Driving Down the Road to Madness

[Too stupid.]
Last month, the Star Tribune published an odd column in its “10,000 Takes” series, an essay castigating Minnesota drivers for not being aggressive (or something?) enough compared to New Yorkers.

Here’s how it begins:
My first week in Minneapolis, I turned onto Lake Street and found myself heading the wrong direction.

I raised my hand to indicate my guilt and offer apologies to the oncoming traffic. But instead of swerving around me, my new Minneapolis comrades did something I didn't expect.

They stopped.

And we idled there, all six of us, stalemated in the middle of the intersection — me with my hands above my head, mouthing "I’m sorry," and them with white knuckles and tight lips, their faces twisting to hide a festering rage.

“What is it that you want me to do, exactly?” I said to no one. Yes, I screwed up. Do we have to make a thing about it? Please, let it go. I have somewhere to be, and apparently need directions getting there.

It reads like the ravings of a madman at the laundromat, muttering under his breath about the tee-shirts whirling around the clothes dryer.

Here’s another moment of silent screaming from this drivers’ monologue:
I shrugged. Once again, I mouthed the words “I’m sorry!” But that wasn’t enough. Her misplaced anger flailed against the driver’s side window with the tenacity of a cat trying to exit a bathtub.
The nonsensical drama continues, and eventually you realize that this man, Jason Good, is both mad and mundane. His incoherent ramblings aren't exceptional, but par for the course on the freeway.*  I suspect many drivers are equally unmoored, and it makes me uneasy to think that I've somehow underestimated the solipsism of the commuter.

[Is there a ranting madman inside each of these metal machines?]

The Strange Psychology of Driving

[Deflected narcissism.]
Driving is an odd isolating experience, both boring and deadly.  The New Yorker ran a great article last year by staff writer Adam Gopnik, a lifelong transit rider, that describes learning to drive for the first time at age 50-something.

Toward the end of the essay, he describes the paradox of operating an automobile:
Unlike everything else I’ve learned to do in midlife, driving negated the usual path of learning: the incremental steps, the breaking down and building up of parts, the curve we go up as one small mastery follows another. Driving, I realized, isn’t really difficult; it’s just extremely dangerous. You hit the gas and turn the wheel, and there you are—in possession of a two-ton weapon capable of being pointed at anything you like, at any speed you can go at, just by pressing a pedal a little bit harder. The poor people in the crosswalk—the guy in the tank top striding indifferently forward; the mother yanking at her child’s hand—had no idea of the danger they were in with me behind the wheel! I had no idea of the danger I am in doing the same thing, day after day. Cars are terrifying, and cars are normality itself.

That toxic combination of death and banality is part of the reason drivers concoct such elaborate narratives. When faced with the ceaseless organized chaos of a city filled with cars, we tell ourselves stories, and these stories reflect the other things in our lives. Road rage is one such outcome, and the “freedom of the open road” is another, but in between are all kinds of fantastical tales, what sociologist Jack Katz calls “the endless Rorscahch test” of the automobile.

[From this.]
Katz’s research delves straight into the psychology of the solitary driver. Here’s how he describes it (as quoted in geographer Nigel Thrift’s article, “Driving in the City”):
Through detailed study of driving behaviour in Los Angeles, Katz shows that driving is a rich, indeed driven, stew of emotions which is constantly on the boil, even though cars prevent many routine forms of intersubjective expression from taking shape – indeed the relative dumbness of driving and especially its lack of opportunity for symmetrical interaction may be the key aggravating factor. Katz is able to demonstrate four main findings. First, that drivers experience cars as extensions of their bodies. Hence their outrage on becoming the subject of adverse driving manoeuvres by other drivers: their tacit automobilized embodiment is cut away from them and they are left ‘without any persona with which one can relate respectably to others’ (Katz, 2000: 46). Second, that, as a result of this and the fact that drivers attach all manner of meanings to their manoeuvres that other drivers cannot access (what Katz calls ‘life metaphors’), driving can often be a highly emotional experience in which the petty realities of everyday situations are impressed on an unwilling recipient causing anger and distress precisely because they are so petty, or in which a carefully nurtured identity is forcefully undermined causing real fury. Third, that the repertoire of reciprocal communication that a car allows is highly attenuated – the sounding of horns, the flashing of headlights, the aggressive use of brake lights and hand gestures – within a situation that is already one in which there are limited cues available, occasioned by the largely tail-to-tail nature of interaction. Drivers cannot therefore communicate their concerns as fully as they would want and there is therefore a consistently high level of ambiguity in driver-to-driver interaction. As a result, a considerable level of frustration and anger (and frustration and anger about being frustrated and angered) can be generated.
When you're driving you're literally muted (Thrift's "relative dumbness"), your expressions reduced to a horn and a blinking light. Your world is full of similar hybrid people, struggling to communicate in a complex disaggregated motion machine that frustrates progress over and over again. And so drivers assign all kinds of meanings to what, in the end, is a meaningless mess, nothing more significant than a leftover sock or the ripple of a wave on the water.

What is to be done? Simply forget about it.

Driving is a very strange thing to do for hours a day, and I find that it’s best to be fatalistic about it. You get there when you get there, and leave the desperate lane changes and unnecessary passing out of the picture. Telling yourself stories, like Jason Good seems to have done, is like talking to your cat.** Get a book on tape or listen to the radio. Everyone will be better off.

* Being a sidewalk blogger is similarly hard on sanity.
** I do this too.

[This is one story you can tell yourself.]


Daniel Brotherston said...

Is that a serious column? Did this person not understand what was intended for him. He's turned the wrong way (presumably onto a one way road), and traffic has stopped. Turn the f**k around! They've stopped to allow you correct your dangerous error, so that you can stop endangering yourself and other people. People are not smart enough to be drivers. They can't make good decisions at the best of times, let alone under pressure. I can see someone being stunned for a minute, or two, but to come away from that situation and still be confused. Don't let those people drive. But the sooner we have self driving cars, the safer we'll all be.

alai said...

It's something I noticed, learning to drive a bit later than the "standard" age. I'd always wondered how people dealt with the fact that, as a driver, you can't actually see what's directly in front of you, or behind you. The hood's in the way, and if someone is on the ground, or there's a child, or a dog, well, you have no way of knowing. When I learned to drive, I realized that the answer was simple: you don't care. If someone is behind you, and you run them over, it's not your fault. And it happens regularly, and it's just written off as a 'tragedy' that's not preventable, and that's it. Just don't think about it. Because it would just be too inconvenient if it were any other way.