Be the Driver You Wish To See in the World

[Gandhi's car.]
The title comes, of course, from Gandhi's famous quote. Now I'm pretty sure that Gandhi didn't really drive much. But when he did, what was it like? Did he practice non-violence behind the wheel? Can you imagine him honking his horn?

I'd guess not. It all boils down to the idea that when we drive we should treat our fellow human being city dwellers with respect.

The problem, however, is that non-violent driving is really difficult. Cars are an inherently isolating and violent technology. As Goofy proves in the groundbreaking-and-still-true documentary film, Motor Mania [see below], when we drive, we transform from nice people into maniacs.

For example, I was once in Saint Paul’s North End waiting for a break in traffic to bike across Dale Street. This was over five years ago but I still remember it like it was yesterday, because I watched an old man trying to park his car. He was moving really carefully, slowly trying to negotiate his car into the on-street parking space.

Then along comes a pickup truck behind him and the driver just leans on the horn. Multiple times.

The old man couldn’t do anything about the fact that he was slow. It was a terrible situation.

Then I wondered, how would that scene play out if people weren’t in cars? If an old man were walking carefully down the street, watching his step, and a younger dude came up behind him and screamed to “hurry the F up, and get out of the way old man! I'm trying to get to McDonalds!”

There would be no doubt about it. That guy would be a complete asshole.

But in a car, this kind of thing happens all the time, and becomes normal. Otherwise automatic social norms disappear, replaced by a dull furor of turn signals, horns, engines, and speed. We become new people and, like an angry alcoholic, it’s not an improvement.

What to do about it? I call it "HWGD", or How Would Gandhi Drive.

The Five Steps of HWGD (and their non-driving equivalents)

Here they are, the five rules you can try out right now to change the world starting on your own city street.

In no particular order...


1. Stop for Pedestrians Crossing the Street

When someone's waiting to cross the street you should slow down your car and stop for them to cross. It's a simple concept but it's hard to do because the "norm" to keep going, the momentum impulse, is so powerful.

But start doing it. Stopping for pedestrians to cross the street is the non-driving equivalent of holding the door for someone entering or exiting a building. Not stopping is the non-driving equivalent of slamming the door in their face.

2. It’s a Speed Maximum, not a Speed Minimum

Many or most drivers treat the "speed limit" as the minimum speed. If the speed limit is 30, you should be driving 30, or maybe just a bit faster, in the 30-35 range. Same goes for 40, or 50, or whatever.

Well stop it. This is the non-driving equivalent of running in our office hallways, threatening to bump into people trying to get around. (And sometimes you just run right into Bob whose hands are full of hot coffee, and you get it all over his khakis.)

Treat the speed limit as the upper bound, and dwell in the speeds 5 or 10 mph below the limit.

3. Give People on Corners Lots of Room

If you're at an intersection and there's anyone on foot who even looks like they're thinking about crossing the street, give them lots of room.

To do otherwise is the non-driving equivalent of taking the next adjacent urinal when there are plenty of other urinals to choose from. (Note: NOBODY WOULD EVER DO THIS!) It's the non-driving equivalent of stepping on someone's shoes, or scuffing their new Jordans.

4. Don’t Run the Yellow/Red

You're at a busy corner, and can almost make it through but just as you approach the light starts to change.  So you speed up and run the yellow/red.

In reality, this is one of the most dangerous things that you probably do all the time. You don't know, and can't tell, if people are just stepping out into the street, or trying to get through the intersection around the turning cars. Because when you're accelerating you're moving quite fast, this is when people get seriously hurt.

Plus it's the non-driving equivalent if butting in line at the movies, the convenience store, or the ATM. You would never do that! It's the non-driving equivalent of passing important legislation on the last day of the legislative session before anyone has actually read it.

So stop it. Just slow down at the yellow light and wait your turn.

5. Don’t Pass on the Right

The car in front of you is turning left and slowing down, so you drive around it on the right.

This is dangerous and almost always unnecessary, as you're probably going to end up stopped at the next light down the road anyway. When this happens at intersections, in particular, it can create huge problems for people trying to walk around and negotiate all the different turning vehicles.

So stop doing it. Just slow down and wait. This is the non-driving equivalent of taking someone's food off their plate without asking first.

Note: These principles apply in urban settings only. The suburban and freeway landscape is so devoid of non-driving human life, it’s not worth worrying about.

But in cities, it’s another story. Dangerous driving comes at great price. For every death, there are a hundred injuries. For every injury, there are hundred near misses that scare the crap out of people. And for every near miss, there are a hundred small and subtle ways that aggressive driving erodes the quality of life in urban neighborhoods, from the revving of an engine to the squealing of tires.

Some HWGD "Be the Driver" Tips

The key question boils down to this. Are we merely victim to this socio-technological cyborg, are are we part of it?

The answer is complicated. Tom Vanderbilt’s great book Traffic has a whole chapter on the relationship between culture, safety, and street design. He ends up saying that “norms may be cultural, but traffic can also create its own culture.”

Basically, we build the roads, and then the roads build us. Whether it's jaywalking, speeding, intersection behavior, or honking habits, these seemingly inherent cultural behaviors come down to the adaptive relationship between society and its designs, laws, and incentives.

In other words, despite the infrastructure and "rules of the road," individuals are not helpless. You don’t have to wait for the world to change. Rather, you are the driving culture. You are traffic.

That said, changing your ingrained driving habits is not easy. Here are some helpful tips that I've found useful for not driving like an asshole.

1. Mindful Driving

Maybe mindfulness is your thing. Weird as it may seem, there's a whole philosophy of mindfulness and meditative breathing techniques, and some people even do it while they drive. It's called "mindful driving."

Check this out:

2. The Right Soundtrack

Years ago when I had a car, I tried a month-long experiment of only listening to a tape of "ocean sounds" while I drove. That's right, nothing but the soothing sounds of waves crashing gently onto the shore.

(Note: It's a bit weird to do this in Minnesota.)

The point is that what you listen to, and the mindset you adopt in the car, can make a difference. Maybe a book on tape is your thing. Maybe you love MPR's long-form programming. Whatever the case, stop seeing your time in the car as wasted, and learn how to relax inside your drive.

3. Park and Walk

A lot of the connection between driving, anger, and frustration comes of our habit of trying to park as close as possible to our destinations. I find that one useful way around this is to simply park farther away and walk to my destination. (Ideally, you stroll or meander to your destination, but that's some next level stuff.)

It's not a parking problem, it's a walk-portunity.

4. Give yourself more time

The key to all of these changes is to give yourself more time. We tend to underestimate the amount of time we'll need to get around the city in our cars, making the "best case scenario" guesses as how long it'll take us to cut through the neighborhood or park our cars.

The reason this is a problem is that, if you're in a hurry, you will drive like an ass.  Gandhi wasn't in a hurry.

Make HWGD a Habit

[Real place.]
You can do it. Starting this month, each time you get in the car, breathe and tell yourself that you're going to follow these rules. Take a second to remind yourself. Make a habit of not driving like an ass. Just take it one step at at time. Trust me, you'll feel better.

And maybe, if enough people begin to change, our urban streets will begin to change. After all, we are the drivers. Be the driver. They is us.


Anonymous said...


Bill Lindeke said...

I'm trying to picture this song blasting out the windows of a car that almost runs me off the road