I remember sitting in my car in traffic, judging and hating everyone around me, “You call that a signal, idiot?!” “Get off my ass jerk or I’ll just tap my brakes a little harder and see how you like the taste of my bumper.”
Yet, the minute I arrived at my destination and stepped out of my car all my rage was lost. I couldn’t talk in that tone, in those words to my co-workers, I couldn’t treat the cashier at the grocery store with the same disdain.
And for some bizarre reason this all felt perfectly normal. Outside the glass and steel of my car everyone was out to annoy me or run me into a wall. But once I stepped out of my car I couldn’t blame anonymous others.
But now, after a few car-free years and experiencing a lot of road travel on a much smaller vehicle, I have finally realized that the problem was me.
In the one fender bender I was involved in it was everyone else’s fault but my own. The other driver braked too hard, the road was icy, the light was still yellow. Now I realize that I was traveling too fast for the conditions, that I was following too close and that I had no right to proceed through a yellow light without slowing down.
But it has taken me a very long time to come to this realization. It has taken a combination of no longer driving cars and reading about the way we behave in cars to come to the conclusion that I was a bad driver. But I was actively looking for reasons why my car made me miserable. It wasn’t just the price of gas and constant maintenance costs. It wasn’t just the insurance charges I felt too were too high, after all I thought I was a good driver. There was an underlying issue here and thankfully more and more people are studying why our cars can change perfectly decent people into rage-aholics.
In a recent Grist article, Sarah Goodyear looks at why people in cars seem to hate people on bicycles:
If you’ve ever been behind the wheel of a car, you’ve felt it: The dead certainty that everyone around you is a complete idiot who should get the hell out of your way.
If you’ve spent much time riding a bicycle, you have been the target of that wrath. And without the protective metal-and-glass bubble that shields drivers (mostly) from each other’s anger, it’s easy to feel the hate. A horn honked in your ear by someone zooming past, an insult shouted out a window, the grit kicked up in your face by someone passing too close — just to make a point. It’s scary.
To explain why this happens, Sarah looks to Tom Vanderbuilt, author of the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us):
What happens to most of us, in most driving conditions, is that we’re losing some of the key attributes that facilitate human cooperation and, in a larger sense, society.
Eye contact, for example, has been shown in any number of experiments to increase the chance of gaining cooperation – that’s why when drivers give you what was called on Seinfeld the “stare-ahead,” your chances that they’ll let you merge in ahead of them are greatly reduced.
Then there’s the anonymity in traffic – there’s no one to spread rumors or gossip about you about how bad your behavior was — not to mention the lack of consequences for acting like an idiot. It’s all strikingly similar to the way we act on the internet, in what’s called the “online disinhibition effect.”
This is how door prizes happen. A driver, still in complete social isolation, fails to look for cyclists approaching and opens a door into their path. In an instant, the oblivious driver has made a potentially fatal mistake.
The question now is how do we socialize anti-social drivers? Most don’t realize they behave this way and those who do often feel it is absolutely acceptable behaviour.
As Joe Simonetti explains to Tom Vanderbuilt in a recent Outside article:
“As a couples therapist, I tell people that we take things so personally,” he says as we near the Whitestone Bridge, on the first dedicated bike path we’ve seen in more than two hours. It’s easy, when a car edges too close or cuts him off, to “go to that paranoid place where they’re just trying to fuck with me. We’re so worried that someone else can steal our sense of self that we fight for it at every turn.” But it could have been just that the driver didn’t see him. Under the spell of what’s called “inattentional blindness,” people have been known to miss obvious things simply because they’re not looking for them. Either that or what seems inconsequential in a car—passing by within a foot or two—can be terrifying to someone on a bike.
In my car I believed that every move I made was the right one. I was always acting in my own self-interest. When I first started commuting by bicycle I often behaved in the same manner. Only now I was exposed and on a different vehicle. I was confused when I’d aggressively “take the lane” only to have my aggression thrown back at me with 2 tonnes of steel. That’s how you behave in protective cocoons. You can be aggressive and the consequences are rarely anything at all, sometimes just an annoyance of expensive bumper dings and scratched doors. On a bicycle the consequences can be more dire, fatal.
Changing driver attitudes isn’t something that will happen inside of our cars. Listen to talk and news radio any morning and you’ll hear a consistent mantra in the news reports and commercials reinforcing the idea that other drivers are out to get you, other drivers are creating terrible traffic and other drivers are the ones making dangerous maneuvers… it’s always someone else.
So some cities are looking not at changing how we drive but at making changes that encourage people to get out of their cars. Vanderbuilt explains:
Few American cities have done a better job of getting people on bikes than Portland, Oregon, where around 7 percent of the population bikes to work and children cycle to school in huge “bike trains.” And yet, last year, like many recent years, no cyclist was killed. (By comparison, Tampa, Florida, a city where fewer than 1 percent of the population commutes by bike, had nine cyclist fatalities in four months in 2009.) Greg Raisman, a traffic-safety specialist with Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, says one key to getting people biking is providing infrastructure—actual or symbolic. The city features “bicycle boulevards” and bike-only traffic signals, and it’s planning new six-foot-wide bike lanes. It recently put some 2,100 “sharrows” bike symbols on 50 miles of residential streets. He says the symbols send messages to motorists and are, as many Portlanders have told him, changing “people’s mental maps of the city.”
“We need to get people to change the way they think about transportation,” Raisman says. While all road users need to step up in terms of behavior, he believes, calling for cyclists to be licensed, as some critics have lately done, isn’t the right place to start. “I recently got my driver’s license renewed,” he says. “They just asked me if my address was the same.” Among the things he was not asked was whether he was aware of traffic-code changes like the 2007 Vulnerable Road User law or a new Oregon rule that makes it legal for cyclists to pass on the right so they can filter to the front past queues of cars stopped at traffic lights.
I’ll be renewing my own drivers licence in Ontario this year. In the five years since I last renewed, I’ve changed my address from a small Ontario town with few bicycle lanes and even less pedestrian infrastructure to a Toronto address in a city with pedestrian activated crossings, turning and parking restrictions and a new piece of cycling infrastructure known as “sharrows.” Yet I won’t be asked if I’m familiar with any of this. I’ll confirm my address, get my photo taken and away I’ll go, free to drive as I’ve been driving since I became a G level driver more than a decade ago.
Will Toronto’s reputation for terribly long commutes make others search for alternatives? Or will we continue to think only of ourselves and place the blame on a faceless other? When looking in our rear view mirrors will we catch a glimpse of ourselves and realize that we are someone else’s “other?” As I’ve found out, changing our own behaviour is extremely difficult but it can be done.
Photo via BikingToronto Flickr Pool