Many years ago, my buddy and I jumped into my Volkswagen Westfalia and headed south from Vancouver, Canada. We were bound for Mexico – we only made it as far as New Mexico, but that’s another story – and experienced one of the most hair-raising drives I’ve ever had on the way there. In Salt Lake City, Utah, no less.
It was raining, pouring rain, and the Westfalia could barely top 120 km/h with the pedal to the metal while going downhill. It was nighttime, too. Cars were zipping past us on the freeway like tie fighters at the Death Star, and crossing over two lanes in front of us as if to say: “Ha! Look what I can do!” Massive trucks were tailgating us with their headlights brightening the inside of our van like daylight, repeatedly honking as they did so. And no matter what I did, cars would still pass us even on the right. Visibility was extremely poor and the wipers couldn’t get the rain off the windshield fast enough.
It was one of the scariest drives of my life.
But now, my family and I live in the Boston area. Just a touch north of the city itself, in Woburn, Massachusetts. I’ve been doing plenty of driving here since we moved here eight months ago, and I’m learning very quickly that driving here is different, very different, from our Canadian home. Here are the five big reasons why:
1) There is no such thing as A to B
OK, in Vancouver or New York City, if you want to go from home to the nearest Home Depot, you go up that street, take a right, go down this street for eight blocks, take another left, and there you are. In Boston? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Streets are not laid out in a gridiron pattern like they are in many cities. Uh, how do I explain it? They go all over the fucking place. Sorry for my French.
That’s right. If you want to go to the nearest Best Buy, you go up one street going north, and suddenly, after a few minutes, you are going southwest on the same godamned street. So, swearing under your breath, you attempt to rectify this problem by taking the next right so that you’re facing north again. But then, horror of horrors, that right turn takes you into a neighbourhood where there’s no exit except for that street that you just turned onto.
That’s not all. You will also learn the very hard way that there is no such thing as “turn ri-i-ight at the lights, then go dawwwwwwn the road to that big red building thar, you see, and, uh, make a haaaaaard right, and then …” You know why not? Because there’s no such thing as simple directions in Boston. Check out this great in-depth analysis of the city’s road layout. Roads are going in and out all over the place.
And the roundabouts. Oh, yes, sweet Ahab, the roundabouts. Driving the roundabout, I admit, is actually a lot of fun, because once you enter the roundabout – or, actually, rotary as the locals call it – it’s suddenly Parisian pedal-to-the-metal action with no lanes anywhere. People just swoop in and out all over the place.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were in one of those NASCAR racing ovals, the only difference being that cars aren’t being driven by racing professionals, but your standard soccer moms, Mark Wahlberg lookalikes, baseball cap-wearing street skimmers with dark beards, and numerous blue-collar car mechanics.
It’s become a cultural thing, too. You can even get posters of some of the more fascinating intersections in the Boston area. Check it out:
Again, I encourage you to check out the in-depth analysis of the chaos theory that is Boston’s street layout. Have a look, it’s fascinating stuff.
But knowing all this still won’t get you anywhere fast. No. The best way to survive on the roads here is somehow find your way to that aforementioned Best Buy, buy a GPS, and let the GPS do all the work for you. My father bought us one when my parents were visiting, and that little talking machine has been our salvation time and time and time again. Trust me, it’s the best $100 you’ll ever spend.
The problem? You have to somehow find your way to that Best Buy first, without a GPS so that you can buy one. Therein lies the challenge, grasshopper. So hop to it.
You know how you’re driving down a lonely highway at nighttime, and it’s so nice and peaceful and serene, stars shining above, and suddenly, some yahoo comes over the hill in front of you and he has his highbeams on? And normally, he would turn them down out of respect for you. But here, that doesn’t happen. Everywhere you go at nighttime, people have their highbeams on permanently, as if on a mission to blind you. I swear, optometrists and ophthalmologists are behind this. They make good money off it, I bet.
Hey, it’s hard enough to see where you’re going when you’re on a road at nighttime, the GPS glaring you in the face, streetlights sometimes not very bright or outright nonexistent, and the road is winding like a snake on crystal meth.
I use an old trick from the driving book: When a car comes with highbeams on, I focus intensely on the painted line on the curb side of the road as a guide to help me stay on the road.
