One of George Carlin’s routines captures well our attitude toward our own driving vis-a-vis other drivers on the road. Basically, we think anyone who wants to drive more slowly than we want to drive is an idiot while anyone who wants to driver faster than we do is an a**hole. We can all relate to being stuck behind someone who seems to be going much more slowly than necessary for the road conditions and traffic. It’s frustrating! We need to get somewhere! We might think, “Why do I have to be stuck behind this slowpoke?!” On the other hand, just as we are mentally or vocally swearing about the slowpoke in front of us, seemingly out of nowhere, some jerk comes careening out into the passing lane on a hill or blind curve and zooms around three or four cars. This time they were lucky. No semi was coming the other way and they lived — this time — despite their erratic driving and general a**holiness.
Driving is an ever-present paradox in cooperation and individuality. In many areas of the world, people rely on public transportation such as rail and busses to commute to work or see relatives and friends. That is not unknown in the US, but it is rare. If we can possibly afford a junker, we do so that we can have the “freedom” to take our own path. Yet, that freedom comes with a high cost. Not only do we have to pay for a car, insurance, gas, oil, taxes and upkeep. We have to follow a set of conventions and laws about traffic in order to minimize traffic accidents and even deaths.
According to Fortune, there were about 40,000 deaths in America in 2016 with 4.6 million people suffering severe injuries. The overall cost of traffic accidents, in terms of lost productivity, medical and property damage is estimated at $432 billion for 2016. The USA is far from the “deadliest” place to drive. Many other countries have far more accidents per mile driven. It is estimated that world-wide, there are about 1.25 million deaths per year from road accidents. Sadly, in the US, traffic fatalities often strike down young people in their prime. They are both less experienced and less cautious. Often, young people do dangerous things in order to “prove themselves” or “be accepted” by their peer group. Any such act, including texting while driving, puts at risk their own lives, the lives of their friends, and usually the lives of total strangers as well.
The monetary costs associated with accidents do not include lost productivity due to traffic jams. According to an article published in Money magazine, this was estimated to be 124 billion dollars in 2013 for the USA. This is a considerable amount of money. I am pretty sure, that’s way more than in my wallet right now. Let me check. Yep. Not even close. You know the old saying, “A billion here. A billion there. Pretty soon, you’re talking about real money.” These cost estimates do not even include the stress and strain that being stuck in “stop and go” traffic puts on the people stuck, the kids that get yelled at as a result, or the impact that higher blood pressure has on people’s brains, kidneys, and hearts.
What if I told you that George Carlin’s skit depicting people’s reactions to other drivers is only an accurate description of how people currently choose to react to traffic? What if I told you that you may well be subjecting yourself to stress and inefficiency in the way you handle stop and go traffic?
To begin with, let’s think back to your days in “Driver’s Ed” classes in high school. Or, perhaps you were lucky enough to have attended a “defensive driving” course more recently in order to reduce your insurance rates or because a judge ordered you to. In any case, one of the basic concepts taught in those classes is that you stay an “assured safe distance” behind the car in front of you. In my informal polling, many people seem to have completely forgotten about this concept and, when asked, offer absurdly short distances as “safe” when it comes to how far behind the driver in front they need to be; e.g., at 70 miles per hour, some people think they should be one or two car lengths behind the car in front. That, my friends, is way off. You should be seven car lengths behind the car in front at 70 mph, not one or two. There are almost zero reasons you can be safely closer than that and having “really good reflexes” is not one of them. If you are going up a very steep hill, you can get a little closer. But there are many more reasons why you need more distance. These include poor visibility due to curvy roads, low light, fog, smoke or smog. They also include bad brakes, going downhill, a wet road, a snowy road, or an icy road. They include anything that is distracting you the driver such as kids, conversation, sleepiness, even the slightest bit of alcohol, or having the car in front of you following the car in front of them too closely. If your brakes or tires are the slightest bit compromised, you need even more distance for safety.
