Why am I surrounded by jerks!?

17 Mar

So the other day I was standing in line at McDonald’s to get a delicious Shamrock Shake in honor of St. Patrick.  It’s busy, I’m third in line of about 8 people.  I’ve been waiting about 5 minutes, and I’m beginning to get impatient.   When the person at the front of the line finally wraps up placing her order, the guy in front of me doesn’t notice.  He’s too busy staring down at his iPhone to notice that he was holding up the entire line.  After about 3 seconds of the cashier failing to get his attention, I walked up right behind him, about two inches away from the back of his head, and screamed in his ear.  He did not appreciate this in any way.  He responded with a middle finger and tossed a few choice words back at me.  So I countered with two middle fingers and upped the volume and level of profanity a few notches.  He then threatened to kill me and my entire family.  Then he stepped up and placed his order.  I placed my order and we went our separate ways.  No one around us seemed to be bothered by this whole ordeal.  It was just business as usual.

You have probably gathered that this did not happen.   What really happened was I said, “hey, you’re next”.  He looked up and said “oh, sorry, thanks”.  That first story was completely unrealistic and absurd.  Except it isn’t.  If you replace the McDonald’s cashier with a traffic light, it suddenly seems somewhat normal.

Why do some of us (myself included) act like jerks when we drive? When walking down a busy sidewalk, I don’t feel the urge to lash out at the people around me for being in my way (ok maybe sometimes, but I don’t do it.).  I actually enjoy the experience of walking down a bustling city sidewalk.  It’s nice to do a little people watching and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city as I make my way from point A to point B.

Obligatory cliche road rage image. Although I believe these people are still parked.

However, behind the wheel of a car things are different.  The effect happens to many people.  When driving, we no longer view the other road users as people.  We view them as competitors in some imaginary race to nowhere.  If someone passes you or cuts you off, that is a personal attack on your character and freedom.  It must be met with a swift and disproportionate response.  Pedestrians and cyclists are viewed as second class citizens, clearly not good enough to drive a car.  They are treated as mere obstacles in this frantic race, and honking at them may help you win the race.  The city and store fronts around the drivers disappear into a blur.  Their presence is but a distraction to winning the race.

I'm the only qualified driver on the road.

It’s amazing how our chosen mode of transportation can have such profound effects on our personalities.  There are a lot psychological reasons for this. 

  • 2 tons of steel surrounding us makes us feel safer than we really are.
  • We don’t view other cars as people, we objectify them as inanimate objects.
  • We can’t communicate with each other.   Humans, the creators of modern language, literature, philosophy and science, are reduced to communicating through grunts and gestures once we get inside a car.  The same horn sound can either mean “pardon me sir” or “F@$& OFF!!!”.  
  • We get crazy with power.  I can go 0-60 mph in 4 seconds, but I’m stuck behind some lowlife only going 10 mph over the speed limit.  Or worse yet, some jerk on a bicycle.  How dare he thwart my right to drive 90!?  
  • We feel disconnected from the city or town.  We are driving from A to B, we only came here for the streets.  All this other junk (e.g. stores, people, trees, lamp posts, dogs, restaurants, offices) needs to get out of my way.

This behavior is not conducive to creating communities.   How can we cooperate with one another when the mere presence of other people makes us so angry?  How can we create communities with so much hatred coursing through the veins of our towns?  I can’t blame drivers for raging though; when they have no other options for transportation, they can seem trapped into driving.   Maybe if we offered more and better choices, the task of driving wouldn’t seem so overwhelming.  This was the case for me at least.  I moved closer to work and began bicycling for most of my errands.  The result is that I drive much less, and when I do, I am more tolerant of those around me and able to handle the inevitable traffic jam with a little more dignity.  

Anyway, this entire post was inspired by one of my favorite cartoons.  Leave it to Goofy to so aptly portray the experience of a motorist and pedestrian in a car-centric world.  What’s amazing is that this cartoon is over 60 years old and it’s still perfectly relevant today.


8 Responses to “Why am I surrounded by jerks!?”

  1. tmso March 17, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

    We need to get out of our cars and onto our bikes!

  2. Daniel March 17, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

    Nicely put. But I find that many cyclists behave like manic car-drivers! Rage-filled cyclists who ignore the pedestrian phase on traffic lights tempt me to poke an umbrella into their spokes and launch them into space! We all get crazy in the end….

  3. Yang March 18, 2012 at 5:09 am #

    My hypothesis is that when we drive, we feel that we are in a private space, yet our actions are enacted in a public realm, hence the disconnect.

