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Rules for the Road on Martha’s Vineyard

16 Jun

There are no traffic lights on Martha’s Vineyard, so what keeps driving civil around here is a core road etiquette that’s subtly enforced with classic, small town tools of norm enforcement: 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 small town social sanctions and 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 15,000 people in winter to 115,000 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. This is New England, after all.)

But I digress… back to the rules of the road. Here are some of the main ones:

  1. 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.  When this is done rudely, there are shakes of the head and knowing looks exchanged between the other drivers at the intersection.
  2. Stop for People in Crosswalks.  This is another given here (it may even be the law, but it isn’t adhered to so 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 mow 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 pleasing exchange.

  3. 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!!”

  4. Brake for Ducks and Geese Crossing the Road.  Mini-parades of cheeky fowl and their offspring like to take their sweet time lining up and waddling across the road, from pond to beach or beach to pond.  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 and sees the reason.
  5. 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.

  6. 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 vile off-island driving habits alive and well, and note the inevitable metamorphosis with pleasure.  It really does feel good to become civil.

Take care and be well,

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award