV in tow.
I thought back to my autobahn trip, and the discipline of German drivers. There, the left lane is reserved for passing, and even the fastest cars move back to the right after they go by.
Despite the higher speeds, driving the autobahn was easy compared with the I-75. No one pulled out in front of me. No one was brushing their hair, eating a burger or applying lipstick and slower traffic stayed right.
In North America, I’ve become accustomed to the misuse of the left lane. In theory (and according to the law of several U.S. states), drivers are supposed to keep to the right, and use the left only for passing. Traffic in the United States is governed by a set of rules known as the Uniform Vehicle Code, and highway engineers often designate the left lane as the “fast lane” or the “passing lane.”
According to an MIT website that catalogues U.S. highway legislation, several states have laws against using the left lane of a major highway as a “travelling” lane. But in practice, American (and Canadian) highways are an undisciplined free-for-all, with cars spanning every lane like a moving Hoover Dam.
By the time we arrived in Georgia, we’d given up on lane discipline. At least a third of the drivers on I-75 preferred the left lane at all times. I watched a young woman in a red Jeep accelerate onto the highway, head straight to the left lane, and park there for the duration, cruising at about 100 km/h while traffic poured past her on the right.
Not long after that, we watched in amazement as a Ford sedan sat in the left lane with a marked police cruiser on its bumper. After a few minutes, the cruiser flashed its light bar, but the Ford seemed not to notice. The police officer finally blipped his siren, moving the recalcitrant Ford.
In Germany, I didn’t hear a single siren or horn blast. Lane protocol is engrained – German drivers check their mirrors in an endless cycle, and move right when they see a headlight flash. In North America, you would need a 75-millimetre cannon to achieve the same effect.
As we headed into Kentucky, my wife and I spent 10 minutes stuck behind a guy in a Ford Flex who was talking on his cellphone while he cruised at around 90 km/h. We finally passed him on the right, accelerated up to the limit, and pulled over into the middle lane. Moments later, a car came zooming past us, then braked hard and cut into our lane, forcing me to brake and swerve to avoid a crash. It was the Ford Flex. The driver was still on his phone, but that didn’t stop him from extending his middle finger.
My wife and I spent a year living in the United States, and we drive there a lot. But after a week in Europe, I was reminded of just how different the driving cultures really are. When we told our friends in Georgia about our run-in with the Ford Flex driver, one of them told us about driving with her 80-year-old mother, who drives below the speed of traffic, but insists on staying in the left lane, no matter how many cars are backed up behind her.
This is a woman whose husband fought for America as a U.S. Marine at Guadalcanal. She raised a large family. When my friend asked her mom why she wouldn’t pull over to one of the right lanes to let traffic by, she got her answer: “It’s my right to be here,” her mom replied. “I can be here if I want.”
God Bless America – home of liberty, free speech and the right to hog the left lane.
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