Road rage or traffic tantrums?
Recently the news has been full of tales of road rage. Global News frequently re-runs a video of a man simultaneously driving and hurling a torrent of foul abuse at another motorist. Meanwhile, the victimized motorist is filming the whole event on his cell phone. I hope this event did not take place on one of the so-called bike routes that we cyclists share with thousands of duelling rush hour cars.
Neither of the drivers would have had much attention to spare for those “Share the Road” signs which authorities apparently believe can magically turn a dangerously busy road into a safe bike route.
More recently, we read the appalling story of Gerardo Arguello and Norman Segundo, using their minivan to chase down Ryan McCaffery, another motorist, and beating him savagely with a baseball bat. McCaffery’s “crime?" He pulled in ahead of Arguello and Segundo on an on-ramp near North Vancouver. Arguello and Segundo probably “lost” about 30 metres of road space; for that, they have rendered a father of two unable to earn a living, and nearly made a widow of his wife.
Photo from Newzar
I suggest that these events should not be called road rage. They should be called traffic tantrums. The behaviours are much the same as toddlers having a temper tantrum: they show the same utter selfishness and loss of impulse control. It’s understandable in toddlers; but in grownups, it’s shameful. Which is why I wish Global wouldn’t fuzz out that cursing driver’s face – he deserves to be publicly shamed.
Sadly, traffic tantrums are all too common. In fact, one might say that they are just the extreme version of what happens to all of us when we get behind the wheel of a car. The nicest person in the world can become hostile while driving. As early as 1902, Otto Bierbaum was shocked by the traffic tantrums he encountered during a road trip:
“Never in my life have I been cursed at so frequently as on my automobile trip in the year 1902 … not to mention all the wordless curses: shaking fists, stuck-out tongues, bared behinds and others besides.”
And this was when speed limits had just been raised from four miles per hour to 14 miles per hour. And Britain had just abolished a law requiring every car to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag or a lamp to warn more sedate road users on horses, bikes or good old feet.
Photo from Bluenred
Certainly I find myself shamed by my OWN emotions when I am forced to drive a car. In no time at all I am muttering about the stupidity of other drivers.
I fear my children learned to swear
while being taxied around by me.
And other drivers are doing the same to me, sometimes not at all quietly. For example, they honk harshly if I take a second too long to pull off from a light.
Yet if I pause longingly in front of the ice-cream fridge in Safeway, other people will say, “Excuse me” rather than screech at me furiously. And though I may get mildly irritated if someone chooses the center of an aisle in Costco to stop and have a think, odds are I will just politely go around him or her, rather than attempt to beat him or her to death with a baseball bat.
Let’s face it, every Saturday would see a massacre in Costco if people had traffic tantrums in supermarkets. So why is it so different when we are driving?
This cartoon captures the abrupt Jekyll and Hyde transformation that afflicts so many otherwise decent people while driving.
Illustration from The Factual Opinion
It seems that in traffic, we struggle to stay human. Perhaps it is because when we are in traffic, we are deprived of that which makes us human: the power of speech (rich torrents of foul abuse notwithstanding).
By contrast, during a recent bike ride along 10th Avenue, I had to apply my brakes sharply when the cyclist in front of me stopped abruptly at a traffic circle. I had a flash of annoyance, wondering what she was doing. Then I saw she was waving a car ahead of her. She noticed me an inch behind her rear wheel, and flashed me a big smile: “He looked like he was in a hurry, so I thought I’d let him go ahead.” “No problem,” I said, returning the smile.
This cyclist had irritated me, but then she entirely dispelled my irritation with her words. Added to that, we had smiled at each other – some researchers speculate that people cannot read each other’s emotions over a distance of more than three metres, and that this may account for road rage. In any event, we had a friendly human encounter that subtly enriched my day.
If we had been in cars, would I have chased her down and tried to beat her to death with a baseball bat? I sincerely doubt it – but I might very well have honked rudely.
When it comes down to it, all motorists are prevented from effective communication by their isolated mode of transport. That’s why all motorists get angry from time to time – and some take it way too far.
(Illustration from Getmeoffthisplant)
Should we not be re-examining a way of life which condemns most people to spending more time in isolation in traffic jams than being with their kids (or having sex), and which seems to bring out the very worst side of human nature, making most of us rude and hostile, and turning some adults into dangerous, overgrown toddlers?
In my opinion, the problem could be overcome by limiting inner city travel to bicycles, foot traffic, horses and buses – all of which provide the opportunity for real human communication, both verbal and non-verbal.
What do you think?
Note: Some ideas in this post were suggested by Tom Vanderbilt’s must-read book, Traffic: Why we Drive the Way we Do.