But following the assured distance for safety is not necessary the “best” distance; it is only the minimal distance for safety. If you are interested in driving “efficiently” — and having the traffic around you being more efficient, there is more you can do. If you are interested in driving without adding to your personal stress as well as adding to the stress around you, there is more you can do. Watch closely as you consider your current strategy for driving in stop and go traffic and an alternative strategy.
Let’s say that a car length is about 15-18 feet though obviously a stretch limo stretches for a lot more and a mini-cooper is much less. Now if you are traveling in traffic that varies from 70 mph to 0 mph, your minimum car length would also vary from 18 x 7 = 126 feet to 18 x 0 = 0 feet. When you are stopped, you might be near the rear bumper of the car in front of you. When you are going “full speed” you might be 126 feet away. If you do this, in stop and go traffic, what you will experience is a long series of frustrations. For awhile, everything will go smoothly, and you’ll go zipping along at 70 mph. But then, for no discernible reason, everyone will suddenly come to a screeching halt. You sit there for a few seconds or a few minutes, one of many people bumper to bumper with the a line of other cars. Eventually, people will start to go slowly. But then, they will all stop again. Or, perhaps they will speed up again and then stop. The traffic may even speed up to 70 mph again and then stop again, and once more, for no discernible reason whatsoever. You may find such phrases as “What the h*** is wrong with people!” caroming off of your cranium and rattling round in your brain. You try to figure out how you can minimize your time in this awful traffic. You look for tiny spaces. The lane next to you appears to be moving! Ah, there’s a space! Slam into it quickly. You do. Your lane is moving! Yay! All it once it comes to complete stop. The lane you just got out of now appears to be moving better. Just your luck! Wait, you can get back in. No! Some a**hole just got into that space from the other lane! Damn! Wait, everyone’s moving again.
This is a very frustrating way to drive — particularly if you are late, or just an impatient person or both. You are stopping and starting all the time. Your hour commute now stretches like taffy (or traffy) into two hours. And worse than that, per se, is that this all seems senseless. And worse than that is that you are sending your blood pressure through the roof and even that magnificent sacrifice on your part seems to have zero effect on clearing up the traffic jam. And, even worse than that, in the long run, is that your experience is causing you to think very uncomplimentary things about your teammates. Teammates? Yes, your co-drivers — every last one of them — are potentially your teammates. But if you drive in traffic the way I’ve been describing, you don’t see them as teammates at all but more like competitors. And we all know what our job is in a competition, right? To win!!
That same exact objective physical situation can become a completely different experience. And, to make the transformation is simple. I didn’t say it was easy. But it is simple. The key is to stop focusing on keeping the minimum safe distance between you and the car in front of you and instead keep a much longer distance between you and the car in front. The key is to stop focusing on your commute and your goals and instead to think of the traffic as a whole moving efficiently. The key is to stop driving as fast as you possibly can and instead to try to match your speed to the average speed of the traffic ahead of you. If you do those three things, something amazing happens. You get to the same place in the same time but you will hit your brakes and accelerator far less often. Furthermore, you will feel far safer and less frustrated. You will be able to see a much larger picture of the traffic in front. You will notice that, yes, leaving a large space in front of you does make it possible for other drivers to zip in front of you. But you will also notice that most of the time, these drivers will zip back out of your lane a few moments later.
But wait! There’s more! When you stop putting your brakes on so much, it gives other people a completely different impression of the traffic. If a person is on a divided highway (with four each way) and only sees 4-8 cars ahead of them (because everyone is jammed together) and every single one has their brakes on, they will come to something of a screeching halt, particularly if they have been driving right behind the car in front of them. If, however, they look up and see only 7 of the 8 visible cars with their brake lights on (because yours are not on), they will be far less prone to slam on their brakes. Furthermore, they may well be able to see more of the traffic ahead because of the space in front of you. It no longer looks jammed so their behavior will be less erratic. If they are behaving less erratically, that will be true of the people behind them as well.
