I'm sitting in traffic about a quarter of a mile from the stop light at one of the busier intersections in Austin, Texas. Behind me cars stretch as far as I can see. I begin to feel the tension in my shoulders as my frustration starts to build. I am just about to shout (at no one in particular just out loud,) when I notice movement in the car next to me. I look closer and see a man pounding on his steering wheel and shouting. Next to him I see his companion. Her chin in her hand staring out the window and probably wishing she was somewhere else. At that very moment, I have an epiphany and decide from that moment on I would let people like him be upset for me in any frustrating driving situation. Whenever I was in traffic, I would be absolved from getting angry or frustrated by knowing that somewhere out there, there will be several people going off like a steam kettle. To this day, when stuck in traffic I almost always see someone carrying on in the same manor and these days it makes me laugh.
I read a recent interview with Tom Vanderbilt, a freelance writer and author of "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)," just published by Knopf. It's a well-researched 402-page book on the complicated and interesting relationship between people and the machines they drive "at 88 feet per second (60 mph) or sit for hours in bumper-to-bumper-to-bumper traffic." Vanderbilt writes that driving is "the most dangerous thing most of us will ever do." In the interview he makes some very interesting points.
He quotes a number of studies that prove without a doubt that we are not as skilled at driving as we have lead ourselves to believe.
- Talking on a cell phone takes concentration, and Vanderbilt's book points out the many ways in which a driver becomes less attentive while on a call. Because of that split attention, he writes, "We become worse drivers and worse talkers."
- "Accidents": The way we talk about traffic, Vanderbilt says, can make us think that driving a car isn't as dangerous a task as it can be. Consider the word "accident."
- "We prefer the word ‘accident' because we all drive. When you hear about a plane crash, you don't hear ‘plane accident.' We wouldn't feel comfortable with that description because it would indicate someone throwing their hands up and saying, ‘Oh, accidents happen."
- "This is the classic thing in traffic safety. You don't want to petrify people. But, on the other hand, you sort of do. ... Forty-three thousand people a year-that's just fatalities.
- "There's so much associated with driving-romance and excitement. A survey by some Canadian people found that 50 percent of car commercials showed unsafe driving acts. What are they selling?" (The ultimate driving machine?)
For years, the state of Texas installed signs everywhere with just two words "Drive Friendly." I think this simple message actually encouraged people (weather directly or subconsciously) to do just that. I wish Texas would bring them back because it might help. It is always irritating to be stuck in traffic, but the bizarre and aggressive nature of other drivers can also be maddening. For instance, I turn on the signal to change lanes and the person in the next lane (usually in one of those cars advertising its self as "the ultimate driving machine,") roars up to cut me off. Road side gawkers who slow to a crawl to look at anything at the side of the road from a clearing wreck to (in Austin at least) a man dressed in a pink thong pulling a wagon full of odd junk. Honking freaks, lying on the horn, if you don't move the instant the light turns green or just to express themselves at any given moment. You can fill in the blank with your own particular aggravation.
Okay, I am going out on a limb here with some admittedly "half baked theories". Of all the things in the world that make me cranky, hunger is right up there in the top two or three. I think this also applies to the majority of people in the world today. Now, think about the fact that at least half of the population is on some type of diet. You see where I am going with this? Well, it makes sense that there are a lot of people on the road who are already on edge from self imposed hunger pangs that are just a snack away from losing it! I know I will catch flack for this but my other "prejudice" concerns the people who pilot the aforementioned "ultimate driving machines". Now don't take my word for this. Just start looking around and I feel certain that you will soon begin to notice many of the smaller versions of this car whipping in and out of traffic, turn signals apparently broken, barrelling down the road with no regard for others around them and generally "letting the ego take the wheel..." Okay, enough of that, you get my point!
As a real estate broker in Austin Texas I spend a great deal of time behind the wheel. I am one of those realtors who divide my time almost equally between representing listings and working with buyers. Over time, I developed a strategy to stay comfortable both physically and mentally while driving. I like driving a nice car that is as comfortable as possible and is also good for shuttling clients to various homes. I believe in a hands free phone system so I can talk and drive if the need arises. I utilize both an iPod as well as a subscription to Sirius radio for a wide variety of music choices. A word of warning: avoid choosing hard rock, punk, or speed metal when in traffic as this may increase the aggressive side of your driving nature. Always have a snack nearby to avoid the crankiness driven car tactics I mentioned earlier. Last but not least, give yourself ample time to get where you are going. If you are behind before you get in the car you are already inclined to drive like a bat out of hell. In no way am I preaching. I just hope we can all drive in harmony and save ourselves some emotional anguish and maybe even some lives.
As always, I remain yours in the social graces and will see you on the road.