When I turned 18 in California, my friends and I knew you were what you drove. The first question out of a girl’s mouth was liable to be “where’s your car?” when interviewing prospective dates. Given California’s non-existent dress code it was the most reliable dateworthiness indicator we had. (and yeah, we were shallow, callow youth)

Old Beemers and Volvo station wagons were driven by eccentrics who might be serial killers or elementary school teachers, yuppies drove new Beemers, doctors (and doctors’ sons) drove Mercedes, guys who were cheating on their wives drove convertibles, and old fogeys drove Cadillacs.

The guys knew this, of course, so it became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy often taken to extremes. Cary, who lived down the street from my boyfriend, drove a brand new red Ferrari. He was, as my boyfriend’s dad said, “dumber than a bag of rocks,” attaining the near-impossible distinction of having flunked out of Fresno Community College in a single semester.

Cary worked at a local car dealership as a detail man (i.e., he washed the cars) and got a terrific deal on the Ferrari, but it took every cent he had to make the payments and cover his car insurance. So he lived at home with his mother and cruised for chicks every Friday and Saturday night in his Ferrari. He told us the car invariably brought him success but, peering into the cramped quarters of the Ferrari, I always wondered exactly where he took his dates when he got lucky. Home to mother? Not likely.

I thought about this yesterday, when I watched a fellow in a great big truck carefully drive past the space next to mine and slowly, painfully back all the way in to the opposite car’s bumper. Unless he was planning to rob the grocery store and needed a quick getaway there was no logical reason for spending 10 minutes backing into the space. I asked a (male) friend and he shrugged. It’s a guy thing.

So maybe we’re not WHAT we drive, we’re HOW we drive.

When you’re merging onto a freeway, does the next car let you in? If you’re waiting to squeeze into a busy line of traffic, does the car in line zoom ahead, cutting you off? In both cases I can almost guarantee the driver’s a woman.

I have no idea why this is, either. Maybe the whole “after you,” “ladies first” kinda thing has erased courtesy from the female driver’s lexicon. All I know is there are days when I’m ashamed of my own sex, and since realizing this I’ve started letting other drivers in (blush).

It might just be local custom, too. People in Boston know that blithely sailing across the intersection when the light turns green is just asking for trouble. The guy in the left-hand turn lane is going to try to beat you to the punch. Bostonians will make a left turn in front of oncoming traffic, drive on the shoulder, the curb or even the island if someone gets in the way.

My ex-boss once explained it this way: “If five lanes head into a two-lane tunnel in New York, three guys’ll jump out of their cars, start directing traffic and clear up the jam. In Boston, you just get five lanes of traffic jam because nobody–but nobody–will give in.”

A Bostonian turned loose in another state is a menace. My colleague, born and bred in Boston, once drove me to Fry’s Electronics in Los Angeles, where we quickly encountered the usual 20-mile traffic jam. Didn’t faze Russ a bit; he simply jerked the car out of the lane, drove UP the side of the concrete barrier at a 45 degree angle and onto the shoulder.

That’s a bad thing to do in LA, where running gun battles break out over a mile an hour too slow in the fast lane. LA drivers are some of the most skillful in the world, but screw around with their flow of traffic and they’re deadly. Prompted by my shrieks of terror, Russ thankfully slipped back into our lane with only hostile glares, honks and a few rude fingers.

Minnesota, Bay area, Washington DC (where the motto is “drive like a bat outta hell until the Beltway jams”), Texas, Seattle—they’ve all got their own driving customs. I’ve yet to figure out a discerning drivestyle for glassland, but I’m sure I’ll get to that.