A few years ago I bought a motorcycle, and quickly discovered the necessity of trying to predict other people's behavior on the road - profiling, basically, not for the sake of it, but in the interest of my own safety. On a bike, the main source of trouble is not yourself, it's other people. Also, on a bike, trouble is either absent, or very very big. So I started to collect these observations - and continued to do so even later when driving my very boring and average four-wheel sedan.
These are not inflexible rules, but merely "statistical truths". I do think the observations are sound, so I use them all the time as guidelines. Here's the list:
That's the first thing you see - before noticing the driver, you get a good look at the car. That can tell you many things, if you only pay attention.
The sports car
Porsche, Lamborghini, Corvette, etc. Low and wide. Aerodynamic. Lots of horsepower. Above all - fast. The ego car. Counter-intuitively, these are some of the most aware drivers of all: high on adrenalin, they are constantly scanning the environment. But it's the way they put this awareness to work that defines them: short on temper, eager to assert themselves - and they have all the means in the world to do it, and then some. Think of them as velocity-addicted jerks. Luckily, sometimes they are quick enough to avert the trouble they are creating themselves. But that doesn't always work. So be mindful and lay off the top dog mentality around them - they got an excess of it already.
The pickup truck (not professional drivers)
Big tall vehicle. Lots of mass. Lots of horsepower. A sense of security. A sense of entitlement. They can be just as aggressive as the sports car drivers, and just as big jerks. Except the sports car jerks are passing you quickly, while the truck-driving jerks tend to stick around at the same speed. Just don't argue with them. You don't want 10 tons of road rage barreling down the road in your general direction. Let them be.
VTEC stickers. Inverted wheels. Low suspension. Fake pointless aerodynamics. All of these glued on a crappy cheap refurbished (often foreign) car. The most unpredictable of all. They are sports car wannabes, but are lacking the means - so besides being assertive, they are also frustrated (which they would vehemently deny when confronted). While sports car drivers are only aggressive, the modders also do outright stupid things - a bad combination. Just stay as far away as possible. Let them pass you by, as quickly as their wimpy engines, revved up to Hell and back, will allow them.
The safest participants to the traffic of all. A minivan basically means middle-class, family, average job, a couple kids on the back seat. Very cautious drivers, obeying all the rules - to a fault. Just be aware they might actually be below-average in terms of driving skills, or may be thinking about the grocery list or the soccer game at the school and their attention may wander - this is probably their only defect. Boring and fairly reliable otherwise.
These are people who should be driving a minivan, but have a subconscious wish for a sports car, and/or they like the idea of owning a truck but can't quite decide to take that step. A mixed category. Some are safe and reliable like minivan drivers. Some combine the aggression of sports car drivers with the sense of entitlement of pickup truck drivers - with none of the good parts. Be careful.
You look at it and you go "ah, yes, that's a CEO driving that car". These are a weird category. They can be as law-abiding and fair as the minivan drivers, and as precise and sharp and aware as sports car drivers - as long as there are rules to be followed. However, when the law, either the written or the unwritten one, makes no prescription, the ego pops out from under the cover and these people morph into unexpected jerks - they roll out their huge sense of entitlement slowly and self-assuredly. They are basically very safe, the only thing they might do is piss you off. But that's irrelevant - while sticks and stones may break your windshield, bad attitude can never run you over. Let it go.
The bumper sticker festival
Lots and lots of stickers, covering sometimes a lot more than just the bumpers? Political slogans? Outrageous or shocking statements? It's spelled C-R-A-Z-Y. Basically treat them as if they're carrying nitroglycerin on the back seat. Don't provoke them. Don't argue. Don't give them the middle finger. Let them pass. They are always "right" - and not afraid to shout it to the whole world. Don't assert yourself, or you'll create a lose-lose situation. They're perfectly fine - in their own little fantasy universe.
The salvage job
Old car, rusty, scratched-up, dirty, looking as if it just did a few somersaults and somehow managed to stay in one piece - but just barely. The person driving it may have a real reason for not taking care of their car (poverty being one), or may just simply don't care - in that case, they may not care for themselves, or for people around them. Give them a wide berth. Don't linger in their vicinity. They may be safe and boring and cautious, or they may do something stupid. You just don't know. So don't make assumptions.
