Road rage: its time, inevitably, has come

HIGHLAND PARK, Illinois, April 22 -- In recent years, we've been seeing more and more reports of "road rage" incidents on America's highways and byways.  Road rage is just a catchy term for aggressive driving and the sometimes violent behavior that goes with it (up to and including murder; but that part is beyond the scope of this column). It's nothing new, but it's getting worse.  Why it's worsening is no big mystery: There are just too many cars trying to use too few roads.

The worst road-rage offenders are suburban commuters.  They're mostly white-collar professionals who try to cram too many things into every 24-hour period -- and who have too little time to get where they're going as a result.  I've already ranted against the increasingly common practice of making phone calls from behind the wheel (see Hang up and drive, March 31, 1998).  But a lot of the same people who can't be bothered to pay as much attention to the road as they're paying to their phone calls, can't get out of bed early enough to get to work on time, either.

The only problem with the "Americans have always loved their cars" canard is that it's dead wrong -- or at least oversimplified.

Here in Chicagoland, I see aggressive drivers every day, on my way to work.  Many suburban office buildings are located in former farm communities where the roads are grossly inadequate to handle today's traffic volume.  Public transportation is pretty much non-existent, in terms of options for getting from one suburb to another -- so we all hit the road every morning.

One of the most persistent myths about American culture is that we have a national "love affair with the automobile," and that this is some kind of natural instinct, which evolved during the 19th century, when the country expanded westward in covered wagons.  We love our cars, so goes the theory, and it's always been this way.  Public transportation?  That's for socialist, anthill-society Europeans, with their heavily subsidized bullet trains, and for urban Asians, who live in such tightly-packed cities that they have to hire workers to shove them into subway cars overflowing with humanity.  Americans, supposedly, have an ingrained wanderlust that renders us incapable of taking a train, bus, or trolley.

You could take the A-train, but not anymore, you can't

The only problem with the "Americans have always loved their cars" canard is that it's dead wrong -- or at least a gross oversimplification.  At one time, public transportation was the main way of getting around in America.  I grew up in Wayland, Massachusetts, a town that used to have trolleys going all over town as well as into Boston, some 15 miles away.  If you look at the old photographs in a Wayland Historical Society calendar, you'll see trolley tracks in almost every one.

My dear-departed sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Walsh, was a lifelong Wayland resident, and she related that the trolley companies were purchased and dismantled by the automobile and oil companies, so as to force people to buy motor vehicles and burn gasoline.  James Howard Kunstler, in an incisive anti-suburbia treatise called The Geography of Nowhere (Simon & Schuster, 1993), explains how this worked:

Kunstler goes into considerable detail to illustrate the fact that our "love affair with the automobile" was orchestrated by the companies who sold cars, tires, and gas -- it wasn't something the public came up with on its own.

Be that as it may, what we're faced with, as we come to the end of the 20th century, is a landscape filled with far too many cars for the available roads.  This is especially true in surburbia.  And it's not just at rush hour that people drive like bats out of hell.

This past Saturday, Meg and I were out doing some errands -- we went to the paint store, the hardware store, the bank, the mailbox, and the Yamaha dealer (the last stop wasn't for any particular purpose, except to buy a t-shirt and a motorcycle magazine, and to gawk at new bikes we can't afford).  At one point, we were making our way along a busy, congested four-lane east-west suburban road -- a typical Chicagoland boulevard.  I was driving in the left-hand lane, behind a line of cars going around 40 miles an hour or so.  This wasn't fast enough for some of the "supercharged family" types on the road that day -- they were darting left and right, in and out, trying to weave their way through traffic, so as to get to the supermarket 30 seconds earlier than they'd otherwise have done.

When your vehicle runs into something, that's a "collision."  It is not an accident.

Well, one guy got a bit too supercharged, darting out from behind me into the right lane (presumably to pass me on the right -- and remember, I was following a line of cars, so I guess he was planning to go around all of them).  Unfortunately, just as he was doing this, another motorist was pulling out from a store parking lot into the road.  I heard a screeeeech-crunch, as the guy coming up from behind me locked his wheels but failed to avoid clobbering the guy pulling out into traffic.

That's why they call it collision insurance!

The guy who crunched into the second guy probably thinks he was involved in an "accident," and that it was not his fault -- he most likely considers it the fault of the slow cars in front of him, who weren't getting out of his way fast enough for his tastes. Well, as my first motorcycle training instructor made it clear, "accident" is not a word that should be used in the context of traffic.  "When your vehicle collides with something -- another vehicle, a tree, a wall, or, in the case of a motorcycle, falls over and hits the ground -- that's a collision.  It is not an accident.  You should have avoided it!"  This particular collision was caused by impatience, inattention, and -- in the greater scheme of things -- the fact that there were just too many cars on the road.

These days, with my aging Hyundai in its golden years, I've taken a much calmer approach to commuting than most of the I-me-mine hurry-hurry-hurry-ers -- the types who cut in front of me while I'm coasting toward a red light, trying slow down gradually in an effort to save gas, save brake-pad wear, and just generally chill out.  Why do they have to hurry to get to the red light?  And while we're at it, what is so difficult about getting out the door five or ten minutes earlier in the morning, so as not to have to hurry to get to work in the first place?  Or, on the other hand, what's so awful about getting to work a few minutes late?

I tend to take a somewhat more aggressive approach to commuting when I'm on a motorcycle -- partly because bikes are much quicker in traffic than cars; grabbing a handful of throttle is often the safest way to get through a pile of congestion.  But let's face it: there simply isn't enough room on the road -- the pipe isn't wide enough -- for everyone to go to work at the same time and get there in an expedient fashion.  So why fight it?  Toning down the aggressiveness may get you to work a minute or two later -- but so what?  I find that if I just let a few impatient Type-A personalities blow by me in the morning, I get to the office in a better frame of mind, which makes me more productive.  Which makes up for any time lost on the road anyway.

As regular readers know, Meg and I are working on eventually cleaning up our act and taking it on the road -- specifically, to Flagstaff, Arizona (sometime this year, we hope).  Last time we were out there, we found a disarming absence of aggressive driving, road rage, cell phones, and other abominations of modern traffic so prevalent here in Chicagoland.  Out there, people aren't as driven, impatient, and harried as they are around here -- they've got things in perspective.  Less is more.  People don't try to cram as much activity as humanly possible into every minute of every day.  Instead, they slow down.  Smell some flowers.  Hang up and drive.  Relax.

I'm not against aggressive driving -- on the racetrack, where it belongs.  A lot of race drivers say they feel much safer out on the track, at 100, 150, 200 miles an hour or more, than they do on the road.  Having been to a couple of sessions at a motorcycle performance riding school, I agree completely -- blasting around Road America or Phoenix International Raceway on a big-horsepower machine, I never felt any of the fear and uncertainty I get every day from sharing a commute with a bunch of hurried, distracted drivers.  Given the rate of traffic growth, though, I doubt we're going to see any improvement in the conditions out there on the roads.  It's going to get worse before it gets better -- if it ever does.

Copyright © 1999 John J. Kafalas

Feedback?  Drop me a letter to the editor, and I'll post it on-line!

Urb's previous columns can be found in the Column Archive, where you'll also find letters to the editor.

Return to the home page