Road rudeness chokes the streets of Charm City

City Diary

April 16, 2003

FRIENDS FROM Los Angeles say their congestion is the worst, those from Washington complain their Beltway is a debacle, Bostonians claim they have the most aggressive drivers, and New Yorkers say they put it all together: intensity and congestion.

Yet without fail, drivers from around the country ask: "What is it with Baltimore?"

With regional congestion continuing to worsen and the price at the pumps remaining high, living in town has never appeared more attractive. Four-wheel-drive vehicles actually may be a necessity, after all, to navigate the city's rough, pot-holed streets, which sometimes resemble off-road travel.

Our most well-known traffic tradition is "Baltimore knockin'": You simply double park and lean on the horn. Double parking and jaywalking are so epidemic in Baltimore it's no wonder other jaded city slickers refer to us as "Balti-morons" and our insurance rates are so high. Consider a few of our new road rules:

8:15 a.m., Ellerslie Avenue: Cars discharging schoolchildren double park, even adjacent to an empty space at the curb, backing up traffic down the block. Parallel parking must take too long for a quick kid drop. "It's O.K., Mom, we can walk to the curb," the children shriek as they dash off for another school day.

8:45 a.m., Belair Road: A school bus slows and begins to swing out its "Stop" sign before picking up its disabled charge. Three cars accelerate around the bus before the sign is fully deployed so they don't have to wait.

10:45 a.m., Reisterstown Road: Running red lights is nothing; Baltimore drivers generally don't pull over for emergency vehicles. Upon hearing a siren, many race ahead to escape the oncoming delay while others appear to slow and then use the ambulance as a blocking fullback as they weave through traffic to make up lost time.

1:30 p.m., Calvert Street: Cars double and triple park outside a convenience store, making passage impossible. Another car is double parked two doors up with the driver leaning on the horn to summon an apartment resident. Tempers flare and somehow it becomes your fault for being so humorless as to feel inconvenienced by this unnecessary gridlock.

5:15 p.m., Erdman Avenue: Two young adult males play chicken by repeatedly bluffing and darting in front of traffic. It appears to be a more public version of Russian roulette. On the median, pre-teen children collect money for their youth football league from cars captive at a red light, while another young man tries to sell electric razors just "fallen off the truck." Baltimore's underground economy clearly takes place on the streets.

9:30 p.m., Harford Road: A teen-age couple grappling in the middle of the street stop traffic as we consider whether it's play or assault.

Is life worth so little in Baltimore that it would be gambled to do it in the road? Some of my more street-wise patients suggest that the ongoing games of pedestrian chicken are actually efforts to collect insurance settlements.

Such self-absorption may satisfy an immediate need, but if everyone drove this way or walked this way nobody would get anywhere.

City civility requires us to think about other people before asserting our own convenience. Civility can become the inner traffic cop telling you to move one car length up from your destination to pull to the curb rather than block traffic.

Just as buying and using drugs subsidizes terror, and robbing and killing each other divides and destroys us, our behavior in shared public spaces reflects who we are and how we see each other.

On the streets and the roads, we must practice respect, remain patient and refrain from self-centered and uncivil choices. There's enough violence.

We can't let Baltimore's road rudeness escalate into real road rage.

Today's writer

Dan Buccino is a Baltimore psychotherapist who is on the clinical faculties of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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