I can't pretend that bad driving is indigenous to or even unique to California (far from it), but it does seem to have much more than its fair share of lethally stupid, maliciously reckless, or just plain careless drivers. The sad fact about the worst California Drivers is that, as readers keep pointing out, they have all the attitude of the average Boston or New York driver, and none of the ability...
Some things to watch out for (in no particular order):
Somewhere between a half and two-thirds of all turns and lane changes in California are done with no turn signals at all. As a co-worker once lamented, in California "turn signals are a lost art". Turn signals on most Californian cars are just vestigial organs, useful only in case the car needs to be resold out-of-state.
What this means is that there is no way to tell for sure whether a car is going to turn or change lanes or not — the lack of turn signals means nothing. You have to treat all cars, all the time, as likely to turn or change lanes without notice. Cars will suddenly turn across traffic right in front of you without signalling. Other cars just stop in the middle of the road with no turn signals; you learn to assume they're turning simply because they're not signalling....
Similarly, when you come to an intersection where you may be blocked by someone turning left in front of you, there's simply no way at all of knowing whether the car in front of you intends turning or not if they're not signalling (it is also very common for the car in front of you to only start using their indicators when the light turns green).
Predictably, you also see drivers leaving their turn signals on for mile after mile without noticing, or to turning left while indicating a right turn (or vice versa).
Surprisingly enough, most of the above things are actually illegal in California, but I've never in all my time here ever seen any enforcement — in fact it's fairly common for police cars to turn without using turn signals as well.
Lane discipline is non-existent — most California Drivers clearly feel that it's their inalienable right to drive in whatever lane they feel like, at whatever speed they want, regardless of their speed in relation to other traffic. There is actually a rule that says you should try to keep to the right unless passing, but it is universally ignored.
Since California's driving laws allow you to pass in a slower lane (i.e. to the right) when it's safe and there's a properly-marked lane, this isn't usually too bad, but it's also unfortunately common for an entire freeway to have all four lanes in the same direction moving at much the same (under-the-limit) speed, for no other reason than there's no way past the four slow-moving cars.
There is one important and common case where you do not want to be in the right-most lane all the time: in busy traffic on urban freeways, you should try to keep this lane as free as possible for traffic merging from the on-ramps. If you stay in this lane, you'll either keep blocking merges or become blocked yourself. It is legally your duty to let merging traffic onto the freeway wherever possible (i.e. don't be bloody-minded — in any resulting accident, you will be legally apportioned some of the blame and responsibility).
Similar observations sometimes apply to urban driving where you need to be in a certain lane for a freeway split or off-ramp some distance before it happens, simply because it is too hard to change lanes later.
Another tip from a reader (Andy Stone): "When I first started driving here I quickly decided I would drive in at least the 2nd lane (from the right). This was not only for the reason that you give (the merging mayhem) but also for the fact that the right most lane will quite often become a "right lane must exit" lane. Imagine you're in no particular rush to get somewhere so are tooling along at 55 on inside lane, which then turns into an exit lane -- trying to speed up and merge into second lane in front of some one will get some Californians reaching for the glove compartment." (Hamish again:) There are some notorious spots in San Francisco and Oakland where locals somehow sense that out-of-towners don't know the freeway lane they're in is about to become an exit lane; they typically speed up and play chicken with the happless visitors, making it impossible for them to merge. A real man's sport, no doubt.
Combining the two points above, when changing lanes on a Californian freeway always look two lanes over for the driver who has their eyes on the same space as you, but is coming from the far lane... without signalling. The worst offenders will be the ones creeping up in the slow lane, passing the slower traffic in the middle lanes, swerving back into any vacant space.
In the same vein, as another correspondent, Wayne Johnson, observes: "It is typical, especially in cities, that any opening in traffic large enough to allow a lane change will immediately be blocked by the car following the opening if you show any sign of wanting to make a lane change but do not actually change lanes at once. Sometimes (about 20%?) a glance in the sideview mirror is enough to provoke quick acceleration, if you turn your head slightly to look at the space it will be blocked about 70% to 80% of the time. If you use turn signals without immediately (during the first flash) beginning to change lanes the blocking rate normally exceeds 95%. I have no idea why people do this, but it seems to be the case with all kinds of drivers and cars." Indeed.