Problem? Sometimes there’s no such thing as a painted line on the side of the road. There’s the road, and then – oof! – there’s the curb.
3) Road conditions
I once heard an old joke from an Algerian friend: in Vancouver and everywhere else, people drive in a straight line when they’re sober and they drive all over the road when they’re drunk. But, in Algeria, he says, it’s the complete opposite. People drive all over the road when they’re sober, and they drive in a straight line when they’re drunk.
The reason for that? Because of the many potholes. If you value your car and its tires, you’re going to drive around those potholes.
That same joke readily applies to the Boston area as well. The road conditions here are horrendous. Potholes so deep you can’t see the bottom. Sunken manholes everywhere.
I read recently that the state of Massachusetts is planning an extensive – and expensive – infrastructure upgrade, and that includes the roads. I said to my wife: “I bet car tire manufacturers are none too happy about this.”
4) No road rage
It’s a funny thing. I thought road rage was an inherently American trademark. You cut someone off on the highway, and bullet holes suddenly appear in your back window accompanied by firecracker noises. Or worse, you’re at a traffic light and a golf club comes smashing through your front window.
But I’ve seen very little of that stuff here. Boston’s drivers are not exactly the best drivers in the world – in fact, they’re far from it – but only once in my eight months of driving here have I had another driver give me anything resembling a dirty look, and that was just because of total miscommunication about who had the right of way at an intersection.
Cars do cut each other off. All the time. They also change two or three lanes on the highway right in front of you with reckless abandon. They’ll speed up through red lights. They’ll force their way into the front of a long, creeping line of cars creeping off the highway.
In fact, take this “Are you a Boston driver?” quiz and you’ll understand how Boston drivers drive. But, interestingly, people don’t get angry. They honk, yes, but do they angrify? No, they do not angrify.
The secret to it all? Avoid eye contact at all costs. In Vancouver, you will always have eye contact with the other driver for two reasons: 1) You want to make sure they can see you when you’re cutting them off so that you don’t cause an accident. And 2) You want to shoot them a “eat hellfire and die” glare when you’ve just been cut off. But eye contact also means communication.
Also, if someone pisses you off, you’ll go out of your way to give them the evil eye just so they know. You may even give them the finger while you’re doing it.
But in Boston? No eye contact, as I said: 1) You just cut them off and keep going, and no one’s the wiser. And 2) You kind of grudgingly let them cut you off because an accident will happen if you don’t, and you keep going, and no one’s the wiser.
So how do drivers communicate here? I don’t know. They don’t even use their turn signals all that often. There must be some sort of sixth sense among drivers here. But it sort of works. It’s weird, I know. But I’ve grown to like it, and it does help me navigate the craziness of Boston driving with a more sane mind. Serenity in chaos, maybe?
Imagine this scenario: You are on the highway, flying along at 130 km/h (80 mph), and you look in the rear-view mirror and suddenly your heart’s pushing your way out through your throat. Why’s that? Because someone is driving at 140 km/h (86 mph) right behind you and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
In Vancouver, in most cases, that person will have started slowing down when they are at least 100 metres behind you. In Massachusetts? Well, sometimes they’re so close that you can’t even see the front bumper in the rear-view mirror. And that’s at 130 km/h!
It’s scary. And your first reaction is to slam on the brakes to teach that motherfucker a lesson. But you don’t want to do that, especially at those high speeds on the I-93 with other cars on either side of you also going the same speed and also tailgating people in front of them, with other people tailgating them.
But this is real life, so you just kind of keep going. When I first drove here, that was one of the scariest parts of driving in Massachusetts. But now, I’ve learned the secret: Don’t even bother looking in the rear-view mirror.
In fact, don’t bother with eye contact altogether.
I’ll summarize all of the above for you. Think of it as survival tips for driving in Massachusetts:
- Don’t go where the road takes you.
- Don’t look where you’re going when high-beamers are coming the other way.
- Don’t drive in a straight line.
- Don’t look at other cars, and more so, don’t communicate with other drivers.
- Don’t obey traffic laws.
Oh, screw it. Don’t even bother driving, if you value your sanity. After eight months of driving in the Boston area, that drive in Salt Lake City so many moons ago doesn’t feel so scary any more. I now remember it as a peaceful experience.