Anne Notations

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Après vous

The Times Magazine has a terrific article this week about two different sorts of drivers: those who, when faced with the eventual need to merge when a lane ends, pull into the lane that will remain open and stay in line; and those in the same situation who zoom up the disappearing lane and force themselves into the line at a more advanced point. Cynthia Gorney, the article's author, ferrets out some actual scientific research on this phenomenon, disclosing at the outset that she is a driver who patiently stays in line and is loath to allow the speeders to "cut" out of turn.

This Times diagram lays out the challenge. You can click on it to see it larger.

Gorney reports that the recommendation of those who study traffic flow is the following process:

People in the narrowing … lanes refrain from shooting ahead, while people in the … through lanes — this is hard to swallow, for those of us inclined toward vigilantism, but crucial — leave big spaces in front of their cars for the merging that is about to commence. … At clearly marked or somehow mutually agreed upon places, everybody starts conducting beautiful “zipper merges.”

Apparently this approach maximizes traffic flow through bottlenecks and results in the speediest resolution of the merge. Scientifically, it makes sense. But it doesn't always jibe with the emotional landscape of the daily commuter. Or, as Gorney says, "No, you are not cutting in front of me unless you look as if you might have a gun in your car, in which case, OK, but you’re still a rodent."

A year ago I began commuting some 15 miles each way to work, after previously having enjoyed a three-minute commute. To my surprise, I actually enjoy the drive. That 25 minutes on the road gives me time to transition between two worlds: work and home; colleagues and family; editor and Mom.

Driving longer distances at peak commuting hours also brought out the competitor in me. I have always been competitive about almost everything, not in the noble, Olympic "thrill of victory" sense but in a childish, craven way: I want the attention, I want to do better, I want to be cleverer and more adept. I want to smack you down, sucka!

On the road I soon found myself slithering from one lane to another, winding through traffic like a serpent, leaving the car beside me stranded at a traffic light that just turned red. I mentally exulted in my sharp eyes and quick reflexes, and secretly pitied the fools who wasted time sticking to the speed limit and staying doggedly in one lane. This was fine at first, but a half-year into my new career as an aggressive driver I began to notice that my hands and arms hurt. Why? Because I was gripping the steering wheel so fiercely, it actually made my tendons ache.

I was also getting crabby, especially on my drive home in the evenings. Partly this was because I persisted in listening to a local radio talk show whose host and regular callers pushed all my outrage buttons with their bitter, reactionary political rants. By the time I got home, I was exhausted with the effort of beating other drivers and bristling at the radio bozos. I snapped at the kids. I couldn't face making dinner, but fell into my recliner and begged Michael to call for pizza.

Then I found the Zen Habits web site and this blog entry on reasons to drive more slowly, and how. The first paragraph resonated for me immediately:

While I used to be a bit of a driving maniac, passing everybody and stepping hard on my accelerator, I would also get increasingly frustrated when people would drive slow and keep me from driving fast, or cut me off. Driving was a stressful experience.

I was struck particularly by the author's instruction to ignore other drivers' progress and to drive the speed limit. "Make your ride a pleasant experience," he concluded.

So, I'm trying. After I catch the traffic report, I switch the car stereo to NPR or a CD. I pick a lane, usually the right lane, and – barring an elderly driver puttering far below the speed limit – I stay there. Instead of driving nearly bumper-to-bumper in order to thwart the speeder-uppers who attempt to cut into my lane, I motion the nearest one to slide in front of my car. While my festering self-righteousness occasionally leads me to backslide into blockade mode, I'm doing better. And feeling better, too.

Two nights ago the local talk radio had a substitute jockey instead of the usual provocateur. This new man eschewed Obama-bashing and instead invited callers to reminisce about places that no longer exist in the state but that hold a special place in their hearts. Caller after caller took listeners, me included, on a nostalgic jaunt into the recent and distant past. People were happy to talk about the old Burger Chef chain, the Warwick Musical Tent, the streetcar ride from Pawtucket to downtown Providence, Shepard's Department Store, and the vanished Rhode Island Auditorium hockey rink.

Several miles from home, I realized I had been (effortlessly) driving the speed limit the whole way home; had stayed in the right lane; had ignored who was passing me, who was getting ahead at my expense. My hands were relaxed on the steering wheel, and I was smiling. I was having a Pleasant Experience!

Does my temperate approach to commuting mean I'm turning into an old fogey, or simply getting smarter? Maybe some of both.


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