Running red lights — an increasing number of Californian drivers are running red lights, especially in the cities. Usually this is just an impatient driver who accelerates rather than brakes when he (occasionally she) sees a yellow light about to turn red. The results are predictably lethal and bloody; unfortunately, short of being really careful around every intersection where you can't see all entering traffic for about 100 metres in all directions, there's not a lot you can do about this.
San Francisco and several other cities around the state have installed red light cameras at certain intersections; these are somewhat effective in reducing the incidence of red light running and catching those that keep doing it, but don't rely on them.
Some Californian drivers regard stop signs and red lights as purely advisory rather than mandatory; this is particularly true late at night. This is not a case of running a changing light (see above), or not coming to a complete stop at stop signs — what's being described here is simply ignoring the red light or stop sign and going through at full speed or close to the limit.
There's not much you can do about this, either, except drive defensively, and be prepared to brake suddenly when someone does this in front of you (or into you). People I know in the Bay Area who drive professionally late at night or early in the morning actually nowadays make it a habit to stop at even green lights for this reason if they can't get a clear view of the cross streets (it's a measure of how driving has changed here in the last decade or two that they wouldn't have even thought of doing that in the late 1980's...).
Reader Nicholas Byram adds: "In general, California drivers do not come to a complete stop at stop sign intersections unless they absolutely have to. (I confess that I am notorious for this). They tend to slow to a crawl, see if the coast is clear, and then accelerate again. California drivers generally will stop at a four-way stop sign intersection if they see another car who got to the intersection first, but otherwise, as a general rule, they simply slow to a crawl speed and lumber through the intersection." [Hamish again: 'round here we call this a "Hollywood Stop" or a "Rolling Stop"...]
"For the sake of respect for the Rule Of Law, I think that California cities and counties should change all of their 'STOP' signs to 'YIELD' signs whenever possible, since that appears to be the de facto law."
A variant of the above is the tendency for some drivers to believe that as long as they've stopped at some point before getting to the actual stop sign (e.g. they stopped behind a car already at the stop sign) they don't have to stop again. Such cars simply sail through the stop sign behind another car, with sometimes damaging results.
"Death Cars" — death cars are large, usually old and battered, American cars driven by young males, sometimes sub-teenage, nearly always unlicensed or uninsured, who have nothing to lose (and a lot to gain) by causing traffic havoc or accidents.
You develop a sixth sense for death cars after a while, but as with most of these things, there's not a lot you can do when one's coming at you on the wrong side of the road at forty miles an hour — in reverse. Your best bet is to avoid known Death Car areas (i.e. usually the rougher parts of town), and steer clear of any large old American cars, especially ones weaving along the road at high speed. Death Cars (or Death Car drivers) are guaranteed not to stay around if they cause or are part of an accident. Death Car drivers are likely to be armed; it's best not to argue with them.
"Assault stereos" — if you're new to America you might be astonished by the common use of violently loud car sound systems in urban and suburban areas. These things can shake other cars from across the road, and closing the windows won't make the noise go away. Assault stereos are easily hearable whole city blocks from the source; many Death Cars have assault stereos. When a car equipped with an assault stereo comes up behind or beside you, there's little you can do but try to let it get well in front of you, and hope you don't end up behind or beside it at the next lights
There is actually a law that forbids car stereos being played in such a way that they're audible some reasonable distance (50') away, but I've never seen it being enforced, and I'm sure the average urban police officer has more important things to worry about.... (Well, one correspondent — Trent Tilton — reports he himself got such a ticket in San Diego, so maybe it does happen sometimes, and a law enforcement officer from elsewhere in the Southlands told me that he has given out a few such tickets). (And thanks to Trent for the distance figure here).
