Tom Vanderbilt gets it right in his book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). Basically, through lots of research and dozens of interviews, he concludes that we're really very different people when we drive than at any other time. We're bored easily, distracted easily, angered easily.
A two minute wait in traffic seems an eternity - while the same two minutes watching TV flies by in a blink. We aggressively change lanes, searching for an elusive advantage over the jerk next to us (who's too busy on the phone to watch the road), only to arrive at the same place...at more or less the same time.
I don't like to think any of these things about myself, but ever since I've been talking about the subject with producers Catie Talarski and Libby Conn, I've been noticing all of these ugly truths. Some observations:
1. Hosting a talk show about driving is, by far, a less intense activity than driving into Hartford to actually do the show. I start my day 25 miles away, tucked in the Northwest Hills. Throughout a trip that can take between 45 minutes and one hour, I negotiate hundreds of other commuters, school buses, winding country roads, wild animals, Dunkin' Donuts addicts, never-ending construction and pointless congestion. All of this while staring squarely into the blazing sunrise. It's a high-stakes, death-defying, daily adventure. When you seriously think about it, it's a wonder we ever make it anyplace in one piece.
2. I don't have the attention span to cope with that much down time. Sure, the radio is my companion, but there's nothing like your own company to heighten the monotony of the commute. Yesterday, while driving home, having been scared silly by the federal "distracted driving summit" and Vanderbilt's book, I dutifully turned off the phone, turned down the radio, placed my hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, and paid attention to my speed and the road. After only 10 minutes, at the first stoplight, I became so agitated that I started reading more of the book as a way to pass the time until the light turned green. Doing one thing - driving - seemed just too boring to bear. As Vanderbilt quotes David Maister: "Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time." Or, as he quotes Jane Austen, "When people are waiting, they are bad judges of time, and every half minute seems like five."
3. Speed kills. Seriously. He writes: "Risk begins to accelerate much faster than speed. A crash when you're driving 35 miles per hour causes a third more frontal damage than where you're doing 30 miles per hour." And, a 50 mile an hour crash is fifteen times more likely to kill you than one at 25 miles per hour. Not twice, but 15 times!
4. Driving to New Haven recently, I passed three cars in a row on I-91. All texting.
We got flooded by calls and emails, too. A sampling:
West Hartford Police Chief Jim Strillachi responds to a comment that police don't enforce the hand-held cell phone ban: New technology creates new offenses all the time (internet crime, e-mail harassment, identity theft) and there are never any more cops. We can't possibly tag every violator we see; there are just too many. It will take education as well as enforcement to change driver attitudes.
Jeff says bad driving is regional: I lived in Michigan for years and car culture there makes for lousy driving where drivers habitually run stop lights and signs.
And finally, Fred gives the futurist view: It seems no one wants to concentrate on driving anymore.... SO why not automate the experience and let drivers do whatever while in the car? This would save gas.... no slowing down for no reason.... and get everyone to where they want to go.... along with doing whatever they want to in the car...
Seems like that might lead to a whole new set of problems...