Road Rage

September 11, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Over at Blue Monster, Dan Myers is trying to rein in his road rage. Now that he’s doing a course in peace*, he’s trying to practice what he teaches. Dan, if we believe his self-report, is apparently the kind of driver who not only drives fast but curses out the other drivers on the road whose driving isn’t up to his standards.

He’s not the only one. I’ve ridden with people who on foot were eminently reasonable and polite but on the road became ogres. What is it about driving that makes us forget ourselves? My friend Gail, for example, forgot she had her young nieces in the car with her and slipped into her usual driver monologue, a running dramatic commentary on the inadequacies of other drivers. “Oh Auntie, you said the A-word,” came the voice from the back seat. The A-word and probably worse. But why?

Goffman has the answer. Because we’re locked in our steel-and-glass isolation tanks, we can’t engage in the little interaction rituals that validate and uphold the self of each person in the situation. When we can’t perform those rituals of repair, things can spiral further towards anger. Neither driver can hear the other, so we think we’re invulnerable to any reaction from the other guy. That may account for this anecdote told me by a state trooper (also an adjunct professor in sociology at the time): In one of these highway ego-contests – dangerous enough when you’re going 70 mph – one of the disputants pulled alongside the other and brandished a pistol. In his anger and isolation, he’d forgotten that the other driver might have a cell phone and that he might use it to call the troopers.

My son has the solution. The next generation of cars should come equipped with a menu of messages that you can flash on your rear window. With the touch of a button, you can say, “Sorry for cutting you off there. Won’t happen again.” Or “My mistake, I should have signaled earlier.” And so on.

* I highly recommend the student entries in the Peace Blog for the course.


maxliving said...

You didn't mention the one that originally got me thinking about it: tailgating. The software could have two versions: the polite and the, well, less polite. "Please stop tailgating me" or "Stop tailgating me, a**hole!" That sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

Incredible, Jay. My daughter, years ago as a pre-teen, thought up an idea of a flashing message board for cars, too. Not to combat road rage, however, but to tell the boy in the next car over that he was cute...