Self-righteous or clueless cyclists and skaters: places like Berkeley, Santa Monica, or Palo Alto have a high proportion of people who suddenly become transformed by the act of riding a bicycle or putting on a pair of rollerblades. Mostly the transformation is fairly harmless, but in quite a few cases the person becomes either unbearably self-righteous, or under the impression they're invulnerable, or (commonly) both.
Typical symptoms of this are cyclists and skaters monopolizing entire traffic lanes in heavy fast-moving traffic (which is actually legal in some places, e.g. San Francisco), or (very common) running red lights or stop signs without even slowing down (and then abusing you for not screeching to a halt for them when they run the red light directly in front of you), and cyclists riding after dark with no reflectors, let alone useful lights. Most such cyclists also mistakenly believe that cyclists in bicycle lanes have right of way over all other traffic, including cross traffic (this seems to be a fairly widespread belief in places like Berkeley or Venice).
As a matter of mostly academic interest, cyclists and on-road skaters (and skateboard riders) are for the most part supposed to observe the same road rules as cars. I have actually seen a Berkeley police officer citing a cyclist for running a stop sign. (The other side of this, of course, is that as someone who used to commute to work several times a week through city streets on a bicycle — and who still rides many miles a week through Oakland and Berkeley — I can attest that a lot of Californian drivers are lethal, terroristic, lawless idiots who wouldn't even notice a cyclist if he or she was wearing flashing neon...).
Freeway merges. A significant proportion of cars trying to merge from freeway on-ramps onto the freeway itself try to do this at a speed of about 20 or 30 MPH. Given that the freeway traffic is often doing at least 65 MPH, this is both dangerous and frustrating. The more timorous actually manage to stop at the end of the on-ramp, causing (at best) traffic flow problems and near-accidents. Watch out for this — the car in front of you may actually slow down to merge with the much faster traffic, and given that you will often be looking at the freeway traffic instead of the car in front, you can easily have a multi-car accident. Note that it is actually illegal to try to merge at significantly less than the freeway's current traffic speed; having said that, there are some on-ramps where it is physically impossible to get a normal car up to freeway speed before merging (the older ramps with tight up-hill curves are particularly bad).
Cutting corners and turning from the wrong lane. Back in the days when everyone drove huge American cars, it was impossible not to cut corners when going around sharp bends or turning into side streets; and you simply had to turn right out of the left lane to avoid hitting the curb.
Unfortunately, this habit continues on into the era of the smaller car, with a large proportion of turns being made from the wrong lane or wrong part of the road, or (even worse), onto the wrong lane or wrong side of the road. This means, for example, that it is almost never safe to assume that you can cut up the rightmost side of the road (or lane) to turn right inside a lot of other cars — someone is almost guaranteed to try to turn right out of the left side of the road in front of you (without, of course, using their turn signals). Be careful in this situation — you are probably going to be charged for negligent driving (assuming you survived...), even though the other driver was demonstrably asleep at the wheel.
The California Cut. You'll see this lethal maneuver every time you drive on the freeway: what happens is that someone realizes that the next freeway exit is theirs, and that they're way over in the fast lane, with less than one hundred metres to the exit, or they're just tired of driving in the rightmost lane and decide to get into the fast lane several lanes over.
The usual solution is the "California Cut" — a multilane cut across the traffic, making a beeline for the exit or the fast lane, cutting an oblivious swath through fast moving traffic. This causes (at best) screeched tires, heart-stopping swerves, and traffic problems for everyone around the lane-cutter. Why couldn't they wait for the next exit? Who knows? (and it goes without saying that they won't use their turn signals during this little game; nor, in general, will they bother looking first).
Watch out for this — there's not a lot you can do about it except to be very careful when you are near freeway exits. You will be particularly vulnerable if you are just to the right of a large truck or bus near a freeway exit, as you will never see the lane-cutter as he (invariably he) charges towards you. This particular maneuver has been responsible for the most gruesome accidents I've ever seen, especially along that stretch of Interstate 80 between the Bay Bridge and the Interstate 580 west split near Albany in the Bay Area.
