Rules for the Road on Martha’s Vineyard
There are no traffic lights on this island – just one blinking light, appropriately named “The Blinker” – so what keeps driving civil here is a core road etiquette that’s subtly enforced with small town tools of the trade: the frown, the eyebrow lift, the pursed lip, the sardonic smirk and the occasional scold. It usually takes a new vacationer about three days to get the hang of driving here. It’s one of the best demonstrations of the power of community norms and small-town social control I’ve ever seen (and I grew up in a small town).
The actual rules aren’t half bad either – a nice metaphor on how to live. They result in a surprising amount of civility on an island where the population explodes from 16,000 people in winter to 106,000 in summer. (And just for the record, this place is not just for Chardonnay-sipping, effete, flush-pocketed blue bloods and preening celebrities; it’s loaded with multi-hued blue collar and middle class people, speaking Portugese and Canadian French and South Bostonese, too. And the blue bloods mostly drive beaters and take reverse pride in dressing shabbily.)
But back to the rules of the road here. Here are some of the main ones:
- Wait Your Turn. At any 4-way intersection, people stop and take turns, going around in a circle. There is eye contact – a sure-fire way to ensure a mannerly and orderly protocol, a reminder that these are people, not cars, engaged in this enterprise. If someone has to jump ahead of his turn, there’s usually a nonverbal exchange of queries, apologetic looks and hand signals. There are smiles. People like being polite and aware of each other. When this is done rudely, there are shakes of the head and knowing looks exchanged between the other drivers at the intersection.
- Stop for People in Crosswalks. This is another given here (it may even be the law, but it isn’t adhered to much if it is, in this commonwealth of famously demented drivers). If people enter a crosswalk, you stop. You not only stop, but you nod to them so they can be assured you know they’re there and you’re not going to run them or their kids down. There’s always this relief in their face and body language when they see this, and you usually get a genuine smile and thank you wave. It’s a very pleasing exchange. (When someone actually did get injured in a crosswalk earlier this summer by an 85 year old driver, it made front page news.)
- Don’t Beep; It’s Rude. People are heavily frowned upon when they use their horns for anything other than emergencies. Honking can get you the greatest verbal insult of all: “Learn how to drive on an island, Washashore!!”
- Stop for Ducks and Geese Crossing the Road. Mini-parades of Mommy fowl and their young like to take their sweet time waddling across the road, from pond to beach or beach to pond, in typical, cheeky, territorial fashion. When this happens, stopped cars can line up for quite a distance. It can cause irritation, but that evaporates as soon as the driver steps out of the car to see what’s going on.
- Don’t Speed – speeding is pointless on this island – you’ll get there when you get there. Chances are, there’s a raised drawbridge further down the road that will hold you up anyway. Besides, you could kill one of those cluelessly endangered moped drivers, a kid or duck, for that matter. Not worth it.
- Let People in ahead of You – if somebody’s waiting at a side street to get onto your road, stop and let them in ahead of you. If they’re approaching you and trying to turn left, stop and let them turn. Amazingly, the people behind you will not honk. They will adhere to Rule #3 and just wait.
So, these are good things, don’t you think? They create a terrific context for other kinds of civility in daily living. How do we make this happen everywhere, I wonder? In full disclosure, I confess that every June I get here with all my off-island rude driving habits alive and well, and note the inevitable metamorphosis with pleasure. It really feels good when I become nice. I guess it’s time I make this kind of driving my permanent Ohio style, too.
Take care and be well,