  4. Christian Walde (@mithaldu) March 19, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    I’m fairly convinced that the primary issue here is simply that communication with other traffic participants in a civilized manner is impossible. When i’m on the road on my bicycle (twice daily, at least) i seem to be the only cyclist who’s not insane. I stop at red lights even when the street is empty in all four directions for a mile, i don’t mind waiting and riding slowly behind elderly when there’s no safe way to pass them.

    However i do get frustrated when i see other traffic participants do stupid shit. The cyclist who has to cross every red light he finds. That pair of cyclists riding next to each other, blocking the cycle way and half the pedestrian way. That pedestrian who has to cross the street not a 90° angle, but at a 30° angle, making it impossible for me to predict where i’ll have to dodge them. That car driver who thinks the steel around him allows him to go ahead even when i have the right away.

    However, i cannot communicate my frustration. Due to the loud environment, distances and shortness of time spent close, there are only two ways of communicating, gestures and loud single words. Both are neanderthal in both their appearance and effect, so i usually choose to remain silent.

    I often find myself wishing there was a road Instant Messenger system that would allow me to send short messages to arbitrary vehicles around me.

    • tanoshinde March 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

      I am so with you on this one — some kind of better communication system might greatly improve things (or it might just make it easier for us to excoriate one-another, but it’s worth a shot).

      Likewise, as a cyclist (and as a driver, and as a pedestrian) who tries to play by the rules, I get pretty frustrated with my fellow folks-on-spokes who flout them. Not only does lawlessness increase traffic problems, drivers remember the reckless maniacs that they encounter on bikes while forgetting about all the law-abiding citizens. The human brain tends not to really notice things that are going smoothly, so a cyclist who isn’t creating problems goes unnoticed, leading non-cyclists to believe that all cyclists are essentially scofflaws.


  5. tanoshinde March 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    Well said. I think this parable of the McDonald’s line is one heck of a teaching tool, and the next time I find myself embroiled in a discussion of appropriate behavior on the road, I might just borrow it 🙂

    People do behave very strangely in their private cars. People who are otherwise good, decent, compassionate souls turn into frothy-mouthed Me-monsters. It’s almost as if driving induces bouts of temporary rabies.

    My suspicion is that it comes down to a word you used in your post — “trapped.” I don’t think people feel safer in their cars at all (they continue to buy larger vehicles in an effort to feel better protected against the vehicles around them — indicating that they actually feel pretty unsafe). Or, rather, I think they feel that they’re *socially* safer — that they can get away with things they otherwise wouldn’t do thanks to the relative anonymity afforded by the windscreen and so forth and the inability of others to call them on their crap — but I think on a more animal level, when we’re driving, we feel trapped.

    We’re in little metal boxes (even the largest passenger vehicles aren’t really that big). We’re strapped down. We must operate on high alert because everyone around is us flying along at ten-plus or faster (and, it sometimes appears, actively trying to kill us). We are concerned about the possibility of a child dashing out into the road, or a large truck overturning.

    In, the US, add to this the American preoccupation with Being There Now (as opposed to, say, Being Here Now, in the Buddhist sense!), and you’ve got one heck of a recipe for stress.

    And, of course, we all respond to stress in pretty much the same way: the limbic system takes over. Adrenaline kicks in. It’s fight or flight, and flight isn’t a real option. Some drivers — bless their hearts — try ‘flight mode;’ those drivers terrify me whether I’m riding along, driving, riding the bike, or going by combat express. For the most part, though, when we humans drive, we click into ‘fight mode’ and turn into jerks.

    Even the language used to teach good driving, if you think about it, is pretty stressful. How do we describe good driving?


    When do we undertake defensive behaviours?

    When we’re under attack!

    Unfortunately, I don’t really see easy any way out of the problem (short of the impending end of the petroleum-driven era). We could, however, make certain improvements — reducing speed limits, for example, could help in some areas (:::cough, cough::: Fort Lauderdale, FL :::cough, cough:::). So could reducing reliance on private auto transport (note that I didn’t say ‘eliminating;’ I may think cars make us crazy, but they come in handy sometimes and I don’t believe we should just eliminate them wholesale) by supporting alternatives — mass transit, bike trips, etc. — at a cultural level.

    Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir, here, which is another problem: getting people who already aren’t on the progressive-transit bus (so to speak!) to grab a ticket and board.

  6. philgeland March 20, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    Good piece of writing! I´ve translated most of your post into Brazilian Portuguese and published it on my own blog. Hope you don´t mind. In case you do, please let me know, ok? Thank you anyway.

    • dedwards8 March 20, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

      No problem. Thanks for reading!

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