Unfortunately, California cutters rarely cause themselves much damage, and often keep going without any idea that they've just caused a fatal accident.
A variant on the California Cut is when a driver either deliberately or accidentally leaves lane-changing into an exit lane until the last second, often having to drive across the painted divider between the exit and the freeway to make it (I've even seen drivers driving across grass or concrete dividers — at 50 or 60 M.P.H. — to make the exit). Once again, the results can be catastrophic, and, once again, until you develop that mythical sixth sense for when a driver is about to do this, you need to be very careful around exits.
Watch out for drivers making quick left turns in front of you and the other traffic when the traffic light turns green. This happens when an impatient driver believes he or she can just cut in front of the oncoming traffic before it starts to move quickly instead of waiting for it to clear. If you're not really concentrating, they'll probably hit you — it often boils down to a game of chicken which they presume they'll win, and many of these drivers would probably rather hit you than yield (think "death cars" here, but also yuppies in BMWs).
Four way stop junctions — these work better than expected (when I first heard about them I assumed they'd be the sort of places where gunfights were always erupting), but they're still mostly just a slightly-more civilized game of chicken. Just be very careful, and don't be too anxious to claim your right of way. Remember, also, that some Californians don't even notice that the junction has stop signs; this is particularly true when a busy street is crossed by a much smaller street at a four-way junction.
Taxi drivers — never call a taxi driver's bluff, especially at a stop junction. Always apply the "death car" rules to taxis. If you're a cyclist, just get out of the way; if a pedestrian, let the cab pass, crosswalk or not.
This isn't really fair to the vast majority of taxi drivers who work hard and drive reasonably, but this has been one of the single biggest requests for this part of the guide. And, as a cyclist who has been deliberately intimidated by more than one taxi driver on the streets of Oakland in the past, I felt it my duty to warn you all; and remember, taxi drivers are almost always on the phone while driving, so beware...
You see it every time you drive: the car next to you or in front of you is weaving from side to side, straddling the lane markings, speeding up and slowing down randomly, stopping at green lights, going straight through red lights and stop signs... yes, the driver's talking on a cell phone while driving.
This is hardly unique to California, I know, but just be aware that it happens here too....
Californian drivers often seem weirdly reluctant to either move into an intersection before turning left, or to go around a left-turning car stopped in an intersection.
Neither of these things is particularly dangerous, but they can both cause unnecessary and frustrating traffic backups. Under normal circumstances, left-turning cars are supposed to move into the intersection when they can (usually either as soon as any cars already in front of them have moved on, or when the light first changes to green), so that more cars get a chance to get through the intersection. In fact, since the only cars that can turn left on the yellow light are those already in the intersection, if the lead car doesn't move far enough into the intersection., or doesn't move at all, fewer cars (sometimes none at all) can turn during a given traffic light cycle. Additionally, since many tight urban intersections don't have enough space to allow following cars to go around them to the right unless the car has moved into the intersection (there's usually a parked car in the way), the result is even more blockage. This behavior is frustratingly common; unfortunately, the sort of driver who does this is unlikely to respond — or even notice — if you try to inform them (either politely or with justified gusto).
The other side of this is that quite a few drivers are happy to just sit, blocked, behind a turning car rather than to go (quite safely) around it. Of course, given many Californian drivers' preferences for not signaling turns anyway, it's usually impossible to tell whether the driver doing this is just being lazy or whether he or she is actually also turning, and just hasn't bothered to signal.
Traffic circles — roundabouts — are very rare, but they do exist. Few drivers have any idea how to handle these things, as the relevant laws seem to be confusing and contradictory, and few drivers have any experience with them.
Every driver has his or her own idea about whether traffic entering the traffic circle yields to traffic already on the traffic circle, or vice versa; most people seem to assume that traffic already on the circle yields (i.e. the opposite of the British convention) — but don't count on it.
