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TOM KEANE

We’re actually good at driving, so back off

Boston driver test: Scary merge, or a wealth of gaps?

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Boston driver test: Scary merge, or a wealth of gaps?

Here are a few things everyone knows to be true. Go outside with wet hair, and you’ll get a cold. Fortune cookies come from China. And Massachusetts drivers are the worst in the country.

All false. Wet hair doesn’t make you more likely to get sick , fortune cookies are a US invention, and Massachusetts drivers are actually among the nation’s best.

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I know this last item sounds unbelievable. We wait tensely at a red light and, the moment it turns green, make a left turn before drivers going the other way have time to react. Stop signs, we tell everyone, are mere “suggestions.” At a crowded merge — the Central Artery southbound coming out of the tunnel, for instance — eyes are dead ahead. You let the other guy catch you looking, and you’re doomed. “A yellow light is just a ripe green,” goes the saying. We pass on the right. We swerve. We take off abruptly. We stop quickly. We’re Boston drivers — the name applies even when we live elsewhere in the state. We’re known nationwide, visitors fear to drive in our midst, and we wreak mayhem on the streets.

Yet fewer people are killed by automobiles in Massachusetts than in any of the other 50 states and the District of Columbia. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, our fatality rate is just .62 for every million miles traveled. The worst is Montana, more than double at 1.79.

An insurance website — carinsurancecomparison.com — annually looks at such data and ranks drivers from worst to best. Aside from fatalities, it tracks careless driving, failure to obey the rules of the road, drunk driving, and traffic tickets. By its reckoning, the worst drivers are from Louisiana while the best come from Vermont. Massachusetts drivers are quite good too, coming in at 10th best.

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On some measures, we lag. Just over 35 percent of our fatalities involve alcohol, the eighth worst in the nation. (Utah, not surprising, is best on that score, at under 16 percent.) We are also in the middle of the pack when it comes to using safety devices such as seat belts. (We were for a long time holdouts on mandatory seat belts, thanks to the efforts of Jerry Williams, a night-time radio talk show host in the 1980s who almost singlehandedly persuaded voters to repeal the law.)

Imagine, then, if we drove more soberly and used seat belts more frequently. Our fatality rates would likely drop even more, making us far and away the safest place to drive in America.

Which leads to this conundrum: How can such bad drivers produce such great results?

I’ve traveled and driven in many areas of the United States, and the high rankings for the Bay State didn’t surprise me at all. People elsewhere simply seem less skilled as drivers. They’re more timid, they don’t know how to handle bad conditions, and they seem far less focused on the road. For the most part, Massachusetts drivers are the opposite. We’re aggressive, but in a good sense, meaning that a complex traffic situation doesn’t leave us upset and discombobulated. In other states, it’s common to see a backlog of cars building up behind a driver afraid to make a turn into oncoming traffic. Honking horns eventually impel that driver forward, sometimes with bad results. In Massachusetts we just bull our way through.

So too, drivers in other states seem unable to handle rain or, particularly, snow and ice. We have to live with adverse weather each year, and we’ve learned how to do it. Moreover, it seems as if we pay more attention when we drive. Perhaps that’s the upside to our bad reputation, the fact that driving is like a game and we’re focused on somehow winning.

Whatever the reason, “Boston driver” has been a moniker we’ve worn with some pride, and it’s somewhat deflating to see a cherished Beantown myth punctured. Speaking of which, Beantown itself is also a fiction. According to the US Department of Agriculture, we eat far fewer beans than most other parts of the country. Argh! We have these carefully constructed illusions about ourselves and along come some data that shatter them completely.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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