THE BLOG
12/01/2014 01:23 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

The Driving Edge in Tanzania and Massachusetts

There are many things to fear in Tanzania besides Ebola. These include malaria, typhoid fever, food poisoning and traffic accidents. In two of the largest cities in the country, driving--or walking--is very dangerous. In Dar Es Salaam, the traditional capital, streets are crowded with cars, coaster buses, full-size buses, push carts, motorbikes and pedestrians. Despite the congested, slow moving traffic, accidents are common and drivers and pedestrians injured. In Arusha, a large city that is the gateway to the game parks, there are few traffic lights and drivers act as though this was the Wild West. Driving is dangerous in these cities--and so is walking.

So, my US teams of volunteers worry more about traffic accidents than pretty much anything else. On the major east-west highway leading from Dar Es Salaam to Arusha (and in between them, the international airport at Kilimanjaro), traffic can be heavy with buses and slow moving semi- trucks. Drivers get impatient and try to pass on the two-lane road. The drivers seem to believe that if fate has determined that they will survive passing two trucks and a minivan on a blind curve, they will be successful. If fate has determined otherwise, they will die in a crash. In either event, it is out of their control, so they try to pass. Bus drivers have a schedule and will drive significantly faster than the speed limit to meet their schedule and they crowd everyone else off the road. When we pull off the highway and drive up to the airport, we all sigh in relief having survived the drive one more time.

For me, this situation is much less worrisome. I learned to drive in Lowell and Boston, Massachusetts. These are cities that were built before widespread use of cars. The combination of narrow winding streets, poor signage and heavy traffic has led to a culture of overly aggressive drivers. By avoiding eye contact, drivers can refuse to allow other drivers to make turns or enter traffic. Horn tooting for any slight delay in moving after a green light results in higher levels of stress and more aggression. Because the "fight or flight" response is stifled, stress results in escalating anger.

On a recent trip to my hometown of Lowell, I told my brother Dan, and a friend of his, Dave, about an Allstate study showing that Massachusetts had three cities with the worst driving records in the country--Springfield, Boston and Worcester. Out of 200 cities, they were 197, 199 and 200 respectively. Surprisingly, both Dan and Dave were proud of this distinction and pledged to do more to retain this record.

Dave continued, "I never use my blinkers because I want to keep the edge over the other drivers. I never give them the edge". My wife, Judy, was shocked to hear this. "Cedar Rapids is 11h safest and Des Moines is 13th safest," she said. "Don't you want to be safer?"

"Yeah", Dave responded. "But out there in Ohio, Idaho or Iowa or whatever, you don't have the edge."
"It's Iowa," Judy replied. "And we don't need the edge."