The shame-y articles probably showed up in your Facebook feed last week: Various local outlets reported on a recent 11-month study by online insurance company EverQuote that found Pittsburghers to be some of the worst drivers in the country. We’d be the absolute worst if we weren’t tied with New York City—an odd coupling I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
Drivers were judged in five categories: speeding, cellphone use, excess acceleration, hard braking and hard turning. Overall, Pittsburgh reportedly scored 71 out of 100, which is eight points lower than the national average of 79. Speeding and cellphone use were some of our worst offenses, and we ranked dead last in the hard turn category. We didn’t score highly anywhere. Sheesh.
OK, so the hard numbers don’t look good for us. And certainly, we’ve all had our experiences with idiot drivers on Pittsburgh streets. (I couldn’t help but lay on my horn recently when a pickup truck came screaming out of a gas station and pulled in front of me in a rush to make a green light. I slammed on my brakes . . . and ended up stuck at the intersection.)
But perhaps the reasons behind some of our herky-jerky driving can redeem our reputation. Arguably, it’s not a lack of driver’s ed that’s causing all that sudden stopping-and-going. Maybe it’s just that we’re such damn nice people.
Let’s take the most obvious example: the Pittsburgh Left. Controversial as it may be, it’s here to stay. Whether you’re first in line at a red light with your left turn signal on, or first in line facing a car in that position, you know that when the light turns green, the dance will begin: If you’re going straight, you’ll hesitate just enough. If you’re turning, you’ll edge out ever so cautiously—both cars reading each other to see if the local handshake is about to take place. Usually, it does, but you never know for sure.
Surely this slashed our score in the hard turning category. And frankly, it’s a preposterous practice. It breaks a basic traffic law, putting us all in just that much more danger at every stop. Yet it works, because it’s just part of who we are. It’s polite to let the left-er go instead of making them wait through that whole long line of straights. And as one friend of a friend recently put it, Pittsburghers are nothing if not “aggressively polite.”
Left turns aren’t the only things that make us go out of our way for each other on the road. How many times have you been waiting to jaywalk on a busy main street and a car has suddenly stopped to let you go? How many times have you done this for a pedestrian? If you call yourself a Pittsburgher, the answer to both of these questions is probably “lots.” Plus, many of our streets are narrow and barely accommodate two-way traffic, which means we all have to spend a fair amount of our commutes moving aside for each other. It’s just the way things work here. You can’t play chicken. You have to be cool about it.
Also, we let each other change lanes. If you don’t think this is special, it’s possible you haven’t spent much time driving in other major cities. I used to live in L.A., and if you flipped your turn signal on near an exit on the freeway, the car to your right typically sped up so as not to be “cut off” by you. Now that I’m back in the Burgh, my heart flutters a little every time someone lets me change lanes when I am driving in my car. (Thank you!)
This politeness has its drawbacks, though, as suggested by our sadly low score on EverQuote’s test. All this aggressive niceness surely leads to some aggressive braking by the guy behind you. So yeah, maybe we’re not the best drivers. But we’re the best neighbors—and that’s something we can all be proud of.