Tom Vanderbilt Ponders Motorist Sociopathy

tom_vanderbilt.jpgYesterday, at the end of our piece about the recent road rage incidents in usually-polite Portland and Seattle, we posed a question to Tom Vanderbilt, author of the forthcoming book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us. We asked: What is it about automobility that often seems to turn nice, normal people into impulsive, remorseless sociopaths — blasting their horns, flying into fits of rage and wielding their vehicles like weapons in a crowded, pedestrian-dominated city.

Tom, whose book, I believe, most Streetsbloggers will find to be a must-read, took the time to write the following answer and to pose a question of his own…

This is a good and complicated question — it’s also an enduring one. Bad behavior was present the year I was born (1968, when Congress was holding hearings on violence on the road), but it really almost seemed built into the invention of the car — the town of Chatham, New Jersey, for example, installed speed bumps in the early 20th century to combat what were then known as "scorchers," or speeders. Actually, though, it predates the car. There’s a great painting, by the 18th century French artist Claude Gillot, called "The Scene of the Two Carriages," that shows two carriage drivers yelling at each at an intersection as they "contest for the way," as it used to be known. It’s almost as if there’s something about being inside a vehicle of any kind, removed from the normal pace and experience of walking — the only thing we were actually born to do, after all — that evokes its own special behaviors, its own convulsive social physics, and problems — traffic fatalities, it should be noted, were ranked as the leading cause of fatalities in London in the early 18th century.

Another inherent problem, I believe, is conflicting modes, at least psychologically. The New York Times, circa the late 19th century, was filled with all sorts of hue and cry about the arrival of the bicycle. It was banned from parks, pedestrians hated it, horse-drivers thought it spooked their horses. People thought it could give you special ailments.

The only people who didn’t seem to hate it were bicyclists themselves. We just seem resistant to seeing the world beyond our reference point, be that windshield or handlebars — it’s what Aaron Naparstek has aptly called "modal bias." Whatever you’re in at the moment just seems the reigning mode of transport. Humans in general have trouble looking outside ourselves, we fall victim to something call the "actor-observer effect." When we see someone else do something, we might attribute their action to something about their personality or nature. When we do something, we attribute it to "situational" factors — we had to do it because of something external. This has been shown in studies — car drivers think "bikers" do something because they’re, well, "bikers," whereas they as car drivers are merely reacting to events, being affected by others. "You fell, I was pushed," is how it’s been described. How many times have you seen someone honk at someone who was waiting for pedestrians to cross while making a turn; they’ll call them an "idiot" as if there wasn’t a perfectly normal reason they were waiting to make the turn. George Carlin got at this a bit when he said anyone moving faster than you was a maniac and anyone slower was an idiot. We have ignition interlocks now in cars, so it won’t start if you’ve been boozing it up — I’d like to see a "blood flow to the brain" interlock, where the car shuts down if it detects you’ve actually stopped cogitating, as so often seems the case.

There’s all sorts of other things underlying bad road behavior. Anonymity is a huge issue — I compare traffic to being online. You can act nastily, veiled behind a pseudonym, then leave in a hurry, with no consequences; you’ll do things you’d never do in a normal social setting. Your commenter is right — studies have shown less aggressive behavior from people in convertibles with the top down versus convertibles with the top up. The thought is they’re less protected, less anonymous, more "human." It could also just be they’re in a better mood because they’ve got the top down. All kinds of psychological studies have shown how one’s chances of gaining cooperation increase when we can make eye contact. We only get this occasionally in traffic, when we look at someone to try to get "waved in" — unless we’re getting what Seinfeld called the "stare ahead." One of your commenters mentioned frustrated speed as a cause of hostility, and I think that’s right; most times we’re in transport it’s because we want to get somewhere after all, and in any mode we can get annoyed at delay — we’ve probably all seen the nasty altercations on the Brooklyn Bridge between cyclists who get really annoyed when they have to slow for wayward tourists who don’t observe the rule/norm. But speed is linked as well to anonymity, nowhere more so in a car; the faster you go, the more divorced you become, in a sensorial and practical way, from the environment around you. It doesn’t help that we tend to engineer our roads to seem as if they were designed for nothing more than the fast movement of vehicles.

Another reason people might be acting like criminals on the road is that they might actually be criminals on the road. Studies in the U.K. that looked at a pool of driving records found that people who committed non-motoring offenses were much more likely to commit motoring offenses. Then there’s the issue of driver’s actual grasp of the traffic law. Police in Chicago recently posed as pedestrians to nab drivers acting badly in intersections. In many cases drivers, and sometimes pedestrians, seemed clueless as to the actual right of way laws. Studies by David Ragland and Meghan Mitman at UC-Berkeley have confirmed this, and the implications of their studies were that pedestrians, in many cases, were better off in unmarked than marked crosswalks because there was less certainty over who had right of way, and thus more caution.

That’s sort of the unfortunate aspect of clinging to traffic laws as a way to try assure good behavior — we’re not even sure who’s aware of the laws, perhaps not a surprise given how complex the traffic environment can be. We need, in the end, to rely more on just basic precepts of polite behavior and social cooperation — there’s so many things that can’t be readily enforced, so many roads where police can’t be present. I really have no clue how to get there, though — any suggestions?