Geometry for Massachusetts Drivers

Outsiders often think that the Bruins and the Patriots represent the numbers one and two contact sports in Massachusetts. Not so–it's driving and politics--in that order. It may not be our fault in driving; though non-charitable folks call us "Massholes. "I blame it on poor geometry teaching.

Consider this a Public Service Announcement. Those of you who live in other common-sense-challenged areas–like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Wyoming–can adapt this PSA for local use.

1. The octagon. It looks like the figure to the left and it is always red in color. In usually contains the letters S-T-O-P, which means you are expected to come to a complete halt, as in the tires must stop rotating altogether. In theory, you are supposed to remain still for three seconds. Now comes the tricky part. You are not allowed to continue until no other cars impede your progress. Any vehicle standing to your right has priority over you. Please dispense with the notion that you can go whenever you think the odds are in your favor.   

 2. Angles: The illustration below is very useful in comprehending the concept of allowing your vehicle to change its direction left or right, which is generally expressed as making a turn. To execute a turn, however, one needs a complete understanding of 90-degree angles. Assume you are driving along the bottom x-axis from where it says 45 on the right.  To execute proper 90-degree right turn at the small square,  you need to perform an L-like maneuver. Anything less than this–especially those that create a 45-degree V-like angle is called a veer. The veer—exemplified by the line connecting 45 to 45–is very dangerous, especially if there is another car at the corner where you wish to execute a turn. The veer runs the risk of removing the front part of the other vehicle. Most car owners object strenuously when a complete stranger violently severs the front end of their car.

3. Shortest distance between two points: A popular folk saying holds that "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." This isn't  always the case. As this illustration shows, for a hiker on the round earth or a tennis player seeking to back pedal on a lob, the shortest distance might involve the use of a bisecting angle. Mostly, though, you should forget you ever heard anything about the shortest distance. The shortest distance isn't necessarily the safest distance.

Let's assume you're driving and you see a squiggly sign like this one. Some drivers think this indicates that there is a snake in the road and immediately speed up, as they hate reptiles. This is an incorrect reading of the sign, which actually means that the road itself is non-linear. The correct response is to reduce your speed so that your car will remain safely stay on your side of the road.

Under no circumstance are you allowed to come to any of the curves and bisect them by going straight because it's the "shortest" distance. That's actually illegal. If you are still struggling with the concept, imagine the times in which you have to make several turns because there are annoying buildings in your way. You don't like this, but you know it's much safer to go around the block rather than trying to thread your car though someone's front door, dodge potential objects in the living room, drive through the kitchen, and exit through the back door. You know this from all those pictures in the paper of those who unsuccessfully tried this maneuver. Now imagine landscape as a flat, green version of annoying buildings and avoid driving on it. One final reminder: The squiggles indicate that executing the curve might be difficult, so reduce your speed. A good rule to follow is to make sure that, at all times, that all four of those rubber round things near the undercarriage of your car remain in complete contact with the road at all time. These are called "tires" and road contact with two or three out of four is insufficient. 

4. Narrow roads. Observe this symbol very carefully. You will see that it is wider at the bottom and narrow at the top. No—this is neither a minimalist milk bottle from Picasso nor a trompe l'oeil wine bottle. The picture indicates that the current wide road surface on which you are traveling is about to become much narrower—perhaps even just a single lane in width. You should slow down when you see this symbol as it's another situation in which you could remove another car's front section, thereby distressing the driver of said vehicle. It's also a very bad time to send a text, look for something in your glove box, or decide to floss your teeth.

5. Left arrows versus straight and left arrows. These two shapes confuse loads of Massachusetts drivers. This is higher geometric thinking, so read carefully. The first arrow means that you must turn left, as in immediately. It does not mean that you can turn right as long as you intend to make a left hand turn at some point in the next five miles. If you make a right hand turn at said sign in order to hasten your journey to the place where you will make a left and mangle another's vehicle, you will not be able to tell Mr. Policeman that you thought it was okay since you were making a left in about 30 yards. The policeman will then glare at you and ask, "What part of 'only' did you not understand?" as he writes the ticket and the other driver calls a lawyer.

The second sign advises you to travel in a straight direction and then turn left when you come to the lane dedicated to that purpose. The difference between the two figures is subtle, but crucial. The easiest way to distinguish between them is to note that there is but one line in the first figure, but there are two in the second. In which lane would you wish to be if you intended to go straight? If you guessed the right lane, well done!

6. Upside down isosceles triangle. This is called a "yield sign." In this context, yield means that cars coming from directions in which there is no upside down triangle possess the right-of-way. Yielding also implies that you must wait until they have vacated the space before you proceed. Contrary to popular practice, yielding is not a motorized guessing game. "I sure did think I could make it," is another utterance that will make Mr. Policeman very angry with you. He will also quite gruff if you take the position that you had plenty of time to pull out, as evidenced by the fact that the opposing vehicle missed you with centimeters to spare when he slammed on his brakes.

Here are a few more, listed by right/wrong interpretations.

Correct: "There is a bumpy road surface ahead. I guess I should reduce my speed in the interest of safety."

Wrong: "Hey Marge, why the hell is there a brassiere sign along the highway?"

Correct: "This area is prone to rock slides, so I guess I should be alert."

Wrong: "Damn, I sure could go for a bowl of Cap'n Crunch cereal right now."


Right: "Under certain conditions this road surface might cause my vehicle to slide. I must be careful in cold and wet conditions."

Wrong: "Oooeee, Earle. They want us to spin out and do donuts on this road!"

This is a sign for a rotary. We'll be here all week if I try to explain a rotary and what those curving arrows mean. It's simply too complex for most Massachusetts drivers. My best advice is that you whenever you see said sign, you interpret it to mean, "Oh my God! I must get off of this road immediately!" You should turn off before you reach a rotary, even if it means doing a U-turn and heading back in the direction from which you just came. Seek alternative routes. This is higher-level math and it's best to admit that you're no Einstein.

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