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this article was nice
[…] mentioned in previous posts about how the social norms around driving completely isolate each individual from each other. […]
An interesting article about the psychology of driving suggests that as cars become more “safer” they allow drivers to take more risks. It’s something that has crossed my mind more than once in my drives up and down the East Coast. Here are some of my thoughts.
1. Driving is perhaps the only social interaction environment where people cannot see each other directly, but can observe and even suffer from their behavior.
If someone cuts the line at the local bakery, that interaction and behavior can be instantaneously matched to the physical appearance of the person. Additionally, there is usually an open channel for communicating one’s own dissatisfaction: “hey, you!” It makes people more comfortable knowing that, perhaps, it isn’t an 80-year old granny cutting the line, but someone they can easily stereotype as one likely to commit the offense. Driving affords no such luxury.
Image courtesy of popcoaster.com
This is likely why people take comfort in stereotyping drivers from different states (New York/Massachusetts drivers being a good example). If honking and cursing inside your own car seems to have no effect, at least it’s comforting to know that there’s a reason to explain poor driving decisions.
2. Driving allows people to be rude without having lasting repercussions, while politeness rarely pays off.
If you’re rude at work or at school, people take note in order to avoid future incidents, but driving allows people to be rude while easily slipping away in traffic moments after committing an offense. Being rude also allows people to take advantage of situations in which they would otherwise not for fear of community reprimands - cutting into a packed exit lane is a good example.
3. Social interactions while driving manifests itself in unique ways.
This is rather obvious. People drive faster when they are surrounded by cars driving fast because there is safety in knowing that many people are breaking the rules. It’s a common courtesy to warn other drivers about headlights/cops/sudden stops. These are interactions that are nonetheless limited by the fact that there is no easy way to observe other drivers, especially their faces. It’s the same sort of limitation that hinders social interaction on the web today: you can’t tell if a person is trying to be helpful, sarcastic or just trying to annoy you. Flashing headlights can mean a) your headlights are off/cops ahead b) you’ve just made a dangerous driving move and therefore I will try to blind you.
4. Driving as it is today is still an inherently social activity, but it need not be.
Driving is an activity in which human effort and time is wasted the most. Somewhere in Tom Vanderbilt’s book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)” he mentioned that the human brain makes some astonishing number of decisions per second as we drive - the signs on the road, the road conditions, cars ahead, to the left, right and behind of us, the weather, your cellphone, etc. However these decisions require the processing power of the human brain precisely because all the other drivers on the road are human. But if we eliminate the human factor altogether, making car-driving autonomous, not only are we likely to stem human error and hence human casualties, but we are also reallocate our brain processes to something more useful. We aren’t designed to handle so much simultaneous input at the same time, as much as we’d like to fool ourselves into thinking. Computers are much better equipped to do so.
We can always make the case for driving as a recreational activity, but for many people driving is just a very convenient way of getting from point A to point B. The psychological mistake that we make is in thinking that having a car gives us control. To a certain degree, it does, but once you realize that driving is a skewed form of social networking en masse, you begin to realize you really don’t have much control after all.