I read a tremendous book when on holiday last week. Traffic, Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) is a great read. It’s too involved to summarize in a blog post, or several. If you are a amateur traffic engineer or traffic engineering aficionado it’s a fascinating transition from the engineering to the psychology of driving.
There was one idea that I really couldn’t wait to share though. It’s about Road Rage. Some of these ideas I read about in the book, but some I am completely inventing. This is a blog, not a book review.
Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, driving turns out to be one of the most complex tasks we undertake. Humans are not good at it either, even ones who claim to be great. Driving is a task that we perform when moving at speeds for which we have no evolutionary training.
At the same time that we are preforming this complex, high speed task we have completely hamstrung our rich personal communication by isolating the ourselves from the outside world. We are reduced to a crude set of signals; left, right, stop and honk (which is completely ambiguous).
Outside the automobile, the negotiation over shared space is subtle and arguably pleasant. But isolated in a car, that all changes. If we feel wronged, but are unable to subtly communicate our frustration, it builds. Even if you are embellishing the 4 signals of the automobile with your middle finger, you never really know if the other driver feels bad for what happened, knows what you’re on about, or has even seen your salute.
I’ve never heard of sidewalk rage or bikelane rage and I speculate that’s because the signals that we use to negotiate those spaces are much more sophisticated and effective. Even if there is an ‘event’ you can always say ‘watch it’ or ‘coming through’ or the ubiquitous ‘on your left’. The message is still much more subtle than tailgating the offender and cutting him off at the next stoplight. Maybe off-highway events never escalate like that because you can deliver your message more precisely and normally tell right away if your message has been received and understood.
It’s not all sunshine and roses for us though. The author also points out that it may be to the detriment of pedestrian and cyclists that they look so human when mixing with cars. Drivers instinctively look at faces and eyes of cyclists and pedestrians to help them understand the intentions of the non mechanical. They are looking for those same communications that help us off the road. It may take them longer and at high speed, they may be more likely to make a mistake.
Another very neat finding from this book. In one experiment, pictures of traffic scenarios were shown to people who were asked to describe the scenes. In scenarios with cyclists and cars, most people would refer to the car and driver as an object, but not usually the cyclist and bike. So a normal way to describe a scenario is ‘the cyclist yielded to the car’ rather than ‘the bike yielded to the car’ or ‘the cyclist yielded to the driver’. This was true even when the face of the driver was prominent in the photo.
The author also found that drivers passed cyclists more closely when
- The cyclist was wearing a helmet and safety vest
- The cyclist was taking the lane
- The cyclist was a man (admittedly the woman cyclist was a man in a wig, so drivers may have simply been wary of the freak show)
Ultimately there were only a few paragraphs on cycling and cyclists in the book and I just spoiled that part for you. The rest of the book focuses much more on driving and psychology with a little bit of engineering thrown in too.