Stop!: An Analysis of Boston Driving

September 1985


An Analysis of Boston Driving

By Alfie Kohn

What you’ve always suspected is absolutely true.  Boston is the most dangerous U.S. city in which to drive.  One in five insured Boston drivers put in a claim for collision in 1983.  The runner-up was New York City, where the rate was a paltry one in eight.

You can thank the Boston Driver for this national distinction.  If the Boston Driver were having dinner with you, he wouldn’t just reach over you to help himself to the bread. He’d take it off your plate.  And then he’d give you the finger.

The Boston Driver is an institution, a defining feature of the area, right alongside baked beans, Harvard, and the Red Sox.  Grown men across the country tremble at the thought of joining him on the streets of B-town.  Local policemen simply get out of his way.  He acts as if the Massachusetts Driver’s Handbook consisted of a single sentence:  “You always have the right of way.”  He reminds you of Richard Nixon’s famous madman theory from the Vietnam War days:  Let them think you’re crazy and they’ll do what you want.

He’s not crazy, though — just impatient and selfish.  The Boston Driver’s motto is:  I need to get there right now and I am the only one on the road who matters.   That’s why he edges into the street, forcing oncoming traffic from the left to stop, in order to wait for a break in traffic from the right.  Or why he turns right from the left lane.  Or why he races ahead on the breakdown lane and then forces his way back in ahead of you.  It’s why he thinks the sole purpose of a horn is to intimidate drivers who aren’t fast or obnoxious enough for his taste.  Or why he reads the word “STOP” as:  “SLOW DOWN A LITTLE.”  And it’s why he is so puzzled when an out-of-town driver signals for a turn that he scratches his head and asks, “Why does that car have one light blinking?”

In 1980, Michael Berbaum left Illinois to take a teaching job in Brandeis University’s psychology department.  He had heard about driving in Boston but nothing had prepared him for what he found.  “I was just stunned,” he says.  “It’s the most chaotic place I’ve seen.  It’s” — he struggles for the right phrase — “ingrained collective insanity.”  Berbaum appealed for guidance from his colleagues and students.  He posted a notice on his office door announcing that he was new to town and requesting the rules of driving in Boston.  The answers filled three huge sheets of computer paper.  Among them:

* On a two-lane road, always use the middle lane.

* Do not stop for pedestrians unless they’re under your car wheels.

* All traffic lanes are suggestions.

* Use of turn signals will only warn other drivers.

* Green means go; yellow means go faster.

Berbaum also could have found help in Ira Gershkoff and Richard Trachtman’s 1982 book, Wild in the Streets, which patiently explains what to do on the road.  For example:  “One of the cardinal rules of driving is surely ‘Stop on Red.’  However, if the light is red for more than five seconds, you can assume that it is broken.  You may proceed after a quick check for cross traffic and police cruisers.”

There is no denying that some people get a charge out of this situation.  Katharine Burrage, who is in her 60’s, offers a sly smile when asked about driving in Boston.  “I like it because I can do what I like,” she says.  For Dove Scherr, a young Cambridge woman, “It’s like a competitive game.  It’s fun to be mad, you know?  It makes life exciting.”  Others undoubtedly feel the same way but refuse to own up to it.

The kind of excitement provided by a 2,000 pound piece of metal traveling at high speeds has its price, of course.  In 1983, that price was 31 deaths and 5,140 injuries in Boston alone.  There were between 15,000 and 16,000 collisions, depending on whose count you believe, or between 41 and 44 every day of the year.  As for the close calls, don’t even ask.

Everyone in town has an opinion on the difference between driving in Boston and driving in other large cities.  Los Angeles drivers may be rude on the highway, people will tell you, but they are scrupulously considerate in the city.  Word has it they even stop for pedestrians.  New Yorkers rarely take their hands off their horns, but they do stop on red and they do signal for turns.  Dan Scharfman, a financial analyst who spends a lot of time in Manhattan, maintains that while “New York drivers take risks for a reason, Boston drivers take risks for no reason.”  Bob Talbot, who drives a Red & White taxi, remembers taking someone to the airport who told him:  “New York cab drivers are ruthless; Boston cab drivers are reckless.”

Some folks will tell you Boston is the worst place to drive on the planet, while others insist it’s really no worse than a lot of other cities.  Who’s right?  It depends how you measure.  Bad driving is difficult to quantify, but if we take the number of collisions for every so many drivers (so as to correct for population disparities), we find that Boston does indeed live up to its atrocious reputation.  (See SIDEBAR A.)  New York and Chicago drivers filed collision claims at the rate of just over 12 per hundred.  The next eight most populous cities for which statistics are available had an average rate of 7.7.  Massachusetts had an overall rate of 10.25.  And Boston’s rate was a whopping 20.05.

