Why all American drivers are telepathic

Arriving in California this summer we noticed the strangest of phenomena: The four way all stop crossing. 

We watched in bewilderment as cars approached the crossings, stopped and then decided on who was to go first based on some type of mind reading. We were unable to detect any clear pattern on which car was to go first.

In Norway this is simple: You give way to the car from the right, unless there are traffic lights or a roundabout. Europeans love roundabouts.

Not so in America. The Avis guy told us that Americans also had to give way to cars from the right. He was at loss at explaining what do to if four cars arrived simultaneously — which happens all the time if the traffic is dense.

In the end we found that the system works because Americans drivers actually learn this kind of Jedi mind trick when getting their driving licenses. We also found that my wife and dedicated driver Susanne is a natural. Or maybe the Americans were just polite, helping her along. 

Originally published on August 24 2011

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Over at Posterous my old friend Kendall Thu responded:

Though I much prefer roundabouts for a variety of reasons, the cultural world of 4-way complete is interestings, particularly as I watch our oldest daughter learn to drive. Laws vary by states, but I believe most states have provisions that in the event two cars arrive at the same time, the car to the right has the right of way. But that’s law, not practice. Much of what occurs is, as you rightly point out, cultural and not legal. In the rural Midwest where I live, there is typically eye contact accompanied by an arm gesture giving a polite nod for the other vehicle to go first. This may be followed by a physical gesture of thanks as the first vehicle enters the passage way. On the other hand, there are drivers who want to go first and will stop their car abruptly before they reach the stop line creating a clear signal that they were there first and are anxiously, or rudely, declaring their intention to go first. Younger drivers often make the mistake of waiting too long, messing up the order and creating confusion. But there’s not substitute for cultural practice in driving as in life–still, I prefer roundabouts!
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My response to Kendall

Hey Kendall!
The American system certainly forces people to be very careful. In Europe Yield signs and roundabouts force you to slow down, but never to stop completely. The situation therefore never becomes “friendly” in the way you describe it.

Susanne and I did definitely get a chance to test our ability to handle roundabouts in Scotland last year. Driving on the “wrong” side of the road is one thing. Handling and inverted roundabout is another.

The Brits also has this annoying habit of putting direction signs before you enter the roundabout, and not inside it. The trick is, of course, to drive around it until you grasp where to get out or you get car sick.

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