WHEN THE GLOBE STAFF moved out of our Morrissey Boulevard building in June for shiny new downtown digs, I was a little sad to be leaving the storied (albeit well-worn) building behind. Growing up, I couldn’t help but gaze at the Dorchester landmark when we’d pass it on the expressway and dream about working there someday.
Now that the Globe no longer has its own parking lot, I’ve become a commuter-rail rider. And, frankly, I don’t miss driving into the city every workday.
Some days navigating into Boston is a white-knuckle feat that has you wanting to kiss the ground when you reach your destination. You know what I’m talking about: stretches of gridlock; horns honking; aggressive drivers weaving in and out of traffic like they’re auditioning for The Fast and the Furious; slowpokes holding up the left lane; people on cellphones oblivious that they’re drifting out of bounds; lane changers who don’t bother with blinkers; common sense-deprived motorists who take rain or snow as their cue to drive faster and more carelessly.
After one of my last car commutes to Dorchester, I got so riled up about one road encounter that I lobbied my editor to do a story shaming people into driving better. Everyone knows Massachusetts drivers are the worst, I told her. And there are numbers that support that. Allstate has singled Boston drivers out, labeling us the bottom of the heap for three years running in its annual America’s Best Drivers Report. To add insult to idiocy (literally), AAA found in a 2016 report that Northeast drivers were 30 percent more likely to yell, honk, or “gesture angrily” than drivers in other parts of the country.
On my way home that same night, I was stopped in a left-turn-only lane at an intersection when I remembered I needed to swing by the drugstore. My first instinct? Dart to the right when the light changes and just go straight. I glanced over my right shoulder to see if the path was clear and spotted a little car beside my slightly more muscular Honda CR-V.
That’s when it hit me like an inflating air bag: I am a Masshole.
The unflattering term is so widely used for Massachusetts residents, particularly drivers, that the Oxford English Dictionary added the word (along with “twerk” and “fo’shizzle”) to its lexicon in 2015.
It was an uncomfortable moment of self-discovery. After ranting about jerks who don’t know what they’re doing in the driver’s seat and put other people at risk, here I was about to cut off another driver (for the record, I didn’t). That little drugstore trip led to a pretty good Irish-Catholic guilt trip.
It got me thinking about my driving history. I haven’t received so much as a parking ticket (knock wood) since South Park debuted, but I may be a teeny bit responsible for skewing Allstate’s data on how often Boston drivers file accident claims: The average for the Boston area is every 3.6 years. (If that figure doesn’t seem all that bad to you, compare it with Kansas City, which ranks number one on Allstate’s list. Drivers there average 14.9 years between claims.) It stings a bit to admit this, but between 2012 and 2015 I was involved in five collisions. Two resulted in my car being totaled, one involved a rental car I used after one of those cars was totaled, and the remaining two were fender benders — one didn’t even require an insurance claim, hallelujah. By my math, that’s about one claim every 0.75 years. For a while there, I was on a first-name basis with three insurance adjusters and the fine folks at my local auto-body shop. Thankfully no one was killed in any of those crashes, though a motorcyclist who struck (and totaled) my Honda Accord was seriously banged up.
In my defense, only one of those collisions was deemed my fault — the one with the rental car. But my drugstore-trip realization was a kind of reckoning: It might be time to start driving more like a Royals fan.
HOW HAD I EVEN gotten to this point, I had to wonder. How have any of us? It seems we’ve grown pretty comfortable with (maybe even proud of) our cavalier, make-your-own-road-rules attitude. (You may be part of the reason MassDOT resorted to electronic reminders to “use yah blinkah.” It’s OK to admit it. You’re among friends — and fellow sinners.) Were we taught to drive like this? Or is it just survival instincts kicking in because, hey, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”?
For answers, I sought out some folks whose job it is to discourage driving like Speed Racer. None would concede that Massachusetts drivers on the whole are actually the worst. But they all had ideas about what might contribute to our reputation, and how we might turn things around.
Let’s start with the obvious: Boston’s layout — with its narrow streets, rotaries, bike lanes, and construction detours — is no cakewalk. “It can be confusing, especially for out-of-towners,” says Officer Rachel McGuire, a Boston Police Department spokeswoman.
