BASIC BOSTON
A primer on rage, red lights, rotaries
By Royal Ford, Globe Staff, 9/11/2000

You've heard the stories of Massachusetts drivers: angry, aggressive,
unforgiving, unflinching, downright mean.
Believe them.
The best advice for the neophyte on Massachusetts roadways? Go armed - armed
with the knowledge of how things are supposed to work, but, more
importantly, with how they actually work in this real world of road rage.
And so, a primer:
The rotary: Also known as a traffic circle, its purpose is to admit a steady
flow of cars and, when used properly, disperse them on new routes and in new
directions. They work if drivers obey a simple rule: yield the right of way
to any car already in the rotary. When a space opens, move into the circling
flow. In reality, they are places of confrontation, where drivers entering
often speed up, blast through a yield sign, and dare any driver already in
the rotary to risk a fender-bender to stop them. At rotaries, the letters on
the YIELD sign are actually an acronym meaning ''Your Imperative: Enter
Looking Deranged.''
Eye contact: You are side by side with another driver in a traffic jam. You
want to move over into his lane. You look him in the eye, maybe looking for
a friendly smile and a gentle wave of the hand telling you to move right in.
Big mistake. Instead, he glares back and squeezes forward, bumper-to-bumper
with the car ahead, freezing you in your lane.
Turn signals: Like eye contact, local drivers see these as something to be
avoided. There's Darwinian logic to this: Any hint to another driver that
you want to change lanes or exit a roadway will cause that driver to surge
forward, refusing to yield any space. It has been said many times that using
turn signals in Boston is like giving secrets to the enemy.
Red lights: Where you come from, they probably have a traffic rule known as
right on red. You come to a red light, stop, look to your left, and then
turn right if the road is clear. Here, our intensely self-interested drivers
have another concept: straight on red. For just a few moments after a
traffic light turns red, all lights in an intersection are red.
Massachusetts drivers know this and often take advantage of this to beat
everyone through the intersection.
Directions: You are lost. You stop to ask someone for directions. The odds
are, that person is a newbie like you and won't be able to help. Even if
you're a longtime Bostonian, you have trouble with the confusing twists and
turns of streets. It can be years before you discover that The Riverway
morphs into The Jamaicaway, into (ever so briefly) Pond Street, into The
Arborway, into Morton Street.
Signs: Why do the street names change so much? Tradition. You have heard of
the Battle of Bunker Hill. It was fought in Charlestown. But it wasn't
fought on Bunker Hill. The commander of the revolutionary troops told his
men to erect a fortification atop Bunker Hill, but instead, they built it on
Breed's Hill. One theory is the map they had was confusing or inaccurate. So
the battle was fought on Breed's Hill but we call it the Battle of Bunker
Hill. The best way to know where you are? Keep the Prudential Center in
sight and take your bearings from it.
Tailgating: Also known as protecting your turf. We all know that drivers'
manuals tell us to keep a safe stopping distance between us and the car
ahead of us. Excellent advice. Also impossible. That is because, at any
speed, if you leave more than a car's length between your car and the one
ahead, someone will pass you and roll in to fill that space. And, safety be
damned, turf is something we just don't yield. It's not nice, but any space
between your bumper and the bumper ahead of you belongs to you. On the other
hand, a recent study showed that Massachusetts drivers are the safest in the
country. Maybe nice isn't everything.
Parking in winter: This could mean your life. You have been away for a
weekend skiing up in New Hampshire. While you were gone, it snowed in
Boston. You return to your neighborhood, looking for a place to park. Oddly,
a trash barrel or an old chair or an ironing board has been left in a
perfectly shoveled parking spot. You climb out of your car, put the trash
barrel up on the snowbank and park. What you don't know is the local code:
Somebody shoveled that space and will be back to reclaim it. The object they
left in the space is a veritable urban landmine. Move it and park there and
when you come out in the morning, it will look like a bomb went off under
your car.
Driving here can be a frightful mission for anyone used to common road
courtesy, adherence to traffic laws, and friendliness behind the wheel. As
the old sergeant on ''Hill Street Blues'' used to tell his troops before
sending them onto the streets each morning, ''And hey, be careful out
there.''
Basic Boston appears on Mondays. Next: old and new money.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 9/11/2000.
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