If you prefer another measure, consider the money paid out by insurance companies on collision claims divided by the number of policies; this reflects both the number and severity of crashes.  For Boston, the figure is $211.53.  Runner-up New York:  a mere $161.50.  When she was read these figures, Boston’s Commissioner of Traffic and Parking Lisa Chapnick gulped.  “Clearly it’s appalling,” she said.  “We have our work cut out for us.”


The data confirm what we all know — and what some of us regard with a kind of perverse pride:  Driving in Boston is a nightmare.  A number of people who watch the roads professionally take pains to point out that this is not because of Bostonians, as such.

There’s nothing in the drinking water here that causes drivers to weave on the Central Artery.  “We’re dealing with the same human beings” as in other cities, points out Sergeant Charles Hayes, who directs the traffic bureau of the MDC.  Dressed in a maroon sports jacket, Hayes has a military haircut and a square face.  “There’s nothing different about the psychology of the Boston driver or the Boston pedestrian,” he emphasizes.

So what does account for the Boston Driver?  Conversations with a range of officials and observers as well as a review of the statistics suggest five reasons.

1.  Irrational Roads.    “It’s more a function of the history of the area — how the roads are laid out – than the behavior of the drivers.  Look how narrow the streets are around here,” says Sgt. Hayes.  Indeed, anyone who has tried to drive two abreast on the Jamaicaway or the Alewife Brook Parkway does not need to be reminded of their narrowness.  “This city was designed for horses and buggies,” says Commissioner Chapnick.  “When you go to Dallas or Houston or Philadelphia or Washington, you see these huge ten- and twelve-lane roads in the middle of the downtown development.  And this city was developed on a harbor and on a very old infrastructure.  We’re putting an enormous amount of pressure on very narrow streets.”

Even before horses and buggies, moreover, Boston’s streets began as cow paths.  What was comfortable for cattle several hundred years ago makes navigating the streets of today almost impossible.  Go to New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia — almost any other American city, in fact — and you’ll find a tidy grid system.  Streets mostly cross at right angles and they’re numbered.  This is an  arrangement of obvious common sense, comparable to alphabetizing the names in the phone book.  Boston, however, offers a crazy quilt pattern of streets.  Sometimes they come together in rotaries, a phenomenon dubbed “a vehicular anachronism” by Professor Jose A. Gomez-Ibanez, who teaches urban planning and public policy at the Kennedy School of Government.  Entering a rotary, as traffic reporter Kevin O’Keefe observes, is “like playing roulette.”  Russian roulette.  (Officially it is those already in the rotary who have the right-of-way, but this is a well-kept secret.)

As if all this were not enough, Boston streets – with the exception of one refreshing section of South Boston – are utterly devoid of numbers.  Even a calm and rational person attempting to find his or her way around the city is likely to become increasingly frustrated because of its lay-out, and frustration begets rudeness or panic.

2.  Too Many Drivers.  The same congestion that makes parking in Boston a source of desperation for drivers (and a source of revenue for the city) also makes driving itself difficult.  As of July 1983, Boston’s residents owned 230,297 automobiles, but police multiply resident auto figures by 2.5 to estimate the number of cars in the city during an average weekday.  Commissioner Chapnick thinks that the American love affair with the automobile leads us to drive when the MBTA would be more convenient.  “We’ve got a fairly expensive public transportation system with express buses,” she sighs, “but there are a lot of one-person vehicles.  People will risk a $15 parking ticket, spend twice as long in a traffic jam.”  And, she might have added, contribute significantly to the horror show that is Boston driving.  If the Commissioner had unlimited money to spend, how would she improve the situation?  She doesn’t even have to think.  “The first thing I’d do is run a huge campaign around alternative transportation like carpools, vanpools, water, public transportation.  The second would be to put parking lots — sort of park-and-ride — in outlying areas that would connect up with public transportation.

“No matter how much money you have, how many signs and signals, how well-paved your roads are, if they’re narrow and they’re taking 100,000 cars and [they’re] designed for 20,000, you’re going to be in trouble,” she concludes.

3.  Deficient Signs and Signals.  Blame some of the confusion on the lay of the land and the number of cars, but don’t forget the way Boston traffic is controlled.  Or not controlled.  Consider:

*  Intersections often are missing street signs.  Where signs do exist, they typically tell you the name of the small cross street but not the main street.  The result is that you can drive for miles on a major thoroughfare without knowing its name.  The attitude of city planners, says Prof. Berbaum, seems to be:  “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t belong there.”

