Driving in the Valley of the Sun


Many people relocate to “The Valley of the Sun” for our climate and lower cost of living  but don’t realize that they are also moving to a new culture. One of the biggest culture shocks may be the way Phoenicians drive. Just about every person who moves here remarks that we are aggressive drivers. It is not unusual for people to exceed the speed limit, tailgate, cut you off, or even blow through a red light. Add to this the problems of unsecured loads, distracted driving, and driving under the influence, and it’s sadly not surprising that Arizona’s statewide road fatalities increased last year.

This raises two questions: Why do people act this way, and what can you do about it?

First, be aware of the mindset of the drivers around you. In general, we want to set our own speed and never have our flow interrupted. This may sound unrealistic, but consider that as one of the largest metros in the country by area (at almost 15,000 square miles), and with minimal public transportation, most people spend countless hours in their cars. Our frustrations are similar to the ones people in Manhattan have towards those standing on the wrong side of the metro escalator or stopping abruptly on a crowded sidewalk. Viewed this way, the inconsiderate party is the one who is obstructing everyone else’s movement, not the impatient person who is being blocked.

Another way to grasp our driving mindset is to consider that in Phoenix, we have two seasons: Hot and Snowbirds. Snowbird season is the time of year when the weather is nice and we are inundated with slow (and often older) drivers from other states who don’t know where they are going and aren’t in a hurry to get there. Locals pretty much hate snowbird drivers and have learned from years of experience that unless you want to be late to work or school, you need to whip around as many of them as possible. On the other hand, our hot season – when it hits 115 degrees F/46 C – means much less traffic, but even worse driving as people try not to touch the steering wheel and are just plain crabby.

A third way to understand our driving is to recognize that – Snowbird obstacle courses excepted – we actually can drive the way we want most of the time. With around 300 days of sunshine per year, we rarely factor the weather into our drive time. Although elsewhere in the state, there can be black ice, extreme winds, and even white-out snow conditions, the worse we face each year in the Valley are a few dust storms and flash floods. And, since most of our metro roads are in pretty good shape, we come to expect straightforward trips.

Fourth, Phoenix’s population growth also means traffic growth – and as we attract new residents from across the country and the world, we also end up with divergent driving styles. For example, in the East Valley I’ve noticed some Asian drivers honk to let you know that they are next to you – something that perplexed me until I saw the exact same behavior in China. I also see drivers willingly go below the speed limit – something inconceivable to long-term locals. Since we can’t all get together and decide how we are all going to drive, Phoenix roads can sometimes feel like a haphazardly choreographed dance.

Driven by Values?

Finally, I encourage new arrivals to look at our driving style through a cultural lens. As a nearly lifetime local, I would assert that Arizonans are even more individualistic than the rest of the U.S. It really is all about us and what we want, all the time – and we bring that mentality to our driving. With sprawl and a constantly growing population, we are atomized and anonymous; outside of one’s neighborhood, there is little chance of knowing the person next to you on the road, which reduces social consequences for our aggression.

We are also very time oriented – not in the sense that time is money, but rather that every minute we aren’t at work belongs to us and we don’t want to waste it on account of some slow poke. And as staunch egalitarians, we tend to see the open road as a free-for-all. This ties in to our desire to set goals, accomplish our tasks, and especially to control the environment: Once we decide what we want to do or where we want to go, we want to get it done and woe to those who get in our way. In addition, we are pretty rule-oriented. Even though this may seem counterintuitive given our behavior, on a deeper level we believe that there is a way things are supposed to be done. When someone doddles in the left lane, we feel indignant that they would ignorantly or willfully violate the norms. Lastly, it also connects to our competitive natures. Objectively we know that it doesn’t matter if you’re the first one to a red light; subjectively, many people still feel like they’ve “won.”

What to do?

Now that you know how many in the Phoenix-area drive – and why – what can you do about it? The best approach is to obey all traffic laws while driving defensively.

  • Pay attention to the drivers behind you. If it looks like they are going faster than you, or are bearing down on you, get out of their way (usually by moving to the right).
  • Be decisive. Phoenicians can’t stand “will-they-or-won’t-they” drivers who seem like they might turn or change lanes for miles. Make your move and be done.
  • Use your signal, especially if others might be waiting for you to make a turn.
  • Don’t doddle. If you are getting on the freeway, accelerate! If you are in a left turn lane and get a green light, get going! There are other people behind you.
  • Correct your mistakes without inconveniencing or endangering others. If you are about to miss your freeway exit, or realize at the last second that you are on the wrong side of the street, don’t weave across several lanes of traffic. With our grid system, it’s usually very easy to go to the next exit or light and safely turn around.
  • Avoid altercations that could turn into road rage. If you see other drivers racing or looking like they are about to get into a fight, take a detour and call the police.
  • Watch for motorcycles. If traffic is backed up, you can bet that motorcycles will start driving between lanes. If you see a cluster of bikers wearing matching emblems, avoid trouble by giving them plenty of space.

Traffic in the Phoenix metro area can be overwhelming, but by understanding our driving mindset, new arrivals can learn to safely go with the flow. To build confidence and competence, and get a lay of the land, it may also help to enroll in a local driving course.

*This blog is intended for cultural insight only, and should not be read as legal advice. Drivers should obey all traffic laws and drive safely.





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