Then there’s the maddening traffic. “Everybody gets irritated by congestion in the Boston area,” says Mary Maguire, AAA Northeast’s director of public and legislative affairs. New drivers, in particular, need nurturing and guidance. “If parents model patient, good behavior behind the wheel,” she says, “their kids are going to be patient, kind drivers.”
To keep things civil on the road, “use the same manners you’d use at a dinner party,” Maguire suggests. “You wouldn’t grab somebody else’s plate off the table or push or shove them in the buffet line.” (Or would you?) Practice courtesies like letting another car go first at an intersection and cutting other drivers some slack when they do something that offends your Bostonian sensibilities. It feels good to pay it forward, she promises. “When I make a mistake on the road,” she says, “I’ll put my hand out the window to thank the other driver for letting me go.”
If you can’t stop driving like a dope, it might be because you’re bored. When you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, “the mind looks for something to do, either cognitively — you start daydreaming — or physically,” says Bryan Reimer, associate director of the New England University Transportation Center at MIT. That’s when people can get into trouble reaching for their smartphones and other distractions.
OK, yes, but why then are we such highway hypocrites, unable to recognize we’re all doing the same things that make us crazy when other drivers do them?
“Eight out of ten people believe they are above-average drivers,” Reimer says. “Driving is one of the most complex activities we take part in on a daily basis. . . . Eighty percent of the people can’t be above average; that’s basic statistics 101.”
Even buying a car with a back-up camera and other high-tech gadgets isn’t necessarily going to improve your driving performance. “When you buy a new car with all the latest, greatest safety systems and you don’t know how to use them — you’re a novice driver,” Reimer says.
American drivers in general also seem to suffer from a sense of entitlement. In the United States, he says, driving is largely viewed as a right. “If you look at countries like Sweden and Germany, driving is looked at much more like a privilege; earning a license is much more complex.” In Germany, the autobahn is designed to handle vehicles traveling at speeds that exceed 100 miles per hour. “Germans would never understand why someone would text and drive,” Reimer says, “because on the autobahn you wouldn’t have the attention span to text and drive.”
To be fair, fellow Mass. drivers, on one important measure we are better off than many other states. In 2015, Massachusetts had among the lowest traffic fatality rates in the country based on vehicle miles traveled, with 306 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. With a rate of 0.52 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled, Massachusetts was well below the national average of 1.13. (According to preliminary state figures, there were 399 traffic fatalities last year.)
Reimer himself, who studies driver behavior, surprises me by admitting he finds driving in California more stressful than driving here. “I can predict how Bostonians are going to behave,” he says. “They’re not going to use their directional, so why expect it?”
THERE MAY BE GOOD REASONS for my bad driving habits, but how do I undo them? When a co-worker suggests consulting folks who drive city streets for a living, I call up UPS. The delivery company’s expanding driver safety program includes eight advanced training centers around the country, with one, it turns out, in West Boylston. Hearing about my skittishness on the road following my string of crashes, UPS spokesman Dan McMackin, a former driver and trainer, invites me to the Massachusetts center. “I can make you one of the better drivers in Boston,” he assures me.
On any given day, the Atlanta-based delivery company has 60,000 trucks on the road. Because preventing accidents is a huge concern, the company — with the aid of a $1.8 million grant received in 2005 — turned to researchers at MIT, Virginia Tech, and elsewhere to develop a more effective driving safety program. Last year alone, the company shelled out $194 million for safety training. Throwing money at the problem has had results: UPS has cut accident frequency by 32 percent since 2008.
OK, “brown,” let’s see what you’ve got.
I travel to the rural roads of West Boylston for a crash course in defensive driving at UPS’s Integrad training center. It’s been open for just over a year and about 600 driver recruits and managers from the East Coast have gone through programs here. They learn how to handle 70-pound packages over icy walkways and safely drive anywhere, from tidy Midwestern towns with streets in an orderly grid to the unruliest warren of narrow, winding, one-way streets that Boston has to offer.
