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Driving in Texas

When my wife and I moved to Texas in 1991, we experienced a mild degree of culture shock. For the most part the culture was an improvement over past experiences in Alabama, Florida, or Ohio. For instance, we could now get outstanding barbeque and Mexican food. We couldn’t get sweet tea on a regular basis and that’s a downer. The climate was way better than Ohio, about the same as Alabama, and not quite as good as Florida. The biggest difference, however, was not related to food or climate but to driving. That’s right driving—an automobile—on Texas highways. That was very different. We had to learn a whole new way of driving--new rules of the road.

In Ohio, for instance, the speed laws are rigorously enforced. If the speed limit is 55, as it is on most interstate highways, you will be ticketed for going 56. As I was driving between Columbus and Zanesville on interstate 70 last fall, I had let my speed creep up to an incredible 57 mph. The patrolling state trooper pulled me over with siren blaring and red and yellow lights blazing.
State Trooper, “We seem to be going to a fire, don’t we?”
Me, “We do?”

That just generally doesn’t happen in Texas. In fact, I live on a somewhat curvy 2-lane road which has a speed limit of 70 miles per hour—and that is considered by most drivers to be just a suggestion, not a real limitation on their ability to get somewhere in a hurry. On this stretch of highway a string of 6 or 8 cars going 70 will be routinely passed by a car in a hurry. In fact, if you are driving 65 miles per hour you might get pulled over by your friendly law enforcement person—
Friendly law enforcement person—“If you can’t drive any faster than that, you need to get off the road so real drivers can use it.”
Me, “OK.”

We also had to learn the meaning of Texas traffic lights—you know those red, yellow, and green things hanging in many intersections. In many other states when the light is green you go. When it turns yellow you take your foot off the accelerator and put it on the brake. When the light turns red you stop. In Texas if the light turns yellow and you are no more than one-half mile from the light, you accelerate to approximately 92 miles per hour to “make the light.” If the light turns red and you are no more than 200 yards away (that’s the length of two football fields) you continue accelerating in order to “make the light.” If you are 100 yards from a light that turns red you should not stop or you will get rear-ended by the car that is 200 yards from the light. If you are sitting at a red light which turns green, that does not mean you should go, it means you should look at least 200 yards in each direction to see who is trying to “make the light.”

Also in Texas there appears to be some sort of rule that prohibits driving on the public highways without a cell phone in hand. It is not uncommon to see someone driving down the road with a cell phone in one hand and a cold drink in the other, steering the vehicle (usually a very large pick-up truck) with her/his knees while eating French fries.

Another curious phenomenon has to do with the use of “shoulders” i.e., that usually paved strip along each side of the road. In most other states the shoulder is for emergency use—like pulling over to change a tire or leaving your car while you go for gas. It has a whole different function in Texas. A slow moving automobile (traveling between 70 and 75 mph) will often pull over onto the shoulder to let a faster car pass. The faster car signals his intention to pass by approaching the slower car at approximately the speed of sound and slamming on his brakes about 1 inch from the rear bumper of the slow car. If the slow car doesn’t pull over on the shoulder, the fast car will often use the shoulder as a passing lane.

Tribute should be paid to a rather nice Texas custom, the one finger wave. This usually occurs in town or a quiet drive down a country road. It works like this—two vehicles approach each other in leisurely fashion (under 100 mph), one driver without ever removing his hand from the steering wheel raises his first finger (the one closest to the thumb) as a greeting. This is frequently accompanied by a slight bobbing of the head. The other driver generally responds in like manner. It’s casual, friendly, and nice.

There is also another one finger wave practiced by both drivers and pedestrians, which is neither friendly nor nice. A different finger is used and it is generally accompanied by a somewhat obscene suggestion. This one finger wave is not indigenous to Texas. I have seen it used in Alabama, Ohio, and by little old ladies at bingo games at retirement villages in Florida.