An Open Letter to Austin Drivers

Dear fellow Austin drivers,

I have a bone to pick with you all. We seem to have reached peak insanity levels on our roadways, and I think it’s time to step back, take a deep breath, and level set our expectations and behavior when it comes to driving in this town. We’re living in a place that has grown at a rate far quicker than its infrastructure can reasonably handle, so this presents some unique challenges, and by ‘unique challenges’, of course I mean ‘people acting like colossal, self-important dicks’. Texas is partially to blame for this ‘ask for forgiveness, not for permission’ attitude when it comes to driving; just look at our elected officials.

New to Austin? Welcome! Here’s a few tips for newcomers especially who may not be as familiar with the quirks and weirdness (read: nonsensical dumbassery) that exists on the roads around here.

  • Austin has ‘non-highway highways’. Multi-lane thoroughfares like 360/Capital of Texas Highway and Southwest Parkway are a weird anomaly that deserve special attention. These are usually high-traffic roads with speed limits in excess of 55 or 60 miles per hour, yet are punctuated by traffic lights throughout, so, paradoxically, the right-most lanes will flow faster than those on the left due to cars continually slowing down to make a left-hand turn.
  • Are you a cyclist? Avoid these ‘non-highway highways’ like the plague. Every time I drive on 360 I am baffled to see cyclists riding in packs, sometimes two or three abreast, in the shoulder. You have got to be a masochist if you think that being on a bike in the thick of a whole lot of willful vehicular ignorance is a good idea. Bike vs. car incidents occur with alarming regularity in Austin, and when the vehicles are moving around 60 miles per hour, you can predict how it’s going to play out for the cyclist in the equation.
  • Avoid I-35 altogether. Mopac is a mess too. 71 can get hairy also, especially around the Y in Oak Hill. And forget about downtown during the work week. If you have a telecommuting job, thank your lucky stars and hunker down at home during the work week because it’s a freaking jungle out there.
  • Austin is hands-free, and for good reason. Put your phone down, dude. Traffic speeds up and slows down quicker than you can type “OMW” in a text message. We’ve been hands-free for months now, and I still see people cruising around with their cell phones glued to their ears, yakking away like they just don’t care. Focus on the task at hand and put the damn thing away.
  • People here suck at merging. I say this because the rules of the merge almost seem to be backwards here: under normal circumstances, the onus is on the driver in the lane that’s coming into the flow of what’s happening (an entrance to the freeway, for example) to adjust their speed to merge into traffic. However, this rule doesn’t seem to apply to some motorists out there who refuse to accept their role in this process.

I’ve also observed some powerfully bad road behavior all around town, and it’s coming from newcomers and longtime Austinites alike based on license plates and telltale bumper stickers, so it seems we all need a refresher on some basic driving etiquette. It’s just like Walter said in The Big Lebowski: this isn’t ‘Nam, there are rules.

  • Using one’s turn signal is not a sign of weakness. I’m looking at you, BMW drivers and big dudes in F-250 trucks who aren’t hauling a thing except yourselves. I’m not sure how or when some people decided it was acceptable to weave, dart and swerve into other lanes of traffic without signaling, but I do know this: it’s a move that’s not only unsafe but also inconsiderate if not downright rude. Signal your intent, THEN change lanes/make the turn. You’re not driving in a vacuum; others need to know what you’re doing before you do it.
  • If you like to drive exactly the speed limit and nothing more, do it in the far right lane. Yes, speed limits are posted for a reason. However, this is Texas, and folks here won’t stand for the self-proclaimed road regulators who like to block faster-moving traffic in the left lane “because I’m going the speed limit!” In fact, it’s against the law to be a roadblock that prevents traffic from moving quicker, so you’re dumb AND annoying. Speed up or move over. Keep to the right, pass on the left: it’s not some newfangled traffic law that I came up with.
  • Four-way stops are not difficult. It’s quite simple, in fact: you make a complete stop, you signal (if applicable) and then make your next move. If two vehicles arrive at the stop simultaneously, the driver to the right has the right of way. I’m really not sure why this seems to be such a confounding situation for some Austin drivers, but I see it all the time and it makes me want to beat my head against the steering wheel in frustration. And the one or two roundabouts we have around town? Fugitaboudit. Kryptonite to Texas drivers.
  • Is it dark/rainy/foggy or is visibility otherwise suboptimal? Turn your headlights on! This seems so obvious but I never fail to see dozens of cars out on the roads at night and in the rain, virtually invisible to others. Self-awareness is step one when it comes to driving, and if you haven’t made sure that your own situation is roadworthy, it’s that much more difficult for other drivers to compensate for your vehicular shortcomings.
  • Secure your shit. I’m calling out all you cheap folks who won’t just rent a moving van or trailer for an hour or two and contractors who drive around town with boatloads of crap tied to their rig, usually driving under the speed limit in the far left lane. I scramble to get around these monstrosities as I don’t trust that huge ladders stacked three and four deep tied with some weak-ass twine is gonna hold up, and I certainly don’t want to be the one behind it when the inevitable occurs.
  • There will be another exit. There’s a classic driving maneuver I witness at least once a day that I’ve dubbed the “Texas exit”, in which a driver on a multi-lane freeway will swerve from the left across lanes to make an exit ramp on the right, causing several near-misses and gasps from other drivers. But here’s the thing: there’s ALWAYS another exit! Sometimes just a quarter of a mile ahead! If you missed your exit, don’t risk your life and the lives of others because you made a mistake. Get off at the next one and turn around.
  • Give a little wave. If someone does you the immeasurable favor of letting you into a long line of traffic, do them the courtesy of giving them a wave in your rearview mirror to signal your appreciation for their kind gesture. Let’s return civility to the roads.

I hope we can all learn the official AND unofficial rules of the road and coexist peacefully. We’re all in this together, and I think we can agree that Austin is an awesome place to be, so let’s not make the roads any worse than they need to be. Oh, and don’t be a dick.