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.
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.
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.