Friday, May 15, 2015

Driving With Aloha (But Not in Rome or LA)

During our travels over the past 40+ years my wife and I have had the "interesting" experience of driving in a number of different countries as well as in different parts of the U.S. and Canada.  Traveling by rented car gives you some unique insights into a culture and the everyday experiences of people as they go about their lives.  It also requires some careful observation of road etiquette and adapting to it in order to avoid getting killed -- or at least to avoid being deafened by other drivers' horns.

Merge Mayhem at Night
Take Italy for example.  We have visited there several times and it is one of our favorite travel destinations.  The very first time, however, included an intense introduction to Italian driving and a lesson in "Italian Merge Mayhem ."  After several days in Rome we picked up a rental car to head to the countryside.  We were smart enough to realize that driving in Rome wasn't a good idea and so our main objective was to get out of town as quickly as possible. However, this necessitated negotiating several intersections and roundabouts in which the main rule of the road was to forge ahead forcefully and with conviction (aka blind faith) that other drivers would yield to you, though not without playing a game of chicken first.  We learned after an hour or so that if we didn't follow this strategy we would be stuck in traffic for the rest of our lives.  If you want a visual illustration of the mayhem I'm referring to, take a look at this short video of a Rome intersection at night.

Other aspects of road etiquette in Italy include traffic signal behavior.  As recounted in the very helpful website Life in Italy, "Traffic lights are generally respected, though you will be expected to be quick off the starting line as soon as the lights change. Rules change when you get to Naples where stopping at traffic lights is an option rather than a rule. A general safety rule when driving late at night or early morning (and probably most other times as well), is to check the intersection for approaching traffic before moving on a green light. Some Italian drivers shoot through intersections when the light has already turned red for them, and sometimes they move forward before they get the green light."

Mama Mia!!
And of course there is proper behavior on the motorways, or autostrade, where extra care is required to arrive alive.  As Life in Italy puts it: "Expect cars to get too close and start flashing at you if you go too slow ( according to the Italian too slow) ... so keep to the right. The speed limit is approximately 80 miles (130 kilometers) per hour but some cars move a lot quicker than that. There are also quite a few drivers who don't observe the safety distance behind you, so again it is best to keep to the right and don't get nervous."  Right, don't get nervous.  Except maybe when you see trucks doing what is documented in this video taken along an Italian highway.  Life in Italy's overall advice matches our own experience very closely: "The rules of the road may seem at times to be open to interpretation ... keep your feet poised over both accelerator and brake - you never know which one will come in most useful."

Driving in different parts of the mainland U.S. poses similar challenges to follow local norms. In California, for example, be prepared for high-speed entrance ramps where any hesitation won't be tolerated by fellow drivers, and changing lanes and tailgating at 80 mph are SOP.  There are also the inevitable 12-lane traffic jams in which maneuvering to the proper exit lane involves a strategy similar to that in Italian Merge Mayhem.  If your are timid or hesitant you'll wind up in Mexico or Oregon before you can get off.

Visitors to Hawai'i sometimes find themselves puzzled over our peculiar driving habits, which are much different than locations on the mainland U.S., and rather different from anything described above. For one thing, we have very few multi-lane highways (mostly on Oahu and the "big" city of Honolulu).  Most of our roads here on my island have just two lanes and narrow shoulders bordered by very unforgiving lava rock.  Distances can be deceiving because travel takes far longer than many people assume -- tourists commonly look at a map and decide to drive completely around the island in a day, which invariably leads them to see most sights in a blur and to be totally exhausted at the end of the day.  Rule #1 here is sloowww downnnnn.  You're in one of the most unique places in the world -- take time to appreciate it.

In the relatively rare situations where merging is required, mainlanders naturally gear up for the battle to force themselves into the stream of traffic.  But something odd often happens:  other drivers make way for them and even gesture them to cut in front! This takes some real getting used to -- people yielding their right of way seemingly without any vehicular intimidation whatsoever.  Wow!

Similar behavior occurs when you are trying to enter a main thoroughfare from a side street.  As you watch a long string of cars coming toward you, it is very likely one of them will slow and allow you to turn in front of them, sometimes signalling you by flashing their headlights.  If you are turning right, quickly and gratefully accept this gift.  If you are turning left, however, be more cautious because the cars traveling in that direction may not be expecting you to suddenly cut in front of them.  It took me quite a while after moving here before I would accept the invitation to turn left, and even now I do so very selectively.

