In a 24 hour period over the course of the 26th and 27th of February, I was the victim of two forms of vehicular emoting.
The first was the “daring” sort of vehicular emoting. Not quite the most one can do with anger whilst seat-belted in a moving vehicle, but an act that carried a semblance of risk in undertaking it.
I speak of the drive-up-next-to-you-and-stare version of vehicular emoting.
The other instance was more classic: the finger.
In September 2020, we made a lifestyle purchase: we bought a truck. I have very little experiencing driving a truck, but I’m most assuredly familiar with that fear one gets when you get inside a vehicle that your mind hasn’t fully worked itself into, a sort of imaginary extension of the self. Meaning this: driving moves like parallel parking would take sweat and strong calculations rather than the effortless maneuvering that comes when your mind has incorporated one’s vehicle into its own frame.
In January, I made my first effortless parallel parking job. And, seriously, I felt butterflies. I had graduated in some form. I still low-key panic at the thought of negotiating things like city parking garages, but I was getting there.
There are many reasons I love this truck. The first and foremost is that my wife and I have no lack of space when we want to get into nature. This is the reason we purchased it.
One unforeseen reason that I’ve come to love driving a truck is that it fits my driving style: lackadaisical, slow, boat-style driving.
Granted, I have seen many truck drivers just book it down the road, but not me. I usually take it easy. I don’t like stopping quickly. I like a smooth halting. My default mode is to always ease my foot onto and off of pedals.
The Two Instances of Road Rage Directed at Moi
I am a teacher, and so all of the roads around the immediate area go into 20 mph mode before and after my work day. In a sense, it can be too laid back, but I get it: better to be safe when there are children around.
The first episode occurred immediately after work. I was turning left out of the parking lot, and I noticed that the light I would come to, not 50 yards after completing my turn, had just turned red. There was traffic already extending from the light to 30 yards away from me. So, really, it would not make sense to speed up to slow down.
I waited a couple cars, and made my turn, seeing a van that was in the zone of unaffected-by-my-maneuvers going much faster than it should have been. They would have to slow down anyway, so I was not concerned. Perhaps this was another one of those types that liked to go-go-go and then stop-stop-stop. The opposite of me. I was yet, I thought, not right in front of them. Not with a self-imposed target on my back.
As I finished my turn and coasted toward the stopped cars, I looked in my review mirror, watching the van catch up to me and, hood noticeably dipping, slow down behind me. She threw her hands up. A sort of touchdown sort of gesture.
I kept my eyes on the rearview mirror, not thinking about whether she could see me. I was trying to figure out whether she was talking on the phone handsfree or somehow upset at me.
She threw her hands up again as the light turned green.
On the main road that we were about to turn into, a two-lane road, the right lane contains a ton of traffic due to parents picking up their kids from the elementary school across the street from the high school. We made our turns, and as we pulled into the left lane, she wasted no time, swerving around me to the right lane, almost hitting the backside of my truck. She pulled up parallel to me, the kind of move you see racers do in the movies. I saw her lean into her window, craning almost beyond it, to stare into the cab of my truck.
As soon as she had slowed next to me, instead of speed off unto the horizon, I knew what she was up to. So I observed through my periphery as I slowed down for more traffic.
Having made her point, she jetting off, and I watched her do that start/stop swerving thing that restless people do when they think it will save them time–it doesn’t–weaving in and out of parent and general school traffic.
Less than 24 hours later, on my birthday no less, I was driving home from exercising and turning left once again. This time, I had driven into the intersection, taking command of it, waiting for oncoming cars to pass so I could make my turn.
The light turned yellow, and I saw a car pull out onto the road that was my oncoming traffic lane. I needed to get out of the middle of the intersection. As it turned red, I made my turn, and the car came to a halt at the line just as the light turned red. A normal circumstance.
As I made my turn, I watched the car more out of overblown caution than anything else, and that’s when I saw the middle finger rise out of the driver’s fist.
I smiled. Not out of pleasure but out of the audacity of it. That person would be able to turn on red. They only needed to stop first. But I guess they were mad that I didn’t stay in traffic with cars coming at me while they made their commute just a couple seconds more efficient.
I am also aware that as you read this, you may disagree. That is your right. But, really, did these acts make me learn my lesson? You and I both agree on that.
