Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Manitoba drivers are rude, selfish

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The legend on the province's licence plates reads "Friendly Manitoba." It's an excellent slogan. It both reflects an attitude and suggests how Manitobans should behave.

Like all good slogans, it has a central truth. Manitobans are friendly. In part, this is because of the phenomenon the late Carol Shields portrayed so well in her novels, that much of the province is a "cradle to grave society."

Manitoba is a place where the expression "small world" works over and over again. People have known each other since kindergarten. In Manitoba it is easy to find connections between people. You know someone who knows someone and so on.

This type of friendliness born of familiarity is reflected in our politics and business. Politicians from differing parties have often known each other for years. There's a civility to our dealings that comes from being a relatively small, isolated community where families have stayed for generations. It is what Manitobans often say they like about living here.

The irony of the licence plate slogan is that all friendliness seems to disappear when Manitobans, and particularly Winnipeggers, get in their cars.

Driving in Winnipeg is not an exercise in friendliness; on the contrary, it's an exercise in downright selfish rudeness. The Winnipeg driving experience is so different from Manitobans' general civil behaviour to be quite remarkable -- and it's getting worse.

I expected the introduction of radar cameras at intersections designed to capture and fine drivers running red lights would result in far fewer people taking the risk.

No such luck.

What may have happened is that drivers have learned which lights they can run and where they can run lights with impunity. Certainly the red-light cameras have not led to any increase in driver civility.

On my morning run, I cross a major intersection with traffic lights that allow for left turns only in either direction. The left turn option doesn't last long. As it ends, the green pedestrian light comes on to allow safe crossing for those on foot. Several times cars have still been making their left turns, travelling at speed, after the pedestrian single has changed to the "don't walk" sign.

Why do drivers risk pedestrian lives in this way? Why do they pull out of back lanes and driveways without looking for runners or walkers? Why is it so difficult to change lanes in Winnipeg?

I have long pondered these questions. Winnipeg is one of the most difficult cities to drive in that I have ever encountered, and I am including Toronto, Vancouver and Minneapolis as comparisons.

The reason, I think, is because Winnipeggers have not adapted to driving in what has become big city traffic. They don't see the big picture. Their intent is to get themselves to where they are going as quickly as possible. If this means moving to block a car trying to get into the lane they are in, so be it. If it means blocking an intersection rather than waiting for the next traffic light change, then, in many Winnipeggers' minds, that will get them to their destination faster than if they make the friendly, civil gesture and wait.

As a result, Winnipeg's traffic becomes snarled up far more than it needs to. How often do you see cars blocked behind parked vehicles as drivers in the adjacent lane fail to let them in? How friendly is that?

This beggar-my-neighbour attitude is why many Winnipeggers dislike driving in bigger cities. They assume they won't be able to change busy lanes because other drivers will close up just like they do at home. What they don't understand is that such selfish driving doesn't happen in bigger cities because, if it did, traffic would grind to a standstill.

Of course, there are always selfish drivers in every city. But in larger centres, generally, there is an understanding that give and take on the roads gets everyone where they are going faster than trying to gain that extra 15 seconds from every traffic light, turn or lane change.

Winnipeggers need to understand their driving circumstances have changed. Selfish driving behaviour is becoming so noticeable that it threatens to make a mockery of the slogan that so well describes Manitobans' behaviour outside their vehicles.

It is unlikely increased police vigilance or more radar cameras will change attitudes. What needs to change is the driving culture: an understanding that traffic is now so busy that beating a light or rushing an intersection doesn't really save any time. Improved signage and road markings could help, but what's needed is for drivers to think of what is on their licence plates and act accordingly.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 9, 2010 A10

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