Stop Stopping

We in Massachusetts have a reputation for driving aggressively. Some refer to the worst of our drivers as “Mass-holes.” This aggressive reputation, however, doesn’t hold in one part of the state: Marblehead.

In Marblehead, drivers can be downright friendly. Sounds good, right? Actually, their friendliness can create problems. Let’s look at one such problem. It’s a lesson in decision-making.

A main road in Marblehead is West Shore Drive. When you want to turn onto West Shore Drive from a side street, you expect to wait. After all, if you pulled onto West Shore without a gap in traffic, you’d plough into an oncoming car. Waiting makes sense. It makes the situation safe and predictable.

But some of Marblehead’s friendly drivers fill the situation with unintentional ambiguity. Instead of driving steadily along the main road, when they see you on the side street they decide to stop. Why are they stopping?

The stopped driver on the main road throws you a smile. You wait a few seconds, wondering, “Is this driver planning to turn? Did they forget to signal?” You make your turn hesitatingly. The driver who stopped starts to follow behind you.

End of scenario. What’s wrong with it? Everything.

A car stopping on the main road is dangerous. It’s unexpected and, therefore, someone might get hit.

Stopping also wastes time, theirs and yours. How? If the other driver had just kept moving, they would have driven past you in three seconds. Then you would have pulled onto the road instantly. But if they’re slowing to a stop, you have to freeze. Even if they’re slowing out of friendliness, you’re temporarily stuck. You can’t pull out until you are sure they’ve stopped.

Worse still, they wear down their brakes and burn extra fuel. I imagine every million times this happens a whale dies. I imagine you could work out a conversion formula. There must be some mathematical relationship: wasted energy, damage to the environment, death of whales.

It gets even worse. Sometimes the driver on the main road stops as they’re being followed by a car or two. This doubles or triples the damage, as several vehicles halt unnecessarily. Three-millionths of a whale gone. The carnage soon adds up.

Why is the driver stopping in the first place? Could it be that this friendly driver has found it helpful to stop in other situations -- specifically, where travel is already slow? Perhaps during morning rush hour to allow cars to pull out into the line of traffic? In return, they get a nice wave and a smile. There’s not much disruption. No one was going anywhere fast.

You see this same dynamic happening all the time, but with decisions of great consequence. Something that works in one situation is inappropriately applied to a situation that is different. It was right in one place, but wrong in the next. It is a decision making shortcut that leads to bad outcomes.

Next time you find yourself in a problematic situation, be it with traffic or something else, ask yourself, “Am I just blindly applying an old solution? A solution that may have worked for some other problem, but may not be appropriate here?”