Tuesday, July 8, 2008

On Driving (and monkeys)

"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles." I am thinking about the opening line in Less Than Zero, that seminal novel for me and so many other kids growing up in LA in the 80s, as I drive away from San Francisco. I am in the lane to the right of the fast lane, musing on how I like this lane better because there is less pressure to put the petal to the metal if someone is trying to ride up your ass. I figure the speed freaks behind me can jump over to the fast lane, which is wide open anyway.

Of course, I look in the rearview mirror and see someone is breathing down my neck. It just amazes me how many people seem to lack basic knowledge of physics - that for every doubling of speed, you are going to need four times the distance to stop (given the same amount of time). It never fails to disturb me when I find that people I know and consider to be thoughtful and considerate are actually terrors on the road: tailgating, cutting off cars, getting into a hissy fit over other drivers. I get the sense that the way we drive is a good glimpse into our inner selves. Sadly, it's often not a pretty picture. Coasting down a hill, letting the momentum take me, all around me cars are lurching and braking, using up all that precious gas. That jittery, greedy mind which stutters, hiccups and howls, always wanting more, more, more...until we suck this planet dry.

So this car is still tailgating me. Why doesn't it just pull into the fast lane? It finally does. I am keeping pace with the car in front of me and we have a respectable distance between us. Despite the fact that the fast lane is wide open in front of and behind him, the car now jumps in front of me. Maybe he (or she) gets nervous being alone in the fast lane, who knows? I laugh as he starts in on car that'd been ahead of me. Eventually, he gives up his pressure tactic and switches back over to the fast lane.

Taking this little incident further in my mind, I wondered what if this driver didn't wise up and change into the faster lane? What if he just kept accelerating dangerously close to the car ahead of him? The other driver could do nothing different, satisfied in the knowledge that if anything happened, it'd be this fool's fault. But for safety's sake, the other driver would likely change into a slower lane to avoid a mishap.

Our cars are lethal weapons, so staying the course when another driver is being overly aggressive is basically stepping up for a duel. Yet many of us would not back off. We've been taught that to do so is to be a coward. That the courageous thing to do is defend your righteousness and not back down. But is that really courage - to act suicidally, even homicidally, to make your point? Well when you put it that way Mistress, of course not! But our relationship with cars is strange because the rules of engagement we use on the road can often seem less rationale and more pushy than how we are face-to-face. There's a strong ego-involvement with our cars: with the way they look, with the way we drive them, and the way we react to other drivers and their cars. It's like how it's so much easier to flame people online rather than insult them to their face, we have that extra layer insulating us. Obviously, with cars this is a false sense of security.

In the western world, more people die in car accidents than anything else. Yet we fear and take measures against the abstract and the rare, not the everyday. When we drive, the first thing on our mind should be protection of ourself and others. What this means for a lot of people is protection not of their body but of their ego. Look at how we project our egos onto our vehicles. We merge our identities with them so completely, we say things like "Look at that car! Did you see what he did? He's crazy!" It's really quite extraordinary how we talk about the car and the driver as if they were one and the same.

People often like to criticize modern society for being too herd-like. But when I drive, I see how uncooperative we can be as a herd! Does that sports car zipping across lanes think he's exercising his individuality by threatening all our lives? Or how about that SUV driver with the glaring headlights, isn't she just affirming her right to be seen and recognized? It's absurd how we get it all mixed up, asserting our desire for individuality when safety should be first, yet moving with the herd on such personal issues as sexuality. Sometimes I wonder how we can be so bone-headed.

I am reminded of animal behavior I studied in my zoology class. In some ways, we are not so different. We are creatures like the rest, constantly jostling for position in the social heirarchy, staking out our territory and seeking to make ourselves attractive to potential mates, just as our fellow earthly brethren do. It's given me a better perspective on people and helped me to not take negative interactions so personally, to realize that a lot of what the average person does is motivated by these endless games, hardwired into us. It's funny how we often overlay logic and reason on our decisions after the fact, to justify actions which may have had more instinctive origins.

We have much to learn about ourselves. Perhaps as we evolve, we can align ourselves more with the peaceful, sex-loving, female-empowered bonobo monkeys and less with the violent, male-dominated, rigidly heirarchical chimpanzees. Out of our two closest primate relatives, I'm betting the bonobos are the better drivers.