By Peter Denman
For some time — perhaps forever — no one has recognized the importance of stepping forward and speaking up with an explanation of Guam traffic for the benefit of drivers from other parts of the world. After some thought, I concluded that I am the person best suited to carry out this public service, and explain the traffic to the population at large.
My qualifications are as follows: I received my driver’s license in 1970, learning the fundamentals as a teenager driving a Volkswagen bug in the big city traffic of Houston, Texas, and enduring without complaint the persecution of the Texas Highway Patrol.
I have never had an accident. I suppose I should, however, mention the time long ago, on a foggy night in Houston, when an old lady in a big Cadillac, peering anxiously through her windshield, moving cautiously through the fog at perhaps 1 mph, made a carefully negotiated right turn and came straight toward me as I sat in my bug waiting at the light. I blasted my horn, but the noise only added to her confusion, and when she eased the Caddy slowly into my bug, crumpling in the fender, she was severely startled.
I’d say that doesn’t count as an accident, but since this website prides itself on presenting the facts and nothing else at all times, I felt I should include this little story in order to give a complete picture.
I have driven cars and motorcycles in most of the countries of Europe. This includes a two-hour trip averaging 100 mph on the German Autobahn, where many a Mercedes and BMW overtook me while doing 150. I have battled the rush hour traffic of Vienna, Austria, where the drivers gave a strong impression of having taken to their vehicles that day for the sole purpose of hindering my progress in as unpleasant a manner as possible. I have driven on the left while navigating the one-way system of central London, and have shared the road with tractors pulling pig-slurry tanks in Ireland. Some of the questions on the drivers’ license test in Ireland — which I passed — are about how to share the road with a flock of sheep.
I have navigated the mountain roads of Jamaica, and can even say “serious potholes” with a Jamaican accent. I still hold the record in Chuuk for the fastest trip, negotiated through dozens of crater-sized potholes, between downtown Moen and the village of Sapuk on the far end of the island — ten minutes.
All of these places have their own unique driving styles. The Europeans communicate with each other on the road by flashing their headlights. A quick on-and-off of the headlights usually means “go ahead.” Repeated flashing of the headlights in rapid-fire fashion means that the driver is seriously annoyed with you about something.
The Englishmen feel it very important to get away from an intersection quickly, so they have amber lights (yellow, in other words) which come on before the green, so the drivers can get ready to make a quick start.
In Guam, it is the opposite. Here the custom is to wait a couple of seconds after the light turns green before starting. For the foreigner this is a hard thing to understand. Why would anyone want to stay at the intersection any longer when there is nothing compelling him to do so?
This custom becomes even more interesting when one observes what the people do who have been waiting behind the slow-starter. Often as many as four or five will run the red light. It is difficult to reconcile these two customs with each other. On the one hand, there is no hurry about starting when the light turns green, but on the other hand if someone else’s doing that makes us hit the red light, we’re going to go on through.
The trouble with trying to understand the traffic customs of the world is the fact that we cannot communicate very well while driving; especially if we don’t use our headlights. Ever see someone pull up at an intersection and leave a gap about two car-lengths long between himself and the next car? Try rolling down your window and asking him why he does it.
Possibly the custom which is the most baffling to the foreign driver in Guam is the time-honored tradition of the two-car blockade. In many parts of the world the basic principle governing the use of lanes is this: Faster traffic to the left, slower traffic to the right. The idea is to allow for people who may be in a hurry to be able to go on about their business by using the left lane to go around the slower cars.
Here the custom calls for two cars to drive side-by-side at the same speed, usually fairly slow, for quite aways down the road, blocking all traffic and forcing them to drive at the same speed. No one has explained this one yet; in fact, as far as I know, no one has ever even brought the subject up. This means that it is up to me to produce a working theory.
Here it is: The blockade results from a kind of togetherness. We all know this island to be a very friendly, laid-back kind of place. If you study the drivers, you will notice that quite often these moving road-blocks are only part of the picture. Look around, and you’ll see that almost everyone seems to be contentedly moving along at the same speed. It’s as though they are all traveling together, and enjoying it.
Of course, there are problems with this theory. For instance, there are the large numbers of commuter-types who rush home at the end of the day at fairly high speeds, just as though they were in Los Angeles or New York instead of Guam. Do these drivers set up the moving road blocks and wait after the light turns green at other times? Or do we have two distinct groups of drivers on the island, with very different ways? If we do, how did such a state of affairs come to be?
These questions shall be left for another day. In the meantime, if you are moved to try to understand Guam traffic, you may wish to read a book called Traffic – Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What it Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. I am still working my way through it. He doesn’t mention Guam in it, unfortunately, but does cover most of the rest of the world.
By the way, did I say I was going to explain Guam traffic? I was only kidding.
About the Guam Gumshoe
Peter Denman, originally from Houston, moved to Rota from Texas in 1996, to Chuuk in 1998, and to Guam in 2001. In addition to scuba diving and amateur radio, he spends quite a bit of time observing and trying to understand the many interesting things which go on in the islands. His wife Tanya, who is from Jamaica, has no problem understanding island ways. He feels he has a long way to go when it comes to understanding the islands, but also feels that he has an even longer way to go to understand Texas.