*  “Intersection design is awful,” says Yosef Sheffi, who is associate professor at MIT’s Center for Transportation Studies.  He cites traffic lights as being particularly abysmal.  They’re almost never synchronized.  (Berkeley Street heading towards the Charles River is an exception.)  They’re too small.  They’re not always in the same location within an intersection.  They often show red and green simultaneously.  Sometimes one side gets a green light before the other, amounting to a “left turn lead.”  But this is neither consistent nor marked with a sign, so drivers get in the habit of taking their left turns as soon as the light turns green.  Professor Sheffi asserts that Boston’s traffic lights are equivalent to what Indiana had 40 years ago.

*  Exits are badly marked, offering too little warning and too little information.  Say you are driving west on Storrow Drive, looking for Harvard Square.  A sign offers you two choices:  Newton or Central Square.  How are you to know there will be another Cambridge exit before you get to Newton?  And how, to take another example, are you to make sense of a stretch of highway that is simultaneously labeled 128 South and 93  North?

How do our signs and signals compare with other places in the country?  Funny you should ask.  In 1981, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and  Ordinances rated the 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico on their compliance with its own “Uniform Vehicle Code,” a set of model traffic laws.  The Committee’s report, published by the U.S. Department of Transportation in July 1981, ranks Massachusetts dead last.  Fifty-second out of fifty-two.  The worst set of traffic laws in the country.

Lisa Chapnick, 32, who took over the Boston Traffic and Parking Commission last April and is, by her own admission, “not a transportation expert,” says the problem is money.  She oversees a staff of 300 and a budget of $13 million.  Most of the $13 million, however, goes for the staff of 300.  Upgrading requires special grants and there is no one on the staff whose job it is to write grant proposals.  In fact, the 800 signals, 9,000 parking meters, and 40,000 signs in Boston are maintained by a staff of eight.  Fortunately, though, $10 million worth of federal and state money has been promised for a special program to computerize the traffic signals at about 280 Boston intersections.  This project will continue over three years.  “The traffic will move a whole lot better because it’ll be just like having a cop there,” Chapnick promises.  The new system will not, however, respond to actual traffic flow.  It will simply change the timing of red and green lights to  correspond to the time of day.

What about synchronizing signals along major streets?  “I can’t comment on that,” says the Commissioner, “because I’m not sure that they’re not [already synchronized].”  And left-turn leads?  She reminds us that each traffic light — or “setta lights,” to use the local parlance — costs $40,000.  Street signs?  “There’s good news,” enthuses Chapnick.  “During the fall we did a neighborhood maintenance clean-up program and replaced 5,000 signs.  In the spring, we’ll do the same thing for major arteries.”  With more such diligent work and grant money, Massachusetts could leap to 51st on that national list in no time.

4.  Inadequate Enforcement.  The Globe‘s Bob Turner:  “The City of Boston…enforces the parking laws with a vengeance because parking tickets produce money for the city budget.  It enforces the laws against moving violations rarely, if ever, because public safety is apparently less important than the budget….Drivers who are behaving dangerously are ignored.  They have learned through experience that the chance of being stopped for a moving violation is microscopic.”

Professor Gomez-Ibanez:  “My sense is that the police just do not view enforcing moving violations as a priority.  You can do any number of crazy things in front of a cop.”

Gershkoff and Trachtman, in Wild in the Streets:  “The only way you really have a good chance for a moving violation is to hit something that can vote.”

Professor Sheffi:  “The casual observer sees the enforcement here is so bad…”  (His voice trails off in incredulity.)  In California, “the police are out there getting people.  You make a U-turn in the wrong place and there’s, I don’t know, a 20% chance of getting caught.  Enforcement I think is a large part of it.  People just get used to no chance of being caught.”

On one side are all these people and your own experience.  (How many Boston Drivers have you seen pulled over?)  On the other side:  Martin Mulkern, Superintendent of the Boston Police Department’s Special Operations Bureau.  Supt. Mulkern, a huge man with sparse white hair and pink cheeks, works in Hyde Park Station #5.  Inside the sixty-year-old building, policemen (all white) are hanging about, guffawing, discussing basketball and “this f—– weather.”  It is here that Mulkern makes his case.

“Come here, lookit this,” he says, pointing to a row of file cabinets.  A pimply cadet appears and pulls open a drawer to reveal a pile of moving violation citations.  “Visual-wise and percentage-wise, we’re doing a good job,” Mulkern insists.  “When [our men] see a violation, they react to it.  I send them all around to try and give [drivers] the omnipresence kind of concept.”