The muscle car
While the modders are all about appearances, the muscle car guys (yes, they are all guys, it's an exclusive club) are about raw engine power. While the modders work on the exterior exclusively, the muscle car guys work mostly on the engine. They're like VTEC modders, only a lot smarter and with a heck of a lot better work ethic - they can actually roll up their sleeves and do useful and productive work. And the results parallel and sometimes beat the sports cars. Anyway, on the road they're a mixed bag. Sometimes they are just like sports car drivers. Others are like the VTEC modders. Others are like a Vin Diesel character. And yet others are middle-age guys working on a Mustang in their garage every week-end - average people, family, job and everything. So give them the benefit of the doubt, but stay aware. Treat them as equals, but don't step on their toes. Trust, but verify.
After you identify the car, by taking a glance at the driver you get more information you can use. There are 3 big categories:
- men under the age of 60
- old people
- everyone else
This is very easy. Young or middle-age men are the most aggressive category. Old people are excessively slow and make more mistakes. Everyone else falls into the middle. That's it. As simple as that.
(I hope you didn't expect pictures in this section, did you?)
The forgotten category, since there aren't that many of them out there. Bikers are usually regarded at best with suspicion by everyone else sharing the road, but the reality is pretty complex.
Huge slab of chromed metal on two wheels. Slow growling engine. Annoyingly loud pipes. Tiny nazi-style helmet that serves only a decorative purpose. Leathers, sometimes. These are not different from pickup truck drivers - as much ego and aggression as sports car drivers, but there's a hump under their gas pedal. Keep in mind, the Harleys are not made for function or performance, they are made for show. So they can't go fast, they are just built to parade an image through town. From a rational perspective, these riders shouldn't do anything stupid, because the price they pay for vehicular stupidity is very high. But they aren't doing this for a logical reason, so be careful anyway.
The touring / cruiser
The touring bike, or the cruiser, not too fast, but modern, reliable, comfortable and high-tech. Often european. Prepare for a surprise: these riders are more predictable and just overall better participants to the traffic than most car drivers! They are safety-conscious, many of them take the MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) classes - an excellent idea. They play by the rules and are not prone to doing stupid things. They tend to be older, minimum age is probably 35 or so, which usually means they're wiser. Rest assured, you can trust them.
With a quarter mile (400 m) performance of 10 seconds or less, and a 0 - 60 mph (0 - 100 km/h) performance of 3 seconds or less, these are the fastest-accelerating vehicles on the whole road. By the way, they are not made for the road, the race track is where they should be: they are here just because somebody is insane enough to drive such a thing through normal traffic - a decision risky at best. Anyway, they are not all the same - there's two big groups here, and they're pretty different. Here's the breakdown:
Full one-piece leather racing costume, tall racing boots (exoskeleton, toe and shin guards, the whole shebang), carbon-fiber-knuckled gloves, a mean astronaut helmet. Somebody's donning the full racing outfit. Remember this: they're on the freeway not because they like it (they hate it, really), but just to get from point A to point B - and the real fun (for them) begins at point B, which is usually some forgotten winding backroad up in the hills somewhere. They just want to get there quickly, they would fly there if they could, but have no choice but to share the road until they get there with slowpokes like you. They are like sports car drivers on two wheels - huge ego and the means to feed it, they can be jerks but they are not fools, usually. The age interval is very wide, anywhere between the minimum legal driving age and 60 or older (yes, really). Make no mistake, they are very aware of what they're doing, and they are actually holding back all the speed for now (even though you may think otherwise). Just let them pass you by, don't obstruct them, they hate being here as much as you hate them. They'll be gone in a second anyway.
The testosterone poisoning victim
Mean astronaut helmet - only if mandated by law. Carbon-fiber-knuckled gloves - only if they look cool. Full leather racing costume? Nope - a textile jacket more often, leather jacket sometimes, and regular jeans. Racing boots? Nope - running shoes at best, sometimes just sneakers. This is known in the SF Bay Area as the "San Jose racing" attire. These are basically the VTEC modders on two wheels. Often, in true modder spirit, they make all sorts of changes to an otherwise perfectly fine vehicle. Overwhelmingly, they are 20-something year old males, which explains the testosterone-related stereotype, and in their natural habitat sometimes they are observed carrying an attractive young female on the back seat of their bike, who is blissfully unaware of all the horrible risks and permanent consequences involved with such activities. It is believed some of their brain functions such as judgement are severely impaired by their youthful over-abundance of male hormones. They make excellent organ donors, provided they are persuaded to carry the card. Avoid them like the plague - they die quickly and in large numbers, but often get nearby innocents in trouble while doing so.
Well, so, there you have it. Drive safe and pay attention to the traffic - now you know how to do it.