Because it's a pain in the butt to find me on the Boston Globe website.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Traffic column begins

The Inside Scoop: So I got recruited to write this traffic tips column. I wasn't quite sure it would work but, writing this post a few weeks after this story ran, I'm pleasantly surprised how many people are writing in with comments about their traffic hang-ups. The key is getting the police to talk, which as always takes about 10 phone calls, depending on which department you try. (Some are better than others, though with such as easy topic as this, I shouldn't have to jump through hoops.) Whatever. They're helping and it's working out.

It's a jungle on Boston's mean streets.

Care to play by the actual rules?

By Peter DeMarco, Globe Correspondent | May 14, 2006

The first rule of the road in Boston couldn't be more clear: Get there as fast as possible.

Rule two: Blow by as many people and cars as you can. Rule three: Ignore everything -- yield signs, bumbling pedestrians, cracks in the earth's crust releasing molten lava -- that gets in the way of rules one and two.

Which is -- all together now -- to get there as fast as possible.

OK, OK. Aggressive driving isn't an actual rule, but it does describe, with embarrassing accuracy, how Bostonians often act behind the wheel.

Which is precisely why City Weekly is herewith launching, for your amusement and possible edification, a weekly column exploring the age-old mysteries of driving in the Athens of America.

Have we forgotten the real rules, as found in the Registry of Motor Vehicles' driver's handbook or Chapter 89 of the Massachusetts General Laws, the ''Law of the Road"?

Did we know them in the first place?

''The rules of the road say who should do what in a given situation," says Mark Raisman, proprietor of Colonial Auto School in Jamaica Plain. ''The question is, who will follow them? You've got a population that thinks they've got the right of way all the time."

Count this writer among the masses. After 15 years of Boston driving, I've developed my own little mantra: Everyone else on the road is a jerk. Depending on just how badly I've been cut off while merging onto Storrow Drive, I've been known to replace the word jerk with a far more unpleasant term.

The sociologist in all of us might ask, ''Why have we become this way?" After all, we weren't born knowing how to drive a car, let alone drive one aggressively. The students who graduate from Raisman's school are courteous drivers. They respect the rules. Rumor has it, they even use their directionals.

Some blame the cows who wandered around Boston centuries ago, carving out the city's crooked and thus difficult-to-drive streets in the process.

Art Kinsman, spokesman for AAA Southern New England, says the problem is of more recent creation.

''Over the past 25 years, there has only been approximately a 5 percent increase in lane miles, where there has been probably a 125 percent increase in the number of autos on the road," he says. ''That's a national stat, but it can apply here. Even with the new Central Artery, for the most part, we're driving on a functionally obsolete road system that was built in the '50s or '60s and is trying to handle 2006 traffic."

Ira Gershkoff, coauthor of the humor book ''The Boston Driver's Handbook: Wild in the Streets," says that Boston drivers are so conditioned to witnessing bad driving that it becomes the norm.

''If something is illegal, or a bad practice, do we know it? Probably so," he says. ''One time in traffic I went to the breakdown lane, zoomed to the front, and sort of weaseled my way back into the front of the line. I said to the person sitting next to me, 'Don't you hate people who do this?' I think we do know it's wrong, but it becomes second nature after a while."

Of course, many drivers embrace the stereotype of the bad Boston driver, claiming no one in the country is crazier than we are at navigating cars from Point A to Point B. This column, and the ones that will succeed it each week, won't promote that belief. In fact, based on recent driving statistics, it's not at all clear that we're as bad on the roads as we're cracked up to be.

According to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the number of citations issued in Boston for failing to stop has dived from 27,000 in 2000 to 14,000 in 2005. Speeding violations dropped from 21,000 to about 6,000, though it's unclear whether that means fewer drivers were speeding, or whether police were de-emphasizing traffic enforcement.

Massachusetts leads the nation in car accidents per 100 drivers. The national average is 3.97 a year; we're at 7.33, according to 2003 data collected by the Insurance Research Council. But Chris Goetcheus, spokesman for the state's Division of Insurance, argues that a small number of drivers are to blame.

''In June of 2004 we found that 54.1 percent of Boston residents had no accidents or moving violations on their record in the previous six years," he says, citing his most recent figures. ''That's pretty good."

But pretty good isn't good enough. And it certainly isn't great. Which brings us back to the purpose of this column: a week-by-week review of the rules as they're actually written, explained to us by driving instructors, police officers, crossing guards, and the like.

Why review the rules now? Well, for the past few months, state legislators have been debating the merits of increasing the minimum driving age to 17 1/2, thinking that our youngest drivers may be too reckless.

Our own view: A lot of us drive too aggressively for our own good. Clarifying the rules couldn't hurt, right?

I'd be a hypocrite if I told you I obey all the rules we'll be covering in upcoming weeks, dealing with everything from U-turns to jaywalking to funeral procession etiquette.

In fact, I'm sure that on some of them, I'll be the first to be enlightened.

Now, if I can just remember to use my directionals.


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