So why is Boston rife with bad drivers?  “Boston is unique in itself.  You can’t compare Boston with New York or New York with Columbus, Ohio.  They’re different cities, you know what I’m saying?”

Supt. Mulkern has called in two of his officers to help make his presentation.  They sit around the large table that dominates his office.  “You can go out there every day and write 50 or 60 moving violations,” says Patrolman Jim Hussey.  And if we don’t do this, his boss puts in, it’s because the officers have other duties to attend to.  It’s also because “you’re not out to trap people, you’re trying to make them comply.”  Compassion for lost tourists helps to explain why more citations are not written, Mulkern adds, noting that “they’ve got lines at the tourist center in downtown Boston.”

Mulkern’s favorite evidence of effective enforcement, though, which he mentions twice during the course of a conversation, is the assessment of the Shriners, who held their convention here last summer.  “The Shriners thought this was the best-policed city they’ve ever been in,” he says proudly.  “And the safest city in the country they’d ever been to.”

How many citations for moving violations do Boston police actually write?  More than you think:  81,457, according to Mark Lynch, director of the Department’s management and budget bureau.  (More than a third of these come from Mulkern’s units, which include the motorcycle police.)  This seems an impressive number until you compare it to what goes on in other cities.  Detroit’s cops handed out more than twice that number.  In San Francisco, with a population only slightly larger than Boston’s, there were 70% more citations last year.  Even Atlanta, which is smaller than Boston, had more.  And closer to home, Brookline’s police force, with one-twelfth the manpower of Boston’s, wrote more than half as many tickets during 1983.

Crackdowns on errant motorists come and go, of course.  From July 1983 until April 1984, citations went up.  Then they came back down.  But there has never been anything substantial enough to strike some fear into the Boston Driver’s heart.  “Look at the effect on drunk driving,” says Professor Sheffi.  “Police started taking notice; lo and behold, you see a reduction immediately.”  Ordinary bad driving has yet to be the subject of a concerted campaign.  So ordinary bad driving continues.

5.  The Self-Perpetuating System.  You arrive in Boston making frequent use of your turn signal, stopping on red, letting pedestrians cross, and generally driving as if your mother or a policeman were sitting next to you.  But something happens.  You defer to cars with the right-of-way and you hear angry honks from behind you.  No one lets you cut in when you ask (or even meets your eyes so that you can ask), so you just do it.  You hit the accelerator, just clearing the intersection as the light turns red; glancing in your rearview mirror, you see that three cars got through after you.  You begin to adopt the Type A behavior of everyone around you.  You adopt offensive behaviors so as to avoid being taken advantage of.

In short, you become a Boston Driver.

It happened to Prof. Berbaum, who monitored his own reaction with the trained eye of a social psychologist.  “What happened to me and to other people who move here is that we learn that courtesy doesn’t work.  If you take take turns, other people will take all the turns….I’ve come to [cut off oncoming cars at an intersection] here because other people expect it.”  Professor Thomas Schelling, the renowned political economist at Harvard, says such a system takes root and becomes stable.  It perpetuates itself after a while, even without fresh cause.  “If everybody thinks everybody else will be rude, they’ll be rude, too.  If Boston could have very rigid enforcement for a year, then [better driving] could be a self-sustaining system.”

Berbaum recalls biologist Garrett Hardin’s famous notion of the “tragedy of the commons.”  From the perspective of each cattle farmer with access to a public pasture, it is sensible to keep adding animals to his herd; this is rational behavior.   But because every farmer reasons this way, the grass is soon depleted and everyone loses.  “Any individual who tries to change [Boston driving patterns] will suffer all the costs,” says Berbaum.  “He will sit at the merger for the rest of his life.”  As individuals, then, we can do nothing.  We must act as a society to make structural changes.  “We could make major changes in who pays the cost for bad driving — through insurance rates and police ticketing.”  Unfortunately, Berbaum notes that “the things it would take to produce change are the lowest priority for police.  I’m not sanguine that there are easy solutions.”



City       Collision Claims/100 Insured Drivers       Average Loss per Policy

1.  BOSTON               20.05                                                       $211.53

2.  Chicago                 12.46                                                        118.88

3.  New York City     12.36                                                        161.50

4.  Detroit                  10.07                                                        133.15

5.  Los Angeles           8.71                                                         125.03

6.  Philadelphia          7.98                                                         114.04

7.  Baltimore               7.91                                                          81.54

8.  Honolulu               7.45                                                          82.68

9.  Phoenix                 6.75                                                          88.83

10. Indianapolis        6.28                                                          78.45

(Data for Houston and Dallas unavailable)




DAY:  Friday is the most dangerous day to drive, hands down.  Statistics from both the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Metropolitan District Commission confirm this. The MDC hands out the most citations on Friday, too.  Sunday is the day when the fewest accidents occur, while the fewest fatalities take place on Tuesday.

