Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Psychopathologies of Driving

Why, one might ask, should normally reasonable and considerate human beings behave in this fashion once they get behind the wheel of a car? What are the springs and sources of this combative attitude which is so much better controlled when the subject is on two feet?
Frustration, it is said, is the breeding ground of aggression; and, whatever else one may say about the public highway, frustration abounds. However, it would be too simple to explain ubiquitous displays of aggression on the road by arguing that such actions are the natural response to the abysmal stupidity and criminal carelessness of our fellow-citizens in their cars. After all, anyone who, late for an appointment, tries to walk briskly along a crowded city street, heavy with slow-moving shop-gazers, will not improve his speed of progress if he angrily pushes aside his fellow-citizens, swears at them, or threatens them with physical assault. Yet this is precisely what a number of drivers in their vehicles do when pressed for time. No doubt the isolation imposed by the design of the automobile confers a certain immunity from retaliatory action, but it is unlikely that most fist-shaking motorists give a thought to possible consequences should they encounter the victim of their vituperation in less avoidable circumstances. Mercifully, such confrontations are rare, and when they do occur most of us have the grace to apologise, while secretly bolstering our self-esteem by the belief that our behaviour was fully justified by the folly or negligence of the other person. Yet, isolation alone cannot be the whole explanation of these unbridled displays of anger on the road. Such anger may be aroused by the irritating behaviour of other drivers who seem joined in a conspiracy to impede our progress. Overweening impatience is in part a common cause of dangerous driving behaviour, yet a moment’s reflection should convince us that however hard we drive in crowded city streets the amount of time saved will be infinitesimal in proportion to the emotional energy expended and the danger caused.

Some years ago a contest was arranged between two cars to be driven across a city area. One driver had to observe all signs, traffic lights, and speed regulations. The other was allowed to ignore all three if he could do so without endangering the lives of other road users. The law-breaking motorist arrived at his destination just – and only just – ahead of his law-abiding antagonist. It follows, therefore that our reactions and behaviour on the roads are not determined by rational appreciation of the circumstances. Instead, we appear to be at the mercy of emotional forces which compel us to act as we do, often in total defiance of our best interests and knowledge of our real needs. (pp127-129)

F.A. Whitlock, 1971, Death on the Road: A study in social violence, Tavistock: London.

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