I grew up in Northeast Ohio, where driving, like in most of the non-urbanized and subway-ified world, is just a part of life, like shitting. And—not dissimilar to Midwestern defecation, come to think of it—Ohioans tend to drive very slowly, while honking is mostly unheard of and speed limits are generally abided by. That’s in large part because police at every level of government, with little else to do, enthusiastically police the behavior of drivers, whether for speed, or one’s turn signals, or merely having plates that are close to expiring.
This is not the case in New York City, where I now live, where speed limits are generally ignored and horns are frequently employed and the police don’t really care how you drive, unless they’re out on some kind of targeted enforcement or you’ve just killed someone or you are massively inconveniencing others.
I’ve received two moving violations in NYC, the first, many years ago, for blocking the box in Manhattan, and, the second, last summer, for driving 23 mph over the speed limit on the Grand Central Parkway. The ticketing officer in the latter case explained to me then that 10 mph over was fine, but 20 mph “and we’ll pull you over.” All right.
And while NYC driving is all very exciting, I’m here to propose that city drivers could learn some lessons from their flyover counterparts. Namely: chill the fuck out. When you’re not on the track, driving isn’t about winning.
Let’s start with when you’re allowed to honk, which is really only under a few circumstances. To be specific: if someone is about to die, you’re allowed to honk for as long and as loud as you want. If the driver in front of you hasn’t noticed that a red light has turned green, you’re allowed to give the horn a tap, and possibly two. A nice, polite little tap. A reminder beep. Otherwise: No.
If you’re sitting in traffic and you can’t really see why, do not honk your horn. If you’re annoyed that a taxi, which is in the midst of either picking up or dropping off a passenger, is temporarily blocking your way, do not honk your own.
If you’re behind someone, and they’re being indecisive about which way to turn—and are clearly just people in this world like you or I, trying to figure out a few things in the proverbial fog—do not honk your horn. Take a breath instead.
If you’re driving down a narrow one-way road, and a truck, which is making a delivery, is blocking said road, and it looks like it’ll be awhile, do not honk your horn. Calmly put your car in reverse, back out of the street, and try a different street.
You’ll be fine.
Now, let’s talk about highway driving, which in the city is usually one of three things: sitting in a very large elevated parking lot; the magical hours between between 2 and 5 a.m., when you have the highways to yourself and the drunks; and then something approaching what the rest of the world considers normal, which is slightly congested but drivable. (This mostly happens on the weekend.)
Here is what you do during those times, when you’re cruising along with the flow of traffic and you’re being cut off while other drivers speed past and trucks bear down on your rear: You keep driving like a normal person. The same rules also generally apply to street driving in NYC, but because of a host of limitations—lots of one-way streets, street lights, speed cameras, lots of traffic at all hours—such issues don’t ordinarily come up.
Suffice to say: There are a lot of drivers in New York who are eager to prove themselves, who drive very fast and create dangerous situations for everyone.
The best thing to do is to let them pass and move on with your life. If they’re in it to win it, you should let them, because you are not in it to win it. You’re too old, and with a declining appetite for bullshit. You’re just trying to get to the beach.
Here’s a story: once, when I was driving on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, a man in an SUV cut me off, and I gave him the finger, and might have also said fuck you a few times. All of which felt like standard blowing-off-of-steam in NYC, until that man then drove his SUV in front of me, stopped, exited his vehicle, and challenged me to a fight.
Spoiler: Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and we did not fight, even if, for a minute, he meant it.
Here’s another story: once when I was in Central Park, I saw a man driving a Lexus park his car in the middle of the intersection at Central Park South and Seventh Avenue, exit his still-running vehicle, and chase a cyclist on foot, shouting obscenities and threatening bodily harm. The man did not catch the cyclist.
Here’s one more story: Three weeks ago, in Sunnyside, Queens, where I live—not ordinarily the scene of much road rage—a man left his vehicle and repeatedly kicked a black cab, enough to leave several dents in the body, all over the offense of honking too much and rushing the driver at a green light.
I bring up these stories only to say that, while there are unhinged drivers on the streets everywhere in the world, there might be a higher density of unhinged drivers on the streets of New York, not in small part because unless driving is part of your occupation you have to be a little unhinged to drive a car here to begin with.
Those that drive for a living, you’ll find, like bus drivers and truck drivers and taxi drivers (well, maybe not all taxi drivers, since part of taxi driving, when a fare is aboard, is theater, a combination of honking and cursing that shows the paying rider that, really, the driver is doing all they can to get the fare where they’re going quickly) are some of the most placid on the roads.
They’ve seen more than you have, and know the value of keeping calm and carrying on.
The other night, I parked my car near a fire hydrant. Was it too close? I don’t know. Probably! In New York City, it’s illegal to park within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, or about two feet longer than my Honda Fit.
I was definitely in the ballpark, but, like with a lot of car rules in the city—including mine above—it’s a bit subjective. Take them with a grain of salt. Do everything in moderation, including moderation. And once you know the rules, feel free to break them, or at least bend them.
Sometimes the catharsis of your horn is more important than keeping your composure. My parking ticket, for one, never materialized.
Above all else, calm down. You’ll get where you’re going. We did in Ohio every day. You can too.