Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Road Hog

I recently spent 3 days attending a conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Driving in Utah is a unique experience. Distinct because the roadways are amazingly wide and signage is clear. But truly extraordinary because attitudes are fairly easy-going toward road hogs.
Pig feeding her piglets

Most of us live in cities where roads are narrow and addresses hard to find. Utah is so refreshingly different. 

Thanks to Brigham Young (who led a group of pioneers to settle into the valley in the 1847) wanting the ability to make a u-turn with his horse and buggy any and everywhere, the roads are incredibly wide. He also set the city up on a grid pattern and named the roads like they were coordinates on a map (Center Street, 100 North, 500 East, etc). His inspiration makes most city planners drool. Not that I've recently (or ever) polled any. It's just that I've lived in a few cities, large and small, where there roads were not only narrow or awkward but intersections didn't even line up right. And it's the city planners of those places who I think would especially like how cities in Utah are set up. 

Generally speaking, Utah has roads that are wide enough to forgive a multitude of driving errors. They've increased the national standards from 11-12 foot lanes to 13-14 feet. So if you come from anywhere on the East coast and Seattle or San Francisco, the difference a couple feet feels to the driver is gi-normous. Space equates to both increased options and time in a roadway emergency. Which in turn can save a life if used effectively.

But for the everyday driver, how does space overload affect us? 

What I witnessed: The driver is a Seattle native who has only lived in Utah the past few years. We became friends in college and I stayed with her family while in Utah. She grew up with the same driving cultural influences as me. 

Scenario 1 - An old guy in a turn only lane next to us didn't want to turn, went straight and then cut us off. My friend saw the guy on the immense shoulder (made for snow plow pile up in the winter), knew he shouldn't be there and allowed him to enter our lane of traffic with no emotional response. Didn't break from our conversation. Not even a comment. But me, I felt compelled to verbalize what had just happened. She was at ease.

Scenario 2 - We were picking the kids up from the bus stop. They piled into the car but didn't buckle up. It was two blocks. Wide lanes. Visibility fantastic. In Seattle, we're indoctrinated that if you don't make your kids wear a seat belt at all times, then there will be a crash and your kids will be severely injured or die. Thus seeing kids freely moving about took me by surprise. And here's me. I had to say something. 

But why do I live a paranoid life? I didn't wear seat belts growing up (1970s). I never sat in a car seat. Hardly anyone did. My mom would get frustrated with me on Sunday mornings when she'd have me dressed up to go to church with nice white tights and then I'd be rolling around in the back of the station wagon and they'd get dirty before we even arrived. In reality, very few of us will be in a collision today. Or this week, month or year. So, it shouldn't be such a big deal to not wear a belt when only driving a block or two.

What I don't like is the double standard in my own mind. In Seattle, we always wear seat belts UNLESS we're on a bus. School bus. City bus. Charter bus. Doesn't matter which. It's as if busses don't get into collisions. Ha ha. But seriously, why don't busses, trains, or even motorcycles and bicycles have seat belts?

What I experienced: Utah drivers are their own breed. By physically having increased amounts of space around their vehicles, they are able to drive in a more relaxed atmosphere. Especially compared to Seattle. I made a few u-turns, which is very helpful when trying to find a place I've never been to before. And there were a few times when I needed to change 3 lanes to get into the right turn lane. And other drivers were okay with that. No honks. No flashing of lights. No rage.

I had the opportunity to drive a stretch of freeway south of Salt Lake City a few times. I didn't know what the speed limit was. I scanned for signs. Found one the 5th time I made the trip. Others were passing me like I was parked even though I was going 70 miles per hour. Seriously, I was slower than the semi-trucks. And a danger to society. It turns out that the speed limit was 65 but pretty much every other roadway user was doing at least 80. 

I believe that the combination of wide open roads with limited access and clear visibility make speed a non-issue when it comes to safety. Washington has slightly better statistics than Utah when it comes to traffic related fatalities (according to NHTSA), but not that much better.

I really liked driving in Utah.

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