Boston Drivers Explained

Dan Murphy

The "Basic Rules for Driving in Boston", as compiled by Susan Hunziker (Susan.Hunziker@FMR.Com) do indeed capture much of the atmosphere of driving in Boston, and many of these points have been reported before. However, I believe there are a few key points missing, and in addition, the mere observation of the behaviour doesn't necessarily reveal the motivation behind it. Some of these motivating factors are uniquely Bostonian, but others now have national counterparts and produce similar behavioural responses.

Hunziker's report doesn't entirely miss the motivational factors, as in the note "Boston is the home of slalom driving, thanks to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which puts potholes in key locations..." This is a pertinent observation and also helps to explain the Boston driver's intent focus on the road a few yards ahead of the car and corresponding lack of attention to anything whatever to the left or right.

On the other hand, there is no discussion at all regarding the Bostonian's evident contempt for traffic lights as a factor in their vehicular progress. Perhaps it is necessary to drive here for longer than Hunziker has, but eventually one will discover that traffic lights are consciously and intentionally designed (although it is impossible to ever find out by whom) to impede the flow of traffic as much as possible and to create the largest backups.

This may be tested as follows at almost any location where three or more traffic lights occur within a short stretch of road. Stop at the first light. Then, when it turns green, accelerate normally to the posted speed limit and proceed toward the second light. The second light will turn yellow as you approach, completing the transition to red shortly before you reach the intersection, thus requiring you to stop and wait for the *maximum* length of time. This same sequence will be repeated as you leave the second light and approach the third.

Extensive data has been gathered regarding this phenemona, and detailed statistical analysis has proven that this cannot happen by chance or even negligence. The only theoretical model consistent with the data is that an intelligent agent is at work (a difficult supposition at best in connection with any aspect of Boston government) in the scheduling of area traffic lights, carefully arranging their timing to minimize traffic flow and maximize idling at intersections. We suspect other sinister purposes behind the design of signal behaviour, but present data is insufficient for conclusive proof.

In any event, the foregoing helps to explain a number of the observations regarding Boston drivers, including:

1. Tendency to run yellow lights and those that were recently yellow.

2. Inclination to honk if the first car at a red light does not begin to move within 10.3 milliseconds of it turning green.

3. High rates of acceleration when proceeding from a light which has just turned green. This is actually one of the more intellectual challenges of driving in Boston: compute the rate of acceleration and maximum speed to be attained such that you can make it through the next intersection while the light is still yellow. Factor in the statistical probability of pedestrians jay-walking (high) and the possibility of a police car in the vicinity (very low). Contrary to the belief of some who have lived here only a short while (30 years or less), it is actually possible to get a ticket in Boston for running a red light*, an event which is extremely embarrasing due to its rarity.

The other motivational factor behind driving behavior relates to Hunziker's observation: "Speed limits are arbitrary figures posted only to make you feel guilty". While this is true, it is only a small part of the issue and one quickly dismissed by an experienced Bostonian. The more important factors in the setting of speed limits are:

1. Desire of cities and towns to raise additional funds. This was extensively reported in a recent Boston Globe article which noted differences of a factor of 100 or more in the number of tickets dispensed by towns with comparable roads. While pioneered by Massachusetts, this technique has been greatly improved and extended by New Hampshire as a much-needed alternative to income taxes, sales taxes, and federal grants, all of which are still unthinkable in that state.

2. In general, speed limits are a political matter, and the posted figures result from a complex and ultimately unknowable combination of factors. Those with longer memories will recall that, in 1974, the government of Massachusetts rushed to reduce the state speed limit to 50 mph so as to be first to make a politically correct symbolic gesture in response to the gas shortage caused by OPEC. With haste otherwise uncharacteristic of state government, all the road signs in the state were changed to 50 within a short time; so quickly, in fact, that they all had to be changed again when Congress mandated a 55 mph national speed limit. Even today, there are those who think that initial change to 50 mph was a mistake. More experienced observers know that it was merely a politically clever way of sending a bonus of several hundred thousand dollars to the sign makers, road crews, and other patronage interests involved in signage, and is part of the unwritten truth of Massachusetts government: "It is impossible to waste money."

3. Everyone knows that speed limits really don't mean what they say. In candid moments, even police officials have conceded that they never ticket anyone for going slightly above the limit. Thus, the game is the see how much above the limit you can go without getting a ticket. Once or twice, legislative changes have been suggested to actually raise the speed limits and enforce them as posted, but this was laughed out of committee, much like the recent crazy idea of using non-police flaggers at some construction sites as is done in 49 other states.

Thus, we find that the legendary behaviour of Boston drivers is part of a larger gestalt, the dimensions of which can only be grasped after years of study and immersion. The latter carries its own risks, of course. This brief commentary has touched on but a few of the larger factors, and many others remain to be explored. The lower deck of I93 would occupy an entire book, for example.

Nonetheless, the reader is encouraged to continue the quest for understanding and to post any new findings to appropriate newgroups and web sites. You'll be doing us all a valuable service. Just as the politicization of speed limits has become a national phenemona, other states will soon be adopting more of the traffic and governmental techniques pioneered in Boston and Massachusetts. Thus, we may anticipate the "Boston Driver" becoming a national standard relatively soon, possibly within the lifetime of those of us not presently driving much in Boston.

* - But not for making an illegal left turn, apparently. Extensive archeological research has failed to find any evidence of such an event.