Here, recruits get experience driving on real streets and in a mock village set behind a nondescript commercial building. In the village, street lines and “grass” are painted on the pavement, street signs bear names like Tremont, Oak, and Spring, and a few wooden sheds stand in for houses and businesses. There’s even a faux loading dock so trainees can practice deliveries. At a shed masquerading as a house, they learn the nuances of delivering to a home that may have a canine resident. There’s a dog bowl outside, but no real canine on duty. The trainers bark at students to keep things lively, says Kara Murphy, a facilitator who’s been with UPS for 18 years.
Recruits also practice backing up and checking truck mirrors for hazards in the village. On day two of training, the facilitators place a knee-high yellow plastic figure near a truck’s rear tires, then run future drivers through an exercise. “We call him Timmy,” Murphy says of the figure, which looks part turtle, part boy. “Tuesday we bring him out and just about everybody hits him,” she says. Timmy typically fares better during Wednesday’s repeat drill.
Deborah Pockette, the site manager, starts me out at Hazard Identification — one of 12 learning stations. A computer program simulates the driver’s view from inside a “package car’’ (that’s what UPS calls its boxy brown delivery trucks). The goal is to ID as many hazards as you can on a large touch-screen monitor; you get bonus points if you spot them in the order they pop up on screen. Round 1 simulates a delivery in a suburban neighborhood. Pockette turns on the video. All I have to do is tap the potential hazards as I notice them on-screen.
“You missed the kids playing soccer,” Pockette says about five seconds in.
“What kids playing soccer?”
“The cars parked on the side of the road” are hazards, too, she informs me.
“They’re hazards?” I ask, not wanting to tell her I’ve been conditioned to see them as the competition.
When the 30-second exercise ends, I’ve scored 3 out of 14 possible points. “You didn’t even get 50 percent,” Pockette notes. It takes two more tries with the same scenario before I spot the kids playing soccer in a yard to the truck’s left. And I still don’t identify all the hazards. We move on to a highway scenario. This time, I find six out of six hazards and even earn the bonus points. Maybe it’s because this scene reminds me of the Braintree split, where I merged onto the expressway on a near-daily basis for nine years. Pockette throws one more highway scenario at me, but I don’t do as well on this one. I spot all eight hazards in front of me, but in the driver’s side mirror I miss a big truck following too closely. Whoops. Forgot about checking the mirrors.
Guess I can also forget about a second career as a UPS driver.
Later, one of the facilitators takes me out in a training vehicle — a standard UPS package car, but it has three seats, one for an instructor and two for students. Since I don’t have a US Department of Transportation card, I can’t drive the truck. But the staff promise to help me learn some defensive driving techniques. My instructor is Tracy Marks, who joined UPS 24 years ago after leaving the Marine Corps. A driving supervisor since 2000, Marks wears the company’s hallmark brown shirt and shorts with a blue Fitbit strapped to his left wrist. Before the lesson starts, he tells me the most important factors for driving safely are “space and visibility.” You need a space cushion around a vehicle, he explains, to provide an escape path from danger, and you need good lines of visibility to see potential hazards all around the vehicle, whether that’s an oncoming Audi, a family walking on the side of the road, or a semi following too closely.
In the truck, Marks rattles through a driver drill, scanning for potential hazards around the package car and calling them out in a nonstop patter. Once he’s sure it’s clear, he starts the truck and gets underway, talking through the tools UPS uses to teach defensive driving, noting everything in the truck’s path and in its mirrors.
We’re not even out of the parking lot yet. I find myself wishing Marks’s Fitbit could measure how many words he spouts per second, though he swears he has slowed down for my benefit. He could easily land a job reading disclaimers about prescription drug side effects for TV commercials.
He’s scanning everything, continuously. He is looking down the road for hazards and escapes and assessing obstructions — or “billboards,” as he calls them — that he can’t see over or through. Being on a Times Square billboard in his underwear may have worked out for Mark Wahlberg, but in UPS driver training lingo, it’s not a good thing to be “billboarded” or to serve as a billboard — that is, block another driver’s view. “When we slow down to stop, we tap our brakes and check the rear, because if I’m billboarding somebody behind me, they can’t see beyond me,” Marks says.
In case you wondered, UPS drivers don’t honk their horns so frequently because they’re angry. “It isn’t personal,” Marks explains. “It’s about me getting the attention of the person in the vehicle or on the side of the street” to make sure they see the UPS truck in their path.
