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If you’re not from a big city like Boston or San Francisco, but you’ve visited one, you’ve probably experienced the intimidation of the city driver: the high speeds, the quick lane changes, the honking, the middle fingers, and of course, the yelling. You may have tried (feebly) to parallel park in a tight spot, done the in-out-in-out routine, and had a furious cab driver screaming that your parents were never married. As you tried to shake it off, you probably muttered to yourself what a selfish jerk the guy was, in an effort to calm your nerves and reassure yourself that he was the problem, not you. But what if it really was you who were the problem?
Having moved from a big city to a suburb far from one, I’m currently experiencing the opposite of the big city driving experience. People here never use their horns — even if the guy at the front of the line takes a solid minute to realize the light has turned green, or two cars are driving side by side at 10 under the speed limit, gumming up traffic for miles behind them. Not only do drivers not speed, they try to merge onto the freeway at 45 m.p.h., creating logjams in the right lane every mile or two. The local truckers have adjusted to this reality by always using the middle or even left lane so as to avoid the mess. In turn, of course, their 55 m.p.h. speeds slow down what are supposed to be the faster lanes. Nobody, and I mean nobody, seems to understand that it’s illegal to stay in the left, i.e. passing, lane (despite the signs every few miles). So we have common sights like a train of eight tailgating cars in the left lane behind an airhead going 50 m.p.h. who is enjoying his music a little too much.
What I’ve realized is that fast does not equal selfish. Neither does grumpy. Granted, lots of studies have shown the more time you spend in gridlock, the more stress it creates and the grumpier you get. No argument here. When you have to interact with people more, you can expect to experience more friction and therefore more stress — and it’s no different on the road. But driverly grumpiness has as much to do with a principle as it does about the inconvenience to the individual driver.
When your parallel parking gums up traffic, or your feckless turn down a one-way street almost creates an accident, or your inability to go at the prevailing speed of traffic slows everybody else down, those other drivers are actually angry about your violation of the “common law” of the local streets. They’re not muttering to themselves, “How can that guy make me late like this?” They’re muttering, “What does that guy think he’s doing, driving like that? He’s slowing down the entire road!” They may not handle it in the most tactful way, but their yelling at you communicates something to you about your driving — which, over time, makes you a better driver. As anybody who has moved to a big city can tell you, you either learn to drive or you learn to walk.
By contrast, the genial guy clocking 55 m.p.h. in the left lane is thinking about only one thing: himself. His isolated suburban existence makes him inclined to be oblivious to the drivers around him. He may not look in his rear view mirror at all; if he does, the thought does not cross his mind that all those people tailgating him want to get past him. He may even be irritated that they’re tailgating him (those bums!), and continue to trundle ahead as a way to get back at them.
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Likewise, the 30 drivers who don’t honk at the still-stopped airhead at the green light aren’t doing him a favor. Still more true of the ones behind the slowpoke who isn’t getting the (uncommunicated) message on the freeway. Maybe he doesn’t know the law, in which case a judicious honk, on occasion, will quickly teach him. Maybe he’s going slowly because he’s too old to be driving safely — but how will he know it’s time to retire his car keys if his unsafe driving never meets with resistance? Or maybe he’s just a terrible driver or a self-centered person; if so, he needs to be reminded there are other cars around him, both for courtesy’s sake and for safety’s. (In case you’re wondering: all this slow driving doesn’t make the streets safer; the number of accidents in this town caused by sheer driver incompetence stuns me, and don’t even get me started on what happens when a few snowflakes fall.)
Obviously, those suburban moments when somebody generously lets you merge or waves you ahead are feel-good moments (“Drivers are so nice here!”). And I’m sure there could be a middle ground between the hard-edged terror of Manhattan’s streets and the good-natured anarchy of the suburb’s. But these two polar opposites are just a human dilemma playing out on streets.
Everybody feels good if everybody’s always “nice.” But how many people do you consider worthwhile friends who are always “nice?” How long do you stay plugged into a church where everyone is “nice?”
The lack of communication in perpetually “nice” environments, where no one holds anyone else accountable and no one says what he’s thinking, tends to lead to the absence of honesty, trust, and personal growth. Such suppressed social chaos sooner or later requires more intervention from the top — be it Dad, a priest, management, or the government. Organizations, communities, and streets that are self-regulating can at times feel intimidating or repressive, because they have a strong sense of shared expectations (manners). But one social science study after another (click here for one of my favorites) concludes that they also tend to be more peaceful, more cohesive, and less in need of heavy regulations and large police forces.
I used to be as put off by city drivers as anybody else. But in retrospect, I’ll take a strong, albeit grumpy social order over a weak one covered in a veneer of shallow niceness. That’s as true on the road as anywhere else.
Brian Brown is a social fundraising consultant and the founding editor of Humane Pursuits. He is the author of anthologies on art and nature philanthropy and a contributing author to Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity and Civic Life in Modern America (2014).