Future Nostalgia for Learning Cultures through Driving

First off, a warning. If you’re in Italy right now overhearing some baffled men talk about a single woman roadtripping through the countryside and coasts… that’s me. Apparently, that’s very suspect here and raises many eyebrows in the gas stations, amongst hotel staff, etc. But I’ve always been one to break the mold.

Driving through Italy at various hours of day over the past week, however, got me thinking about how cultural differences and tendencies are expressed in driving behaviors. And how much of that we’ll lose when this activity becomes largely autonomous. As someone who loves to drive long distances, I’m going to miss that.

I should caveat all this by saying I fully appreciate our roads will be much safer with all that autonomous driving will bring. Generally… except for the times when the system(s) inevitably get hacked. But otherwise, we’ll largely enjoy a significant diminishment of accidents caused by conversations with passengers, texting, drunk driving, missed exits, an unseen bike in a blind spot, etc. And there won’t be confusion about whether to stop at a red light while in a right turn lane or whether you can pass on the right side on a freeway. All these differences and distractions will be mitigated or eliminated by various software packages in different countries or a slow standardization of rules of the road across the globe. And we’ll all be so much more comfortable in our new “people movers” that it won’t matter if we’re going 20 minutes away or for a five-hour trip down the coast.

But, in the meantime, I’m thinking about what I’ve passively learned on my driving excursions in at least seven different countries, including countless states within the U.S. And what I’ll miss in those very human exchanges on the road. These are just a few generalizations but I find them entertaining and hope you do to…

In Italy — where I’ve been driving over the past week — I’ve found that no picture sufficiently captures two things. One being the number of vespas and motor bikes swimming around you in any given city center. And secondly, the disparity in driving speeds on any given freeway. There might be someone testing a Ferrari in the left most lane which you didn’t even see coming before it’s whizzed past you… and then there’s the three-wheel Piaggio Ape ambling along on the right most lane. On the typically two lane freeways, the amount of weaving you have to manage keeps you, um, engaged. And in relation, you begin to enjoy the musicality of the Italian radio DJs as a relevant soundtrack. Capisce? Certo!

Not nearly enough vespas in this picture. Photo credit: L’Italo Americano

Another thing I noticed while in Italy? A complete lack of turn or merge signaling, except for the odd tourist like myself. I was told by a native Italian that the name for the blinker light is the same as an arrow, from a bow and arrow set. This joking led to a saying in Italian that only Native Americans use “arrows” or indicator lights. Clearly, I hail from the U.S… Generally, when driving in Italy, I reccomend you think of the roads as populated by a pack of Jack Russell Terriers running in all directions and just get ready to switch between the gas and brakes regularly. Everyone does this and somehow it works beautifully.

Overall, I’ve felt pretty comfortable driving in Italy with all it’s quirks and weaving. I’ve determined that’s due to my time driving in Israel. Anyone who has also spent any time driving there will understand my belief that the lane lines are purely drawn for aesthetic purposes. They hold no meaning. At any time of day. Be prepared for this even in the seat of a cab leaving Ben Gurion airport. You will survive, but expect any driver there to drive on the shoulder, weave indeterminately, and generally try to get ahead of anyone ahead of him or her. Also, expect that they are some of the most distracted drivers. Everyone has an opinion ready to be shared and debated on absolutely everything from the radio commentary to your visit to whether you should agree with what their mom is saying to them over the phone at that moment. It’s all a giant kibbutz with one degree of separation where everyone is entitled to and expects strong opinions on everything. Enjoy and just go with the flow of traffic. Don’t fight it.

Canada. Well — it’s courteous and comfortable, as you’d expect. Everyone follows the rules of the road and gives you and others ample time to merge and make decisions or mistakes. There’s no great rush or sense of urgency. Everyone’s headed to a ski resort or shopping weekend anyway, right? If you’re from Seattle or don’t enjoy driving much, stay north and enjoy the roads and scenery. I personally recommend the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler.

Germany and Austria, follow the rules. If you’re driving fast, pass to the left and then zip back into the right lane until you need to pass again. The roads are generally generous and smooth. Expect good signage everywhere you’re headed. These are the lands of rules and sticking to them, so everything will be predictable and you’ll get the help you need if you do somehow manage to get yourself lost. It might be a result of the beautiful countryside. Certainly happened to my parents when we were young. The roads will narrow a little in cities, villages and as you head into Eastern Europe. But all the movements of the other drivers are logical and predictable.

Tanzania. I didn’t drive myself around here. But this is where I learned how much a car can handle. In the U.S. and generally a number of other countries, people are very careful with their cars. They wash them regularly. They get anxious about driving off a designated road onto gravel. They get trade in old for new cars well before maintenance needs kick in. In Tanzania, at least, cars are used. They are driven on long dirt roads — whether they’re a small SUV or more often a lower-end sedan. They are seen as a utility and tool to getting things done. And roads are made just good enough to span huge distances. You get what’s called an “African massage” from all the bumps and jolts along the way to a remote location. But you enjoy it and help each other out along the way because that’s just what everyone does. Oh, and the refreshments along the road are plentiful. Much like in Belize and parts of central America, the “fast food” huts along the road are stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts. A welcome break from the road a snack and chat with friendly locals ends up providing an update on news or happenings in the area. Much more colorful than anything you would’ve found on the screen of your phone or a car’s GPS navigation system.

The cities and states across the U.S. provide pretty distinct studies in behavior as well. Some cities can be courteous to a fault — and standstill. While others — typically on the other coast to the east — are incredibly animated and use their horns as accepted conversation. Differing senses of urgency and upbringing seem to produce comfort with varying degrees of automotive noise and driver gesticulation. You’ll quickly learn where you land on the spectrum — and what you’ll complain about amongst friends.

These are just a few of my passing impressions as I’ve driven tens of thousands of miles around the globe. I enjoy all the thoughts and insights these places stir up, and hope to experience more for years to come. That is until the technology of autonomous cars makes us all safer and less animated on the roads. Would love to hear about some of your thoughts and road trips as well. Anywhere I really must drive for a unique experience? Tell me!

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