But wait! There’s more! People who drive mostly look forward, but they also hopefully glance in rear view mirror on occasion. This means that the people in front of you will also have a somewhat different perception of the traffic conditions based on the fact that you are not driving erratically and that you have a large space (=not stop and go; not crowded; not bumper to bumper) in front of you. You won’t have as much influence on the people in front of you as you will on the people behind you, but you will have some. You will also have a subtle influence on the people beside you. Why? Because they also see that large space. This puts them in a more “traffic is moving” frame of mind than a “traffic is stop and go; Crap!” frame of mind. Not only can they see the large space, they can see through the large space. They are able to see a greater number of cars diagonally ahead through your lane. They can see whether the tail lights are on. They can see perhaps 16 cars instead of just 4-5. The impression when you see all four cars stopped in front of you with their brake lights on is quite different from the impression formed when you see, say, 13 cars stopped and 3 cars moving. So, the cars beside you will also drive less erratically.
But wait! There’s more! This means that the cars in back of them will also drive less erratically. And that’s swell news for you and everyone else because — since people do look in their rear view mirrors, the impression of moving traffic will be even stronger in the drivers ahead of you. This in turn will ripple through the entire set of drivers and tend to be a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious cycle. In other words, just you, yes you, you one driver can have a significant effect on the entire set of drivers around you. I know it sounds too good to be true, but give it a try!
But wait! There’s more! Of course, very few people have only one commute in their life. Human beings have memory. If you are in “stop and go traffic” and stay smooth with a large space in front of you, a few other people will notice and decide to try it for themselves. Eventually, it may dawn on them that “despite” your large buffer space in front of you, you are making just as much progress as they are. They may think, “Me too!” If those people try it and succeed in having a better experience for themselves and others around them, that will tend to cause other people to try it as well, not only in this traffic jam, but in future ones as well.
Driving exemplifies the paradoxical nature of the human condition. We all want the freedom to be ourselves and we want to feel a part of the group. But some paradoxes have solutions. In this case, as I said, the solution is actually simple. You decide that the best way to be a team player is to be different. You stop playing the game of making sure there are no “unused spaces” in traffic. You stop playing the game of switching lanes to zip into the smallest “unused” space. You stop staring into the taillights of a few cars and back off to where you can see a much larger sample of cars. You stop playing the “me, me, me, it’s all about me” game and instead make up a different game which is matching your speed to the average speed of the traffic ahead. You stop worrying if someone zips into the lane in front of you. Just ease off the gas a bit and relax. And, by being yourself, and playing this different game, you will actually make all the traffic around you work better. You are a better teammate by being different.
The traffic is a lot like free market capitalism operating without much analysis, foresight, or insight. To the extent that people see an opening, they vie for it. Having two people do this at the same time, of course, causes a near miss, a sideswipe or a 20-car pileup. But generally speaking, the person who manages to gets into open space feels wonderful. OMG, I pulled it off! Not quite like winning the Superbowl but in that ballpark, so to speak. Chances are, the lane-switcher finds themself temporarily ahead of the people who had been next to them confirming that their act of private “heroism” had a practical impact as well; it was efficient by plugging up that damned hole.
This may be related to the line of thought so common in business that if you are really being efficient, every single minute of your calendar should be booked a week in advance. Gaps are anathema. Gaps are viewed to be even be worse than double-booked time. If word gets around I’m double booked all the time, everyone will know I am important. Well, important to some, in the same way that jeetos are important to some not despite their ghastly orange hue and anti-nutritional value. Having space in your calendar means you have time to learn, to observe, to think about what is going on, who is your customer, how can you do better, how can our company do better, and so on. It’s no accident that IBM’s motto was “Think” and that it was so successful for so many years in a dramatically ever-changing world of technology.
