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The Universal Language of Crappy Driving

From the California stop to the Pittsburgh left, questionable choices behind the wheel are less local than the names we give them—except when they aren’t.

Cities and states across the country are eager to claim a regional disregard for stop signs. (anarchosyn/Flickr)

Have you ever pulled a California stop? What about a Boston stop, or a Rhode Island roll? They all mean the same thing: a not-quite-complete halt at a stop sign.

In fact, a surprising number of places have pinned their own name on this maneuver, and others like it. When researching a column for the Boston Globe, linguist and writer Ben Zimmer was surprised by how many of the terms referred to the same transgressions.

“Everyone seems to think that their particular region has a monopoly on questionable driving tactics,” Zimmer wrote in a follow-up on Vocabulary.com.

But they don’t, for the most part—except when it comes to specifically local infrastructure design. When I put out a call on Twitter for place-named traffic maneuvers like this, most of the responses I got could be boiled down to three categories: incomplete stops, aggressive turns, and a third, slightly amorphous one, which turned out to be the most interesting.

The rolling stop

Cities and states across the country are eager to claim a regional disregard for stop signs. The most famous is the California stop—or the California roll, if you’re feeling cheeky—but the list also includes the St. Louis stop and the Rhode Island roll, helpfully defined on Urban Dictionary as “the New England name for a California stop.” In his column, Zimmer also lists the “Michigan stop,” “New York stop,” and “Quebec stop”—and adds that when Canadians aren’t blaming the Quebecois, they tend to call it the “American stop.” (Heard it pinned on other places? Let us know in the comments.)

There’s one similar-sounding outlier: the Idaho stop. Since 1982, by law, Idaho cyclists have had the right to treat stop signs as yield signs, and red lights as stop signs. In the decades since, other states and cities have considered adopting it, but it’s only passed in a few Colorado towns. (It’s currently under consideration by the Colorado legislature, though.)

Different turning maneuvers

Another practice that’s ripe for geographically specific names: left turns. The Steel City has a special name for a move you might’ve pulled at some point: cutting in front of oncoming traffic to turn left at a green light before cars in the other direction enter the intersection. They call it a Pittsburgh left, and locals are split on whether or not it’s a good thing.

However, on Vocabulary.com, Zimmer also lists alternate locations on which this left turn has been pinned: at least Boston, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York, if not more.

But just like in the last case, there are a few similar names for different behaviors. In Copenhagen, where most bike lanes are protected by a concrete barrier, cyclists use something called the Copenhagen left, in which they go straight across an intersection, turn toward the left at the opposite side, then wait to go straight again. U.S. cities (including Portland, of course) have considered instituting this pattern into their planning.

And a San Francisco left is a series of three right turns after going one block past where you initially wanted to turn left.

Regional uniqueness

“The fact that Boston’s regional driving sins show up under different names elsewhere suggests that the city hardly has a monopoly on sketchy driving practices,” Zimmer wrote for the Boston Globe. “In fact, paradoxically, what these geographically specific names suggest is that we may be a nation more united in terrible driving than we know.”

While the slang for traffic faux pas may be regional, the behaviors are seemingly universal—but that changes when the designs of the roads themselves come into play, and vary from one place to the next.

The Idaho stop and the Copenhagen left, for example, are behavioral changes that resulted from particular legal and physical infrastructure, respectively. Further, the Jersey jughandle, the Michigan left, and the Texas turnaround look different on the ground, but they are all infrastructure designs that aim to help drivers get where they need to go more safely and quickly—avoiding those aggressive, traffic-impeding left turns along the way. They also each have a reputation for confusing out-of-towners and frustrating urbanists who are sick of designing roads primarily for cars.

When an intersection has a “Jersey jughandle,” turning traffic exits to the right, then has the option to turn left or right into the cross-road. (Federal Highway Administration)

The Jersey jughandle (shown here), separates all turning traffic from the intersection, moving it down the cross-road. Think of a highway exit ramp—but in the state of New Jersey, at least, these types of intersections exist on other busy roads too.

Zimmer is from New Jersey, he told me in an email, so he’s been particularly interested in the state’s history of “creating terms specific to its roadways.” There’s the jughandle, which “was an innovation of the NJ State Highway Department in the late ‘50s,” but also the “shunpike,” “a term for a road set up to avoid the tolls on a turnpike,” he says, and the “Jersey barrier,” those gray barriers you sometimes see re-routing traffic on the highway.

The Michigan left, meanwhile, allows a multilane intersection to avoid left turns entirely, as Emily Badger wrote for CityLab in 2013.

A diagram of the Michigan left. (Federal Highway Administration)

For drivers making right turns or proceeding in the same direction, the intersection operates like any other. To make a Michigan left, drivers turn right, then make a U-turn before continuing straight through the intersection. “The concept is also intended to improve traffic flow by eliminating that pesky left-turn cycle at the light,” Badger added. (Worth noting—according to Michigan Highways, as municipalities in the Southwest have incorporated the design, they’ve re-christened them "Arizona Boulevard" turns.)

Finally, the Texas turnaround, also called the Texas U-turn, takes cars from one side of a highway’s frontage road to the other, headed in the opposite direction, without a left turn at an intersection. Here’s a Google Street View of one in the Dallas suburbs, near Farmers Branch, Texas. You’ll see that rather than having cars turn left to go under the highway, there’s a specific U-turn lane, on the far left, closest to the highway itself.

(Screengrab from Google Maps)

Now, just because they’re designed to be safer doesn’t mean regionally specific named maneuvers always get it right. A bill to ban jughandles in New Jersey, inspired by their potential to worsen back-ups, made it to the State Senate in 2013 before being “squelched.”

And, the San Francisco left, as described above? Three rights make a left there for a frustrating reason: “No left turn” signs litter the city streets. So the locals figured out how to get around them—sort of.

The Chicago “suicide merge” is a similar story: The 1960s design of the Kennedy Expressway resulted in the need for drivers to be aggressive in order to merge with moving traffic. In 2009, the city began work to improve safety in at least one particularly dangerous zone. But the moniker has stuck—so now, bold drivers across the country could hypothetically use the term to describe these aggressive moves on the road. Or they could just adapt it for their own hometown, calling it the Pittsburgh slide, or the Memphis merge, or the Tallahassee squeeze. But rest assured, no matter how much you think that behavior is a reflection of the bad drivers in your area, it’s happening just about everywhere.

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