Scooby-Doo and Mini-van drivers

May 28, 2008

Riding in the burbs, boonies and exurbs in orbit around Boston, as I often do, there is ample opportunity to contemplate the nature of human behavior. In those situations I am often interested in the behavior of people driving cars. I observe, record, tally, analyze, and classify. Recognizable patterns arise. Sometimes with sufficient definition to have some predictive power. And sometimes I like to wager a hypothesis as to the cause of the patterns.

Within the broad class of drivers who’s aim appears to be to maintain strict limits on the distance between their car and the one ahead of them on the road, some are more urgent in their efforts than others. Of course, the only thing that can be achieved (on the roads I cycle on) by accelerating a car is reduction of the distance to the car ahead. But most drivers avoid colliding with that car and few will ever pass it so they just end up maintaining a certain distance. This then appears to be the goal, maintaining strict upper and lower bounds on that distance.

Thus these drivers appear to be motivated to either a) get close to a car, if they aren’t already, or b) to stay close it if they are.  I’d say that the majority of motorists in Eastern Mass. display this behavior.

Nothing new there, of course, but what’s interesting is the priority of this goal relative to other dimensions of the driving experience. Some will risk the safety of a cyclist in pursuit of this goal. This is actually quite common. By no means the majority of drivers do it but for cyclists it’s a routine experience.

Before postulating the underlying reasons for such behavior, let’s estblish some simple facts:

  1. The opportunity to pass a cyclist safely when it isn’t now is usually only a matter of seconds away.
  2. The consequences for the driver, his or her passengers or anyone else in the world of waiting those seconds are almost certainly nil. Even if the wait is 30 seconds (extraordinarily long), it’s only going to be a minute or two before the car in front has been regained, so arrival time for the journey will not be affected. Even if it were, what do 30 seconds matter?
  3. The consequences of passing a cyclist unsafely can be very serious. While the life of the cyclist may be of some concern to the driver, almost all would prefer to avoid a collision with an oncoming vehicle. Even on slow country roads the relative speed of the vehicles can easily reach 60 mph — enough cause injury (even with today’s safety technology) and cause considerable inconvenience.

So there is no incremental cost to anyone if the car passes safely as opposed to unsafely. But there is potentially high cost to driver, passengers, cyclist, other road users, emergency services, families, etc. to passing unsafely. The choice to pass unsafely is therefore irrational.

And that’s what makes it interesting. Why do people make that choice?

  • They don’t know that their driving is unsafe?
  • They feel that they are safe and don’t care about the cyclist or other drivers?
  • They feel entitled to drive without having to slow down to the speed of the vehicle in front if that vehicle is a bicycle?

I’m sure you can think of more possibilities. But in any of these three cases, the position taken is clearly unsupportable by obvious and available facts. So there’s a fair chance that a cognitive dissonance is involved.

My guess is that the core underlying cognition is a belief that one is important and that one’s journey is urgent. It’s obvious that neither is true, hence dissonance. So cognitions consonant with the core cognition of self importance are piled on: “I shouldn’t have to wait for cyclists.” “Cyclists should be on the shoulder or sidewalk.” “This is a 40 mph road.” and other such nonsense. (I’ve heard all of those from drivers, btw.)

One that I heard earlier this year really stuck with me. I was riding on a Sunday morning in the pastoral burbs arourd Acton or Westord or somewhere like that with a group of three other cyclists. The stretch of road was straight, narrow enough so a car had to cross the center line to pass, but undulating enough that you couldn’t always see what was coming the other way. We were riding in line carefully at the right, knowing that traffic wanted to pass. One car began a passing maneuver without being able to see beyond an oncoming rise in the road. It got half past us when an oncoming car emerged over the now very near crest of the rise. The passing car slowed and moved right forcing two of us to brake to make space. The oncoming car had to stop.

One of our group had a word with the driver. She declared in her defense: “But we live here!”

For a cognition to reinforce the core self-importance cognition, that’s reaching pretty far into the absurd. “But we live here!” She was perfectly serious. She was driving a Subaru.

I mention the brand of car because I’ve noticed that among the minority of drivers who choose to pass unsafely rather than safely, Subaru (Scooby-Doo as call it) and mini-vans are over represented. And I’m curious as to why.

And so finally to my outlandish conjecture. If I were living in a vinyl-sidewall house on a standard plot in a banal subdivision of a town without one decent restaurant, without a bar women can comfortably frequent, without a cinema, a theater, art gallery, with virtually no cultural or intellectual life but with plenty of churches, and I had to face that fact that I had sacrificed my foreseeable future to little more than the transportation of groceries and thankless children, I’d be pretty pissed off too. It would be hard to resolve that dissonance by adding consonant cognition. What alternative would I have? So I’d be living in constant tension and insecurity regarding my self-importance. 

Pity these Scooby-Doo and mini-van drivers. But if your out on a bicycle, take care too.

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