You might just give the alternative strategy a try, both in business and in driving. Oh, I know. It seems impossible that one person’s behavior could have much impact when there are 7 billion people on the planet. Imagine that instead of using the 7 billion teammates as an excuse not to change because, “it won’t make any difference,” you thought: “Wow! Seven billion people on the planet! That’s potentially seven billion people who could change, even a little, in the direction of greater cooperation.” What if, instead of thinking of yourself — or you plus a small number of similar people — as being in competition with a much larger number of people worldwide, what if you thought of 7 billion as the astounding number of teammates you have? You might not influence all of them, but you can influence some and they can influence others. Nearly all of those seven billion people use language. Think about that. At some point in our distant past, people did not use language. Now, they do. How did that happen? At some point in our past, people did not have power over fire. Now they do. How did that happen? At some point in my lifetime, no-one had a mobile phone or a personal computer or access to the internet. Now, billions do. Can you hear the music of people working together?
For several years, in the 1990s, my wife and I attended the Newport Folk Festival with John and Clare-Marie Karat. We heard an amazing array of great bands in a beautiful outdoor setting. I particularly like outdoor concerts because of the room it affords for dancing. I find it very difficult to sit still in the presence of stirring music. This concert was held in late summer and the weather was generally, hot, humid, and sunny or hazy. Although, as I said, the weather cooperated most days, one particular morning looked ominous. A particularly cool, hazy sprinkling morning warned us to wear clothes in layers and bring rain gear. An optimist, I wore my speedo underneath in case the weather cleared so I could dance in the sun which I hoped would soon appear.
When we arrived on the island, as usual, Wendy and Clare-Marie sprinted ahead with a blanket to get a prime spot for watching the stage while John and I lagged behind carrying the clutter and clatter of chairs and coolers. The music inspired as always but the weather was not cooperating. Everyone was huddled down in their rain gear, under their umbrellas. The thing about rain gear and umbrellas is that they are typically designed for keeping you dry temporarily in the rain. After sitting there with ten thousand other people, huddling and shivering in the cold rain, I finally decided enough was enough. I stripped down to my speedo and began dancing. After all, I thought, that’s what I came there to do! And, while most people dance to the beat of the music, I let the music dance through me. I don’t have some set moves that are done to the beat. Rather, every note impacts what my body does.
Now, the situation had changed. Instead of ten thousand people huddled under umbrellas getting wet and cold, there were only 9,999 people huddled under umbrellas getting wet and cold and there was one person, namely me, joyously dancing in the rain. As a matter of fact, I felt warmer dancing in my speedo than I had sitting still under layers of soaking clothes. Yeah, people stared at me a little. So what? Michelle Shocked commented on how well the crowd was holding up in the horrid weather and gave a particular shout out to the guy “dancing nude” in the middle. Just for the record, I was not dancing nude (not even in my “tights”). There was a large umbrella right in front of me, and it might have looked as though I was nude from the stage. In any case, I kept dancing and I was having a great time. Then, a strange thing happened. A few more people got up, shed varying amounts of clothes and joined me. Now a half dozen people were dancing in the rain. Then, a dozen people. Then, two dozen. The rain continued and the cold continued, but the number of dancers grew and grew till it was probably over a thousand. Each person discovered for themselves, as had I, that it’s actually warmer and more comfortable to dance in the rain with a little clothing than to sit in a puddle of soaked clothes — not to mention, one hell of a lot more fun!
When we first sat down in that cold rain, everyone looked around and saw that everyone else was coping with the rain in the same way. Everyone they saw had raincoats, umbrellas, or both. They looked at this spectacle and thought, “Me too!” But now, a few hours later, many people looked around and saw folks joyously dancing in the rain and thought, “Me too!” Indeed, “Me too!” is a double-edged sword. Use it wisely, whether it is dancing in the rain, leaving lots of space in stop-and-go traffic or taking the time to think in your job. You may be very pleasantly surprised at the results, both for you and your 7 billion planet-mates.
The Dance of Billions