Sometimes the situation is confused by some entrances having stop signs, making it difficult to know whether, after stopping, you then have right of way, or, indeed, just who or what to stop for. The usual result is a cycle of high-speed near misses and stop-start gridlock; strangely enough, though, accidents seem to be rare.
Of course, no one ever uses any turn signals when traversing traffic circles; if you use them (for example, to indicate that you're exiting the circle, the way you would in Britain or Europe), you'll almost certainly confuse everyone else.
Volvo Drivers. There's a well-known theory around these parts (also heard on PBS's Cartalkprogram) that bad drivers gravitate towards Volvos because of the extra safety the average Volvo gives such a driver (why not kill someoneelse when you drive badly — much better than killing yourself...). So the term "Volvo Driver" has come to stand for a mixture of obliviousness, self-righteousness, smugness, and arrogance that seems to come naturally to these drivers.
Typical usage is something like "Wow, that guy's a real Volvo Driver" — uttered open-mouthed after watching someone change lanes in front of you without either signalling or looking before the change, narrowly missing several cars, causing others to brake or swerve violently, and driving on serenely without having noticed anything wrong at all. Volvo Drivers sail straight through four-way stop junctions without noticing the stop signs or, indeed, any contending traffic. Volvo Drivers drive at 45 M.P.H. in the fast lane of a 70 M.P.H. freeway with twenty cars behind them trying to pass. Volvo Drivers weave around in traffic lanes, driving with one hand. Volvo Drivers signal that they're turning right as they cut left across oncoming traffic. Volvo Drivers double park in the middle of a busy city traffic lane, cheerily waving at the backed-up traffic, explaining that they're "just going into the post office for a second" (how anyone can spend "just a second" in a post office is beyond me, but that's not the point...). Volvo Drivers often seem to be talking to imaginary passengers.
The term gets extra value around places like Berkeley where large numbers of ex-hippies and other aging baby boomers have forsaken beaten up VW Kombi Vans for slightly less-beaten up Volvos. Real Volvo Drivers usually have social cause stickers all over their cars — things like "Visualize World Peace" (it's a pity they can't visualize using their turn signals...) or "Mean People Suck" (now there's a deep thought). In the Bay Area, Volvos come from the factory with a KQED bumper sticker already attached. Naturally, the term covers non-Volvo drivers, and clearly, most Volvo drivers are not Volvo Drivers. There are also apparently variants such as "Cadillac Driver", but I'm not so familiar with them. Yes, some of my best friends own Volvos. Really.
(For a very funny alternative view of Australian Volvo Drivers, watch Heather Croall's short "Herd of Cows" video at Re Angle Pictures (it's one of the video links on the front page there). As Heather says, "Herd of Cows is a five minute short that 'exposes' the truth behind the myth of Volvo Drivers. Made on the cheap, this self-funded video became the centre of a media controversy around Australia." It also won Best Documentary in Adelaide Film and Video Festival 1997... (and check out the other videos on the Re Angle site — this is a real gem of a site).
Uninsured drivers — unfortunately, a large proportion of drivers in California are uninsured (something like 50 to 60% in some urban areas). This is due mainly to the astonishing cost of insurance — well over $1,000 per year for a good driver in a safe neighbourhood; thousands more for a good driver in a bad neighbourhood.
Uninsured drivers are often the worst and most reckless drivers, of course; if you have an accident, there's a fair chance it will involve such a driver. You can get extra insurance for cases where the other driver is uninsured; this ought to be mandatory, and will help defray your costs when your insurance company can't extract anything from the other driver.
Everyone knows about SUVs (they're not just a Californian or American Thing). The image at right — from a billboard that was outside my studio for a few weeks a bunch of years ago — says it all: there's something about driving an SUV that seems to give some drivers the impression that they're actually back in the open plains or the jungle, and that (as one correspondent put it) the rest of us slower, smaller objects are just so many logs, boulders, or ruts to be driven over.
