I lurk on a couple of Minnesota-based mail lists and I still prowl the Internet newsgroups, hoping to find a 1988 650 Honda Hawk or a 1986 Kawasaki 250 Ninja for pocket change. One of the most common discussion threads on all of those sites is some kind of rant about "awful Minnesota drivers." Being the old crab that I am, you'd think this would be something I'd automatically agree with. I do, sort of.
The average driver in Minnesota, especially in the cities, is pretty awful. That said, I usually end up defending Minnesota drivers as better than average. Except for the mostly brain-dead zone in Minneapolis near the U and the completely brain-dead zone near the Capital building in St. Paul, I've found Minnesota drivers to be fairly predictable. "Predictable" is as kind a compliment as I'm capable of giving folks in four-wheeled cages. I mean that in a good way.
Unlike lots of the people who start the "Minnesota drivers are idiots" rants, I don't have a home-base bias. Most of these folks have moved here from some place they call "home" and they base their opinion on, what appears to me to be, an idealized memory of how much better the drivers are "back home." I moved away from my home state, Kansas, thirty-five years ago and have lived in seven states and more than a dozen different cities since I escaped. On leaving the state, every expatriate Kansan is issued a set of red slippers, in case we need to come home fast. I tossed mine into a rest stop dumpster at the Oklahoma border. In my limited experience, only Texas has worse drivers than Kansas. Texas licenses nutballs who have less skill or common sense than drunken Tijuana taxi drivers.
Outside of Texas, the perspective that really baffles me the most is the one from Southern California. I lived in SoCal for nine formative years. It was an experienced that changed the way I drive my cars and my motorcycles. I moved from Nebraska to Huntington Beach on my first street bike, a 1981 Honda CX500 Deluxe. By the time I had driven the 1,800 weather-evading miles from Omaha to the Pacific, I was suffering from the illusion that I had graduated from lowly dirt biker status to that of a real street biker. I was wrong. The next nine years taught me thousands of lessons about evading unskilled, irrational, hostile, pistol-packing quad-wheelers.
It has taken nearly ten years to unlearn some of those survival habits. These days, I signal my turns and lane changes, at least half of the time. When other drivers wave at me, I don't look to see if they are aiming a weapon. I'm not constantly looking for an emergency escape route in case a riot breaks out when rush hour freeway traffic jams up. And I don't panic when it rains. Rain is a terrifying experience for California motorcyclists because of the overwhelming number of oil-dripping junk heaps that lube the highway so effectively that the Anaheim Ducks reschedule hockey practice to the Santa Monica Freeway during the rainy season.
None of that matters, though. The real problem isn't a geographic issue. My favorite driving city used to be Chicago, but I spent a few months there in the 90s and discovered Chicago is as well-stocked with incompetent drivers as anywhere else. And Indianapolis . . . don't get me started on Indianapolis. The home of the Indy 500 is also home to a million folks who make the highways as organized as a chicken pen the moment the chickens figure out the key ingredient in chicken soup.
Wherever you go, there they are . . . miserable, awful, incompetent, mindless drivers. Why is that?
For starters, it's practically impossible to flunk the driving exam. The state DMVs still tell us that driving on the nation's highways is a "privilege," but in the last twenty years it's become a privilege that has all the appearances of a right. In many states, you won't be allowed to flunk the driving exam simply because you can't speak English, aren't physically capable of handling a vehicle, aren't coordinated enough to chew gum and push a brake pedal at the same time, or are simply stupid. The right to buy a car, especially an SUV, appears to have been slipped into the Constitution while we were all watching Super Bowl commercials.
Personally, I think it's part of that governmental mindset that believes "as goes GM, so goes the rest of the nation." It's historically flawed thinking, but that's the only kind of thinking the government does, on the rare occasion anyone in government thinks about anything beyond preserving the pension checks.
If I'm right, the plan is to put anyone who can collect a down payment into as expensive a car as possible. The first step to that plot is to give everyone a driving license. I'm pretty sure licenses come in Cracker Jack boxes in many states. The closest evidence we have that our government cares about the safety of those of us not in cages is the fact that it's actually somewhat difficult to obtain a motorcycle license. Not that significant skill is required, but most states don't hand out motorcycle licenses simply because the applicant has a pulse. If the regular drivers' license was as difficult to obtain, at least 25,000 of the 50,000 people who die on the highways would still be going to work on Mondays. Maybe there's an aspect of population control in all of this?
So keep all this in mind as you travel public roads. The guy in the next lane, randomly steering his 4,000 pound coffee bar on wheels while carrying on an animated conversation over his cell phone (complete with hand gestures and arm waving), drives like an idiot because he probably is an idiot. Assume the worst and you'll probably be underestimating the hazard, but you're on the right track. When you cross state lines, don't be expecting better behavior or skills than you're used to in Minnesota. Drivers are idiots everywhere you go and, if you remember that, you might survive your ride to work on Monday.
MMM June 2002