Hawaiian Shaka -- A Good Thing
In general there is a norm of yielding your right of way if you think it will help either a specific driver or it will ease everyone's predicament (for instance when there is a long line of cars waiting to turn onto the road you're on).  This is not necessarily pure altruism -- there is a general expectation that the favor is likely to be returned when you are the one in the difficult situation -- but it is part of a  general attitude here that it's nice to be nice. Helping another driver is often acknowledged with an uniquely Hawaiian hand gesture -- the "shaka, " which consists of the pinky and thumb being extended while the middle three fingers are tucked away.  Visitors may at first mistake this gesture for something rather more negative that they have observed coming from angry drivers elsewhere.  However, the shaka is definitely a good thing -- in this context it means "thanks" or "appreciate it."

Another expectation here is that you will start up quickly from a traffic light, or turn quickly if you are in a turn lane and the arrow comes on.  But people do this not because they're in a big rush and impatient to get somewhere, but rather because they don't want to hold up others.  There is one situation where you might encounter local drivers who are driving fast and are impatient with tourists for going too slow, and that is when they are commuting to or from work.  Lack of affordable housing in areas where jobs are concentrated forces many people to drive a fair distance to work.  Couple this with lots of rubber-necking tourists and very few multi-lane roads and you're bound to have some cranky locals at times.

Basically, the norms of driving in Hawai'i are extensions of the concept of "Aloha" or "Aloha Spirit."  This may sound like hype from a travel advertisement, but it really does characterize a good deal of everyday life here.  "Aloha" is a general concept of friendship, understanding, compassion, and solidarity -- expressed in driving through yielding and trying to help others.

I have to admit that there are times when "driving with aloha" is taken too far.  For example, sometimes local drivers will yield when it isn't really necessary and is even detrimental. This happens when natural breaks in the traffic flow or signals that control flow allow merging or turning and therefore make yielding superfluous, and may even slow traffic for everyone.  In these cases the unintended consequence of being nice is ironically negative.

Despite the occasional negative aspects of driving here in Hawai'i, I'll take a few instances of that over the horn-honking, finger flipping, every-driver-out-for-themselves driving I encounter elsewhere. 

Driving with aloha is definitely one of the reasons I like living here.
More in My "Life in Hawai'i" Series


Dennis Nord said...

Your driving experience blog was interesting and had me recalling the "creep" in Katmandu, which unfortunately is creepier than usual now after the dual earthquakes, what a horrendous time they are having.

What I recall of the creep was being on a wide street where the vehicles creeped along in a river flow sans benefit of traffic lanes (maybe there, but no one regarded favorably). On-coming traffic was obliged to work out a deal by methods I didn't understand as first one side expanded over more than half the street and later the other side bulged back. The passenger in front with the driver of any vehicle might be called upon as "thumper." Thumper guidelines are to watch the closure of the tiny gap between one vehicle and another and communicate that gap to the driver by a series of thumps on the outside door panel so the driver of the thumper's car knows how much or little space remains.This is more effective than voice as it gives immediate feedback in real time. Staccato thumping means, no more space, imminent scraping, while a slow steady thump tells the driver to proceed, everything is close and fine.This dance of vehicles worked at 5-maybe 15 miles per hour with far more cars crawling along than our traditional lane system. It's much like modern computers work to kern letters on a page. Big letters require more space, so too with a bus and less for a scooter. Do they get 'there' faster than commuters in LA? Got me. Seems like less swearing, finger stabbing and honking though. The side benefit is guessing how many people are in or on the vehicle. This can only be confirmed at the stops where everyone disembarks. I counted 13 people in a small 3 wheel scooter taxi that in California would be full with three.

Coleen Hanna said...

Driving in Italy sounds like an interesting challenge! I was surprised at how nice drivers were in Puerto Rico when I would mess up (Twice going down the wrong way on a one-way street). In western NY, drivers are very courteous--reminds me of your "aloha" culture. Traffic congestion is generally not a problem and drivers don't seem to be very stressed. I like feeling relaxed when I am driving, especially at night now that I can't see as well as I used to.