Amazingly, a large number of Californians still drive SUvs. They're bad enough in the cities, but driving one of these things seems to give an urban driver a false sense of security in difficult non-urban conditions, particularly snow and ice. It's common in winter to see an SUV speeding along Interstate 80 on top of several inches of snow and ice, tailgating and passing slower 2WD vehicles, the driver confident that 4WD not only gives the car extra traction at slow speeds, but that it helps braking and turning. Unfortunately, 4WD doesn't help either braking or turning. Four wheel drive systems do not increase braking traction on their own: a good 2WD car with snow chains can probably stop in less distance than a 4WD without chains, since it's the traction that matters here, not the drive chain. Similarly, 4WD actually tends to make steering somewhat harder due to the linked front and rear drive trains (and lockable or limited-slip differentials on each axle); added to the lack of traction from chainless tires, you can get into trouble very easily.
The problem here is overconfidence: the Californian shred-head racing up to Tahoe or Mammoth for the weekend is likely to see a snow storm or snow and ice on the road as part of the sport, and slow or cautious cars as part of a macho-proving slalom race. Watch out for this, especially since there's often only one lane open during a snowstorm, and there's not much you can do when you're being tailgated except carefully pull over when it looks safe and you think you won't disappear into the snow at the side of the road.
Maybe you'll get your own back several miles down the road when you pass the same SUV or pickup skidded off into a ditch with the driver waiting forlornly for the CHP to arrange a tow and book him for dangerous driving; more commonly, unfortunately, the driver has hit someone else as well and / or caused a large traffic backup and delay.
Finally, if you want an overall Grand Theory about Californian driving, I suspect it'll come from observing the fruitful synergy between the underlying American idea of absolute individual rights and the more Californian idea that resources are not only infinite, but that every Californian is owed whatever share of that infinity he or she wants, simply because he or she is Californian.
California was built on the assumption that natural and Governmental resources are infinite, cheap, and there for the taking, and a lot of this rubs off on even the most hardened communitarian after a while. The state's official motto should probably be William Mulholland's triumphant "There it is. Take it!", shouted at the assembled masses as he opened the gates of the new publically-funded LA Aqueduct, letting heavily-subsidised fresh water pour down into the LA basin from the now-parched Owens Valley in the 1920's.... When it comes to sharing and conserving limited resources such as water or road space, many Californians are likely to be totally at sea — for many people, especially older Californians, resources were effectively infinite (the Government just looked after things and made it so), and there's never been any need to notice them, let alone worry about sharing or conserving. Few of the most irritating aspects of Californian driving are directly about safety issues; most of them are to do with resources — lane hogging (there are other lanes, aren't there? and anyway, it's my right...), not bothering to signal a turn so that other people get blocked or can't move until it's finally clear what you're going to do, parking badly, cutting across several lanes of traffic, turning from the wrong lane, using huge gas-guzzling cars, etc. All of these things tend to reflect more on a mentality that is oblivious to real limits on resources rather than on a particularly-Californian death wish or negligence.
Remember that for Californians, driving is not just a privilege or a convenience, it's a natural right, up there with the right to vote or the right to talk loudly in foreign countries. The fact is, pretty much everyone has to drive — in most parts of California you need a car or at least access to one if you want a job — and it's not going to matter how bad a driver you are or how ill-suited to driving you might be, you're going to be out there on the roads with everyone else.
Having said all this, Californian drivers are, on the whole, a lot more polite and courteous while driving than their European, British, or East Coast equivalents. Naturally, they expect you to be similarly polite: don't cut lanes, block merges, or otherwise be as bloody-minded as you'd be back home in London, Paris, or Manhattan. Remember, a significant number of Californians carry guns in their cars, and they're just itching to use them....
Note: if I had a dollar for every supposedly native Californian who emailed me over the years to suggest — often quite seriously — that most of the bad driving here is caused by immigrants, I'd be able to publish this guide with a vanity press. Disregarding the unpleasant fact that for many of the emailers "immigrant" is code word for "Mexican" (they just don't have the guts to say it out loud…), it's funny to think that we immigrants are somehow to blame for the sort of driving that would cost us thousands of dollars in fines every week were we to do it where we came from….