Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Road Rage I: Aggressive Driving

While driving to the shopping center the other day, I got stuck behind a beige Subaru. It was three in the afternoon and I was on a single lane road. The speed limit was forty-five miles per hour and this beige Subaru Outback was going a little over thirty-five. My first reaction, of course, was to mutter expletives and to tell the driver to “pick up the pace, jerk!”, but alas, the other driver could not hear me. So I stewed for the next mile as I drove behind this beige Subaru, trying not to tailgate. When the road finally split off a left turn lane and the beige Subaru pulled into the left lane at the light, I pulled up and glanced over at the driver.

It was a middle-aged man on his cell phone.

Now I’ll be the first to admit I expected a seventy-six year old woman with glasses behind the wheel of that beige Subaru. But I wasn’t shocked to see a middle-aged man driving like my grandmother, and that surprised me. Since when did anyone drive ten miles under the speed limit that was not lost or had a history of cataract surgery? When had the stereotypes been broken?

Befuddled but ecstatic to be free of this road sloth, I motored on pass the light. Unfortunately, not half a mile from the traffic light, I would look into the rearview mirror to see a black Acura MDX practically driving into my trunk. First the tortoise and now the hare! So I look at my speedometer—fifty miles per hour. The speed limit is still forty-five on this road. I briefly contemplated changing lanes to the right, but before I could signal, the black Acura sped around my passenger side and rocketed away. I did get a good look at the driver, of course.

It was a middle-aged woman.

She was not on the phone, though. As I shook my head in disgust I pondered why this woman was in such a hurry. My first guess was that she was just a jerk. Sure, she could have been late for a meeting, late to her child’s soccer game, rushing to get home and meet the cable guy, or really have to go to the bathroom badly. Common sense and experience told me that it was more likely that she was an aggressive driver than subject to some outstanding circumstance.

I've been on the other side of the fence before, where I thought I was the best driver on the road. Everyone else was an idiot. But I've also had my share of moving violations and traffic tickets, and I'd like the think that I have changed my driving habits. Ultimately, with or without the citations, I don’t think my aggressive driving really accomplished my main purpose—to reduce to time I had to spend in the car.

Over the years it seems that people have only become more aggressive drivers. I think there is a good reason that explains this phenomenon. It is that we care far less about petty crimes and social misconduct. It is reasonable to channel your resources towards fighting the more violent crimes and offenses. The problem with that approach is that if you are unable to control and taper the number of offenses within a short period of time, the number of offenses begins to grow, eventually outstripping your resources. The broken windows theory and the turnstile theory argue that resources are better used to fight smaller crimes. The broken windows theory argues that people see broken windows, they assume, perhaps not consciously, that no one cares or no one is policing the petty criminal. This makes people more likely to commit a petty crime they otherwise would have refrained from committing. The turnstile theory argues that people who see turnstile hoppers get away without paying train fares are more likely to also hop turnstiles. This is turn creates more petty criminals who may then escalate to more violent crimes over time. So by policing turnstiles and punishing hoppers quickly, violent crimes of the future could be prevented.

Looking at traffic violations, the enforcement of traffic violations has always remained very poor. We all know someone who has a horde of tickets packed into the glove compartment of his or her car. We all have been in the car with someone whom we thought was an aggressive driver, or been the person our passengers thought was the aggressive driver. We have all also honked our horns at some jerk we thought was driving like an idiot. More and more people take liberties while driving every day, and with good reason. How many times has that car going ninety-five miles an hour while weaving in and out of lanes on the highway really gotten caught and pulled over? Practically never. Are there really any consequences seen by the drivers who take up two parking spots because they don't care or know how to pull into a spot? Who actually gets pulled over for tailgating? Aggressive driving has permeated so far into the daily life that controlling it is more difficult than ever. If all traffic violations were actually enforced, there would be such an enormous volume of tickets equaling millions of dollars each week that no one would bother paying the ticket. Who will then enforce the remission of the fines? If this continues, driving skills will deteriorate to the point where accidents are so commonplace that nice cars disappear from the blacktop.

This should not imply that the police do a poor job with traffic violations. For some cities there aren't enough policemen to watch the roads. I suspect that for most cities it is impractical to police the traffic. Unfortunately, this only reinforces an individual based system of driving, which is based on people's aversion to being in their care any longer than needed. And every aggressive drive believes that driving faster gets you where you are going faster, even if it is not on a long stretch of highway. I do not have a good solution to this problem. We could be more stringent in driving tests for new drivers. We could crack down on speeders and tailgaters. We could ticket all parking violations. We could garnish wages to limit the number of unpaid tickets. In the end, the revenue from traffic violations may easily pay for the increased staff and man hours needed to enforce good driving behavior. There may even be surplus revenue to funnel into schools and health care. And of course, the roads might even be safer.