Processing Social Embarrassment Through Vehicular Shaming
If you haven’t read Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, you should. Summary: humans are pretty bad at driving.
That’s not really what the book is about. What it is about is the demystifying of our understanding of the nature of driving on roads with other people in other vehicles.
For instance, I used to be incensed when a lane on a highway was blocked or had traffic and cars would come hurtling down the unblocked lane and then weasel their way into the traffic, thereby skipping the wait in line.
Apparently, these seemingly impatient and rude drivers are in the right. Unpleasant as such a realization is to our sense of politeness, it makes mathematical sense. Using all the space available preceding a bottleneck decreases traffic. And if everyone patiently allowed merging to occur, things would move a lot faster.
But this is a sort of driving egalitarianism that doesn’t exist in most of the human driving population.
It’s probably a problem with our driving instruction. Traffic school does not talk about the psychology of other drivers. We get mad at other drivers largely because they are automatically dehumanized. Driving is like joining the comment section of a political article. We don’t see, as David Foster Wallace points out in his famous graduation speech, “This Is Water,” the decision context of all the other people on the road. That they too have lives full of stress and anxiety. That they might be dealing with things that would explain a lot of their bad choices.
Compounding this issue is this: We are very dismissive of our mistakes.
It is very difficult when you find yourself at the end of someone else’s vehicular emoting.
Even if you are the philosopher driver king, there is a sort of jockeying for a “win” if you are the butt of a very emotive driver who wants to very much show you that you are in the wrong.
That lady, who drove up next to me to give me the glare, could have hit the cars in front of her if they had suddenly stopped. Even in my be-above-it state, I was thinking this. Her focus was very much on me and not driving, and if she did rear-end someone, then she would be the one getting the glare. Or probably glaring doubly hard at my car, driving away, mad that I had caused her to wreck.
And that gentleman, who had given me the finger, was lucky that I was not a vehicular-emoter-one-upper. For I have seen vehicular emoters who have increased their vehicular emoting by encountering other vehicular emoters.
When my cousin and I were 16, we had such an incident. My cousin was driving us on a local highway when he accidentally cut off a car when merging into the middle lane. The car pulled up next to us and did the glare move, and my cousin responded with giving the guy the bird. The guy became animated, window rolled down, yelling things at us through the wind and the highway noise, almost leaning over his passenger, a women who only stared us down. My cousin sped up, and the guy pulled in behind us to follow.
I started freaking out, white-knuckling the handle above the window. My cousin told me that we were cool. This was only further reason for me to disbelieve him.
The move my cousin had in mind was to get off the highway at the first exit. We got in the lane for the off-ramp, but they did too. My cousin, by now, was rapid fire looking in his rearview mirror, and then with a, “Hold on,” we swiped quickly across all the white lines and debris of the no-person’s-zone that separates off-ramps, the highway, and the in-between. Thankfully, they didn’t follow.
When you are in elementary school, farting can be a social death sentence. At least for a single day. (And remember those days: they could last for an eternity!)
We humans are so much made to work together, to be in league with each other, that even the most undeserved criticism hits extra hard.
Think of the most basic one: “It smells. Who farted?”
In an elementary school class, everyone would look around, accusations pending, as if this radaring of the head, nose, and eye would lift up some clue. No one would ever admit to it. For to admit to it was to admit you were wrong in some way, that your body was defilement, was not functioning properly, was working against the general order of things. And then you’d watch as people started figuring out who was the first to smell, working through the crime scene. Even though anyone could have farted–we were all capable of farting, even then–we had to know who did this one. Like that would do anything. Like all the onlookers/victims were and would be innocent of this sort of malfeasance for the rest of our lives. As if we all didn’t have intestines, stomachs, and bile ducts ourselves.
The next time someone accuses you of driving terribly out on the road, deserved or undeserved, and it’s not a trite honk but an elongated single honk or the multi-persistent honk or the middle finger or the shaking of the fists or the up-thrusted hand gesture or the muttering in the rearview mirror or the bold rolling-down-of-the-window or and the drive-by glare, remember the elementary school fart. You are guilty of passing a certain type of gas to someone else’s displeasure. It’s not that big of a deal. Everyone does it.
(This joke, hopefully, will not make sense to those in 50 years when electric vehicles rule the world.)
(Further clarification: I am not condoning reckless driving in any way! Just the unhelpful reactions to them. Please drive safe out there!)