He coaches me on approaching “stale green lights” that could turn yellow at any second; keeping an eye on the road ahead, where my vehicle will be in eight to 12 seconds; and entering a rotary properly. “When we get to a rotary, we stop behind the vehicle in front of us and we don’t move until that vehicle in front of us has started to move,” he says. When there are accidents at rotaries, he adds, “it’s usually the guy looking to the left, just pulling forward, assuming that the guy [in front] pulled out.”
Dan McMackin says UPS teaches drivers the same methods no matter which part of the country they’ll be delivering packages in. “We’re agnostic,” he says. Meaning: They don’t officially label Massachusetts as a hair-raising place to drive. But, unofficially, word seems to have gotten around.
Deborah Pockette nods knowingly when I explain the basis for my story. “I don’t drive in Boston. I can’t keep my space cushion,” she says. Originally from Vermont, Pockette earned the title “Top Gun” in her supervisor road training program. “I got transferred to Massachusetts and I had to learn to drive [here] very quickly,” she says, recalling how she had to adapt to the way motorists will wait till the last second to merge and cut people off.
“Do you know what the name for Massachusetts drivers is?” she asks. I may have heard something, I tell her.
ON THE RIDE HOME, I’m determined to put what I’ve learned into action. Running through my own personal preflight checklist, I adjust the mirrors, enter my destination into my GPS, get the air conditioner going, and check my cellphone for texts, voice mails, and e-mails. As I head out of the UPS parking lot, I run through Tracy Marks’s safety pointers as best I can: I check the mirrors. I scan for hazards. I look a little down the road. I’m nowhere near as fast or proficient as he is. UPS advises checking your mirrors every five to eight seconds, but my eyes hurt trying to keep that pace. As I stop at an intersection, I check the mirrors again. I’m on alert for pedestrians, cars on the side of the road, and “billboards.” My head is spinning trying to remember all this while driving in unfamiliar territory. It feels like the one (and only) time I tried a Zumba class — completely unnatural and awkward.
I make my way through a fork in the road, over a railroad crossing, passing vehicles parked along the roadside and a “Timmy” figure at one intersection. Then I look left and see a sign for the Wicked Good Cookies shop. It distracts me. I’m thirsty. I could use a drink and a snack. I start running through my grocery shopping list in my head. I’m barely 1 mile from UPS and I’m already struggling to stay focused on driving. How will I ever manage on the streets of Boston?
Surprisingly, merging on Interstate 290 isn’t bad. Adjusting the side mirrors the way Kara Murphy instructed helped; I have a much better idea of where other vehicles are as I navigate onto the busy road.
On Interstate 495 south, afternoon traffic is picking up. My anxiety level spikes to DEFCON-3. My brain is warning, Danger, Will Robinson. Danger. But then I remember Marks saying, “It’s all about space and visibility.” No tailgating, I remind myself. Make sure I can see what’s ahead of me, and be prepared for what other drivers may dish out. In seconds I’m really glad for the two car lengths between me and the vehicle ahead when some guy in an Audi (why is it always someone in an Audi?) darts in front of me from the middle lane without signaling. I’ll confess I muttered something inappropriate under my breath, but I remained in control of my car because I saw him coming in the driver’s side mirror. (Baby steps, people. Baby steps.)
In the weeks since my UPS visit, I’ve found driving more exhausting than it has ever been. Shedding my Boston driver persona is about as easy as getting a Patriots fan to come up with a list of Roger Goodell’s redeeming qualities. Still, I remain committed to cleaning up my act.
If you need some incentive to join me on the straight and narrow, consider this: On this year’s Allstate America’s Best Drivers Report — you know, the one that ranked us last — New York City was in 116th place, up 27 spots from last year. Are we really going to let a bunch of Yankees and Jets fans make us look like slackers?
Remember, we only have to keep it together for a few more years, until those magical self-driving cars make all our troubles go away. In the meantime, maybe I’ll steer clear of city driving altogether and buy a lifetime T pass. Because what could go wrong there?
This story has been updated to correct a reference to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s traffic fatality statistics. The statistic mentioned is 0.52 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled.