Friday, December 18, 2009

Driving Metaphors

I spend a lot of time driving. With the number of miles I cover each week, you’d think I was either a regional salesperson or a trucker. I know I’m not unique in this way—a lot of New Jerseyans can’t afford to live anywhere close to where the jobs are (i.e., Northeast NJ and New York City), so we’ve all hiked out to the country and bought houses there. My one-way commute from home to work is about 38 miles. If I have to teach, drive to a doctor’s appointment, stop off for errands or at a friend’s house—the likelihood is that I will end up putting 100-200 miles on the car in one day.

Driving in New Jersey is an adventure at best and a headache at worst. I know that there are places with worse driving conditions—Massachusetts is one of the worst states I’ve ever driven in with regard to driver courtesy, though it still doesn’t hold a candle to the driving habits of Europeans. I’ve driven in New York City, but I avoid it as much as possible—there’s enough public transport available, never mind the expense of the tunnels and parking. But even without New York, driving every day is typically a challenge. And perhaps it is because I spend so much time on the road that I tend to wax metaphorically about how that relates to life in general. Here are some observations.

For one thing, nothing objectifies other humans more than driving. When we are driving, other vehicles are obstructions or problems of some sort. We are either annoyed because someone is pushing us too fast, or annoyed because we are behind someone who is too slow. Most of driving is navigating your way through lanes of cars moving slower than yours. We never think about the drivers of those cars—why they might be going faster or slower, though it may be obvious in some cases (e.g., trucks tend to move slower just because of their sheer mass.) The humans driving the cars are mere extensions of the vehicle.

I’ve observed a similar phenomena in crowds, and I think it boils down to impatience. We are in a hurry to get somewhere, and others are in the way. Who knows why we are in a hurry—we could be late for work, a date, or an appointment. But much of the time we are in a hurry to go nowhere. No matter how at ease and unhurried we may have been when we got into the car, for some reason once we start driving, we just want to “get there”. Again, there may be very legitimate reasons for this—outrunning a snowstorm, or just being very fatigued and wanting to get to our destination.

In this age of reducing carbon emissions, I wonder—does anyone go out driving for the fun of it anymore? I’ve always liked going out for a drive to places I haven’t been before, though lately I am so pressed for time that I can’t do that. I also like to just meander around—sometimes I discover something new driving down a street I’ve driven down a hundred times before. If I leave myself enough time in the morning, I like to drive to work via what I call the “long short way”. It takes about an hour to get to work, but it’s fewer miles—about 33—and goes through the mountains and the scenic farmlands of Northwest Hunterdon and Western Morris, through the Mendhams and towards Jockey Hollow. I love watching the sun come over the mountains when I drive, or looking at the scenery for a particular season. And while I always do the requisite 50 miles per hour, there is always someone behind me who wants to go faster.

Naturally I can’t resist a metaphor, though this may be a bit more literal—are people’s driving habits reflective of their own daily habits? Driving is a very unconscious thing when you’ve been doing it for a number of years—we function on “auto-pilot”, as it were. And either we ourselves or the drivers around us are anxious to get somewhere, and I think we do that with our lives. We push for the next milestone, to complete the “next thing”. Then what? Keep doing that until you’re dead? There’s not much awareness, no reflection of what’s going on, or what’s around you. It’s an excellent illustration of our own unconsciousness—we’re not really thinking about what we’re doing, and we’re rushing to get to nowhere ahead of everyone else. We are hardly ever in the present moment when we drive—I know that when I drive to work in the morning, I’m frequently thinking about what I have to do that day, what I’m doing after work, who I have to contact—but rarely about the fact that I’m driving, and what’s around me while I’m driving. Did you ever have the experience of someone asking you about a store or restaurant that you pass daily on your route to work, and you have no idea what it is because you’ve never looked?

The other point about driving has to do with respect. Perhaps it goes back to George Carlin’s law of proximity—the level of “being an a**hole” is in direct proportion to the distance the person is from you at the time you discover this flaw. When we are driving, we only see vehicles, not people, even though we know there are people driving them. While we might restrain ourselves from cutting in line or shoving past someone or walking too close on the street, we have no qualms about doing that while we drive. Road rage is very common, and a lot of it stems from the basic disrespect that drivers show to each other every day. What I also see occasionally is a disrespect stemming from some kind of vehicle snobbery—the BMW or Mercedes driver that acts as though everyone else should get out of their way because they feel they have a better car. (And the drivers that will immediately get out of the fast lane if they see one coming). It becomes a microcosm of the frustration that we already feel rushing off to work and whatever else life throws at us on a daily basis.

However, it’s not all disrespect. There are respectful and courteous drivers—even the most rushed drivers can be respectful and courteous at certain times. And, interestingly enough, this is usually when traffic is stopped or significantly slowed because of an accident, construction, or just the rush hour. People will slow down and make a space for you to enter traffic, mainly because there’s nowhere for them to go anyway. As much as we suffer through things like traffic jams (and yes, some people do freak out and do crazy things), there is a sense of resignation, of handing over our illusion of control because we have no control. It’s fascinating that this tends to be the moment when people remember their civility towards other drivers, and relinquish their need to get ahead. I wrote a piece a couple of months ago on the function of depression—and it is a lot like stopped traffic. You need to slow down to become aware and think about what you’re doing.


Misty Lynn said...

"...depression...a lot like stopped traffic. You need to slow down to become aware and think about what you’re doing."

So very true. I enjoyed reading this piece.

Unknown said...

Excellent read. It’s a great perspective that is completely true.

Barb Chamberlain said...

I found this while looking for driving metaphors to inspire a blog post of my own. I write about riding a bike but we share a lot of the same feelings about how driving depersonalizes the interactions we have in our transportation systems.

Thanks for the read.


(My piece on attitude--your piece reminds me of it a bit: