Like all other people on the planet, Argentines are many things, some truly terrific. But cautious, considerate drivers they are not. This is particularly true of Porteños. In general, the farther you get from Buenos Aires, the better the driving seems.
As someone who did not grow up driving down the country’s chaotic streets, it took me a long time to adapt to the traffic. I always found it frustratingly hard to adjust to the driving patterns. Argentine are offensive drivers, which makes it hard for defensive drivers to adjust and feel at home. But Argentines are also remarkably agile drivers, much more so, say, than U.S. drivers. They think and react quickly, and are uncannily good at avoiding accidents.
Nonetheless, they are – and this is obviously a generalization – incredibly impatient and self-centered on the road. This clashes with the nature of the defensive driver, who is constantly on the lookout for possible trouble. The offensive driver tries to get from A to B without first considering the needs of other drivers. In contrast, the defensive driver first weighs his needs against those of others on the road, trying to anticipate any trouble before it arises. If the defensive driver anticipates trouble, he or she cedes the way to avoid a problem. This approach to driving is infinitely safer, but it is not necessarily the perfect prescription for stress-free driving in Argentina.
For years, I failed to adjust successfully to local traffic, demonstrating that my adaptation skills were less than impressive. Driving stressed me out. I found myself getting angry in the car. While sitting behind the wheel, I sometimes found myself cursing out loud at the idiocy and self-absorbed nature of other drivers. Vulgarities would fly forth in a completely uncharacteristic spew of rage. Adrenaline would rush through my body, compromising my ability to think rationally. My stomach would fill with acid, reminding me that I was experiencing unwelcome stress and tension. “I should have taken a taxi,” I would often think.
“Relax,” my wife would say, “You’re making me nervous.” She pleaded with me to realize – to fully internalize – that drivers here are thoughtless. “This is not the U.S.,” she would say, tired of repeating herself.
But then a friend came up with a splendidly helpful thought. “I love driving here,” he said. “It’s just like being at the race track. You can do whatever you want and never get a ticket.” Wow, I thought, what a paradigm shift. It is very much like a race track out there and, if I could just think of it this way, I could probably learn to enjoy driving. To do this, I first needed to ditch the driving rules that had been etched into my neural pathways after so many years of driving outside Argentina.
So I came up with a list of new rules to replace the old ones. Just coming up with the list helped reduce the stress I felt while on the road. Here’s the list:
1) Unless you have to drive, don’t: take a taxi or a bus or the subway.
2) Expect other drivers to violate all the traffic rules you know. Don’t get frustrated when this happens.
3) Expect to get honked at.
4) Expect to get cursed at (¡Pero la puta que te parió!) even if you’re the one who is driving prudently. A few days ago, I saw an elderly woman curse vociferously at another elderly couple for driving slowly. It seemed ridiculously unnecessary to me, but the woman seemed to enjoy cursing at the couple. After she finished her tirade, the woman laughed about the incident, indicating that she was not deeply angry about anything. If you want to, learn to curse back but without taking the exchange too seriously. Argentines have a remarkably interesting capacity to curse and yell without actually taking themselves too seriously. The angry yelling seems to be fleeting and does not – at least in many cases – seem to represent a deep, lingering anger. The same trait seems to be common in Italy which, of course, supplied much of Argentina’s immigration. My experience is that Argentines curse and yell in traffic in part just for show. In part, they enjoy it. The verbal onslaughts are almost part of of an odd cultural ritual. If you saw similar cursing in the U.S., or in Ireland or in the U.K., my bet is that this would reflect a more profound anger, a deeper resentment that is more closely linked to violent thoughts. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. So don’t take it too seriously when you get cursed at. Expect it to happen, because eventually it will.
5) Expect people to cut you off.
6) Don’t stay in your lane if others are not staying in theirs. Reject your inclination to stay within the white lines. Even though they are painted on the ground, you shouldn’t necessarily pay any attention to them. Since nobody else stays in these lanes, it is dangerous to do so yourself. Note: This rule does not apply to the yellow lines, which should not be crossed. There is no need to make yourself a target for oncoming traffic.
7) Go with the flow; if others are weaving in and out, you should weave in and out; if others are speeding, you should probably be speeding; if others are running through the red light, you probably should too, unless you want to get hit from behind.
8) Use your turn signal, even if others don’t.
9) If you do use your turn signal, hoping, say, to move into another lane in front of another driver already in that lane, expect that driver to speed up and block your move. Don’t get angry when this happens. Just expect it in advance. This way, if the person actually let’s you in, you can be pleasantly surprised by his or her act of kindness.
10) Don’t expect anyone else to use a turn signal.
11) Don’t stay in the left lane if you are not speeding; if you are hogging the fast lane, know that soon you will have an angry driver on your trail. It doesn’t matter if you are going the speed limit or even surpassing it. For all practical purposes, there are no speed limits on the highways, so if you are not the fastest car on the road, get out of the way.
12) Stop at most red lights, but not necessarily all of them. This is especially true in dimly lit areas where you feel unsafe. It is standard procedure to cruise cautiously through lights in such areas, particularly if it is late at night.
13) Expect people to weave into your lane if traffic in their lane suddenly slows. Drivers here do not like to slow down and stay in their lane. If they sense traffic suddenly slowing, they will burst into your lane with complete and total disregard for what you might think about it. They will assume that you are as agile as they are and that, because of this, you will react quickly and slow down before causing an accident. This is the way driving is done, so just accept it.
14) If you start to get stressed, take a deep breath and remember that life is too short to get stressed about traffic.
15) Take a taxi.