MONTH:  January topped the list in 1983, with 1,618 accidents.  July was last, with 1,1017.

HOUR:  Stay off the roads between 8 and 9 a.m. if you can.  There were 1,007 accidents in that hour, far more than in any single evening rush hour.  Surprisingly, the safest time to drive is between 8 and 9 p.m., when the Registry tallied up a mere 355 accidents, fewer than during the dead of night.  However, two of every three fatalities in Boston occurred at night.




* Of 33,656 citations handed out by the MDC in the first half of 1984, 80% went to men and 20% to women.

* Of 96 Boston driving fatalities over the last three years, 53 were pedestrians.

* About one quarter of Boston driving fatalities involve liquor.

* In 1983 it cost 45.3 cents a mile to operate an automobile in Boston, placing the city tenth in the nation and only slightly ahead of the national average (43.3 cents).  Boston ranked ninth in the category that included insurance, licensing, and fees.  (Los Angeles was tops in this category and in overall cost.)




Are they hapless victims of the Boston Driver or kamikazes who dart into the street, daring cars to hit them?  Your view of pedestrians is likely to depend on whether you happen to be one of them at the moment.  A kind of siege mentality sets in when you have to negotiate a Boston street on foot:  no one in a car is to be trusted.  But climb into your own car and pedestrians become a collective nuisance, not unlike potholes.  Except that potholes can’t hire lawyers.

Kevin O’Keefe, WEEI’s venerable traffic reporter, puts it this way:  “People drive just as they walk.  The person who’ll cut you off [on the highway] will do the same thing on the sidewalk.  It’s characteristic of the person.”  And the driver who hasn’t stopped for a yellow light since high school is the pedestrian who crosses the street whenever he feels like it: Let them stop for me, he says.

Michael Berbaum, associate professor of social psychology at Brandeis University, looks on pedestrians as being “disenfranchised” in Boston.  “Drivers are extraordinarily impatient with pedestrians who are trying to cross in the crosswalk with a green light,” he says.  But other students of human behavior have noticed that pedestrians crossing in the crosswalk when the light is green are about as plentiful in these parts as bald eagles.  “The pedestrians don’t respect any of the signals,” complains Professor Jose A. Gomez-Ibanez of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Professor Thomas Schelling, a political economist at Harvard, is particularly familiar with the infuriating behavior of pedestrians at Harvard Square.  “They’ll wait until they’ve got an implicit understanding:  We’re all going to march forward now.  And they all come out and intimidate the drivers.  The line of sheep keeps crossing the road as long as the sheep are close enough together so a driver can’t go through.”  The only pedestrians waiting for the WALK light at Harvard Square are the ones clutching cameras and traveler’s checks.  Everyone else crosses at whim, silently bleating, “Well, everyone else is doing it!”  Auto traffic backs up for blocks.  As for the policeman on duty, he’s busy chatting with his friends.

This, of course, is not to suggest that pedestrians make a habit of crossing at the corner.  “Jaywalking is a tradition here,” says one cab driver.  In other parts of the country, it is rare, but then in other parts of the country it is illegal.  Some 41,000 jaywalking summonses were handed out in Los Angeles during 1983.  In Boston:  zero.  “We don’t do jaywalking,” sniffs Peter Woloschuk, spokesperson for the Boston Police Department, as if the subject were windows.  Jaywalking citations ceased in the late 1960s for two reasons, according to Nicholas Foundas, the Department’s attorney.  First, “the commitment of time, money, and manpower outweighs the benefit the city’s going to get out of it.”  And second, a police officer cannot require a jaywalker to produce any identification.  “There’s nothing in the statute to authorize that.”  The result, according to Superintendent of Special Operations Martin Mulkern:  “There was no teeth in the enforcement.  It became a joke.”

In the year ending July 22, 1984, Boston City Hospital’s emergency room handled more injured pedestrians than injured drivers — 110, to be precise.  To hear Dr. Peter Moyer, director of Emergency Medical Services, tell it, these injuries may not have been the result of bad driving so much as bad walking.  The cases that stand out in his mind are “the drunks, the younger kids chasing a ball, the old people with dulled senses, and the tourists looking up at a building who step off the curb.”

Copyright © 1985 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page. — © Alfie Kohn