Benjamin Franklin once said: “Distrust and Caution are the Parents of Security”.
I think, that many U.S. citizens live accordingly - at least whilst on the road. That is a good thing, even if it takes some getting used to as a European.
One day, about a year ago in a very remote part of Nowhere, I was on a road trip with my wife, traveling from Los Angeles to central Missouri. At an intersection leading to the Interstate, I wanted to go straight but was cut off buy a Chrysler Town & Country turning left. As I would normally do in Europe, I honked and cursed at the puzzled looking lady in the minivan. With the steam blown off, I headed on peacefully. My wife (who is American) asked me quite sternly if I was crazy. The Lady looked and I felt like I just punched her in the face. She clearly didn’t take my right of way on purpose. Maybe she wasn’t prepared that I was already accelerating in order to make speed on the onramp. Apparently I made a mistake.
After this little incident, I started to wonder - like I always do - about cultural differences between Europe and the U.S.
In countries like Germany or even more so Italy, traffic is usually very fast and concentrated without much room for mistakes or dawdling. If somebody does something stupid, thus impeding somebody else, he gets to feel it by a generous amount of honking and insults from behind closed windows. Either the person yelled-at shamefully looks dead straight, when you get to see each other, or you get yelled-at back, if he or she feels lucky. Since we don’t live in Dashcam-Mother Russia, windows usually stay up and everybody parts in peace - no harm done.
In America however, there is much more respect and prudence going on - usually. If somebody drives slowly, the candid American respects that person’s choice of speed in belief that he or she probably has a good reason to go slow. Until it’s possible to overtake or turn somewhere, you patiently wait and stay behind. The most aggressive act of unwanted dialogue in traffic is a teeny tiny and almost shy beep of the horn if somebody fails to take off at a green light after a generous amount of time. In Germany, you get the full blast if you exceed the time it takes to put your car in first after the short phase of yellow prepares you for the green light.
I am not saying that it’s right, but in the U.S. there is no law that would prevent you from hogging the middle lane on a freeway without a care in the world, even if you shouldn’t. In Germany, there is, and people rightfully loose their shit if you don’t leave the passing lane.
Why is that? Are Americans just so much more patient than people in Europe? I think that it is all because of some good old American virtues that have to do with the distances you travel and the burdens you are willing to take.
All over Europe, large cities are rarely more than about two hours apart from each other. You want to reach your destination fast, because efficiency matters, and why would you stretch that period of time any more than necessary. In the U.S., points of interest have been days apart for centuries. People are used to spending hours on end in their vehicles. If you have to ride for a thousand miles, you’d rather do it at a comfortable cruising speed, rather than in a perfectionized European hurry. Additionally, there’s everybody’s good old ‘Murican freedom which makes it possible that all vehicles, including large semi trucks are allowed the same maximum speed as any passenger car. This way, you’re doing just fine when you set your cruise control to the same “five-over” speed that everybody else is doing, because you don’t have to slow down when you approach a semi, there is much less overtaking.
In Germany, you have unlimited sections auf Autobahn, but semis are restricted to 50 mph. Imagine how well that goes together. Its very normal to go fast, so we are used to pass a slow line of trucks with twice the speed. Nevertheless, cutting somebody off on the Autobahn is one of the worst offenses you can commit and if you do so, you’re guaranteed to get some high-beam arsch-kicking from the driver behind you.
All in all, the European traffic is very unequal. In Germany you’re either in a hurry and drive a befitting car, or you are inferior. In Italy, the same benefit goes to scooters, or folks who are completely bonkers and literally perform rallye-driving no matter how narrow and curvy the road is. I have not quite figured it out why they do so but many times there just needs to be one unexpected detail, like dirt on the road or a pedestrian and things get lethal. When you sit in a café on a piazza and talk to the locals over a cup of espresso, nobody seems to be in a hurry at all. On the road, you sometimes even get tailgated by the police if you don’t go 20 over the limit.
Then there are some countries like India, or Vietnam – as we learned in YouTuber Hoovie’s Garage’s recent video – where traffic functions like a beehive. Mark the word functions. It might be frightening to most western drivers, but heck: it works!
Being used to much more adventurous traffic, it’s always a relief to visit the U.S.. At first, I was sure, that the rural town where my in-laws live is probably nothing in comparison to big cities and the like, but I was wrong. Apart from some individuals who were just in a hurry, everybody I encountered was driving calmly, prudent and respectfully – at least it felt that way. Of course people in the U.S. drive at regular speeds, but when situations get crowded or unclear, they behave like old people in an airport.
And you wouldn’t shout at somebody’s grandpa wearing khaki shorts just below his armpits, just because he pointed his impeccably white New-Balance-sneakers crossing your way, would you?
And one more thing: I think it’s awesome that you folks apologize, when you cross somebody’s line of sight in a grocery store. That might sound absolutely normal to any decent American, but trust me: in Europe, it isn’t. These people rushing by you in the cans-and-pickels-aisle are those who’ll tailgate the Scheiß out of you, when you don’t go quick enough around town.