May 21, 2006

Rankings are generally spurious, but an irresistible one came out last week that compared cities according to road rage. It found that Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York and Boston topped the list, with Nashville, Tenn., and Minneapolis (no surprise there!) the most unexcitable. Little remarked, even here, was that No. 6 on the list of angry metro areas was the one you're probably sitting in at this moment.

They call it Washington-Baltimore. Bad, but not spectacularly or theatrically or memorably bad - that's us.

Assume for a moment that there's some validity to this survey, by a group called AutoVantage - though it's hard to imagine how road rage can even be discerned in a city such as Boston, where every maneuver is anarchic and improvised. Maryland (and the district and Northern Virginia) comes across as a region of angry drivers. How come?

One obvious starting place: A different survey ranked Washington as having the third-most-congested highways, and Baltimore wasn't so far behind, at 17th. Backups equal irritation. Yet another recent survey gave Maryland a dismal D+ on the quality of its traffic-light management; in other words, too many reds, and for too long.

But a road test last week got at another, deeper problem. Slow traffic makes people sullen, but it takes a provocation by another driver to turn that into a rage. Provocations were there aplenty, and they all came down to one enduring characteristic of drivers in this part of the world: total obliviousness to the concept of the turn signal.

How, the typical Maryland driver must wonder, could it make any difference whatsoever to anyone in any direction where and whether I plan to turn? The ironic thing is that the driver who is stuck behind, or cut off, or forced to slam on the brakes, generally can't take it out on the offender, who merrily goes off as whim dictates, but must find revenge on some unsuspecting victim a few moments later.

It's enough to make your blood boil. It's enough to make you curse in the privacy of your vehicle. It's almost enough to make you start using your own turn signal - or would that be going too far?

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