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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2014/11/traffic-jam-thoughts-on-the-road-to-incivility/

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Traffic-jam thoughts on the road to incivility

The next time you find yourself staring at slow-moving taillights, consider the level of rudeness automotive travel encourages. (Photo by Flickr user K2D2vaca; used under Creative Commons license)

The next time you find yourself staring at slow-moving taillights, consider the level of rudeness automotive travel encourages. (Photo by Flickr user K2D2vaca; used under Creative Commons license)

One mistaken belief in our culture concerns the supposed neutrality of technology. One takes a risk, in Michigan, in suggesting that the automobile has been, on the whole, a social negative, but that’s precisely the argument I want to make.

I could point to the deleterious environmental impact of the automobile. I could point to the ways in which road systems have ruined landscapes, neighborhoods, and farms. I could point to the ways in which urban design has been perverted by the assumption that, as James Howard Kunstler has put it, every automobile ought to be made happy.

But instead I’m going to focus on how the automobile has deepened two of the distinctive pathologies of mass society: social estrangement and the corruption of morals.

My epiphany happened recently while driving I-196 between Holland and Grand Rapids. There has been a lot of construction on that road lately, which has required a narrowing of the expressway to one lane. This has caused significant congestion, and highlighted those who refuse common courtesy.

Social order is not held together by law, but by the customs, manners and mores of a citizenry – what Tocqueville referred to as the “habits of the heart.” If you want to know how well-ordered a society is, look at how citizens behave beneath the veneer of law. A legal order defines public space narrowly, and when social life is conceived legalistically it devolves into a licentiousness which doesn’t nurture our nobler selves.

Such narrowing is exacerbated when individuals operate under the cloak of anonymity, their truer selves coming out. Living by the letter of the law becomes a fig-leaf over self-interest. Where self-interest reigns, justice is in danger. A sense of fair play and deference to others yields to one’s own perceived need to “get ahead.”

Most persons wouldn’t cut in line at a movie theater or at an office. It is understood that we should wait our turn, that fairness requires a kind of first-come, first-served policy, and that our claims are no weightier than that of anyone else. But mainly we fear the public opprobrium that would be showered upon us should we violate these social norms. We’d be hissed and booed and generally guilted into doing the right thing.

This is one way in which public life reinforces virtue. Doing the right thing because it is what you will is best of all. Second best is being guilted or shamed into doing the right thing. But a society of persons who can neither see nor choose the right, and neither can they be guilted, is lost indeed. Such intemperance is the enemy of a well-ordered liberty.

The saints and wise among us reflexively do what is right. Most of us require the props of public life to help us see what is right and then spur us to its performance. The Greeks referred to a person who doesn’t engage the solicitous formation of public life as an idiotes (from which we get our word “idiot”). They regarded such persons as selfish and ignorant, as lacking in virtue. The more private we become, the more idiotic we become.

Few things make us more idiotic than being behind the wheel of an automobile. Here, shielded by glass and steel against the incriminating glares and catcalls of our fellow citizens, we pursue, at high speed, self-centeredness without a whit of concern for others. I am referring, of course, to persons who, when traffic narrows to one lane, insist on passing in the closing lane, thus bypassing the queue. Such persons seem to think their time is more valuable than anyone else’s, that waiting in line like the rest of us poor schlepps is somehow beneath them. They violate one of the basic premisses of justice as fairness.

Justice, like all virtues, needs to be habituated, it needs to be practiced in the little things in life. Persons who can’t be counted to behave justly except when the law requires are not persons you want for neighbors. A public sphere where individuals can misbehave with impunity is no public at all. So my advice to my fellow Michiganders is, next time you see construction ahead and are frustrated with the snail’s pace, get in line.

Jeffrey Polet is a writer and professor in Holland, and sometimes writes at Front Porch Republic. A West Michigan native, he is married with three children. The views and assertions of guest columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

18 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. David Baatenburg

    Jeff: Your points are well taken even if you neglected to mention another “corruption of morals” engendered by the automobile–the loss of parental control, especially as it relates to sexual behavior. It’s pretty much impossible to channel and help form the habits of young persons living under our roof when they can travel 30 miles in less than a half an hour. You try and model the proper behavior but let’s face it, once your kids start to drive about the only implement left in a parent’s tool box is prayer.

  2. Matt

    Hi,

    Queuing up into a single lane well ahead of the merge point is inefficient, causing traffic to build up far ahead of where it would. It is in fact much better for people to merge at the point of the lane closure, and people who you claim are selfishly “zipping ahead” are therefore actually doing their part to lessen the impact of the construction. Google “zipper merge”.

    In other words, you have it exactly backwards — it is you who, with you false notion of politeness that you basically invented, are contributing to problems for everyone else. And are in a high horse about it, to boot!

    (You can pay your penitence by merging late and affixing this bumper sticker to your car: I MERGE LATE / YOU SHOULD TOO)

    1. James Thornton

      Matt:

      That is what people do? But does it work out that way? If two lanes go down to one, the maximum flow is down to half the speed. Travel will take twice as long. I know I have not used some part of Higher Calculus, but I have always accepted an argument if there can be some mathematical assessment, to get to a clearer answer. Hence looking at any thing. Weather it is car flow, or bank fraud; follow the numbers.

      It comes down to the actual rules and weather you do not have an accident with your car.

    2. bill beaty

      The *inefficiency* comes about when people in the backed-up lane start closing all gaps and aggressively blocking merges.

      State DOTs found that often this sort of backup grows back past the warning signs. The daily commuters may still know to change lanes early, but nobody else has any warning.

      Then, the drivers trapped in the empty lane cannot merge early, or late, or at all.

      In that situation, if you see a stream of fast cars in the adjacent empty lane, you prove your own evil if you conclude that you know their minds or intentions. “ASCRIBING MALICE.” They’re not “cheaters” at all, they’re in a trap created by the early-mergers. (So, do the ones in the empty lane have a right to punish the creeps who are packing the through-lane and blocking all merges?)

      :)

      Innocent drivers trapped in that lane dare not show their non-evil status by coasting along very slowly. They could die in flaming wreckage, hit from behind at highway speed. You aren’t leaving them any gap, right? And there are no other gaps in the solid wall of cars. Their only chance is to aggressively force a merge. They can’t pick a random spot to do this (danger of being hit from behind.) The only possible spot is in the last few feet of that closed lane.

      And the long backup, it’s caused by people ascribing malice to innocent victims, then trying to punish the “illusory evil” in a fight where cars merge together at well under walking speed. Since the lane-blockers in the fight are moving slowly, this means that everyone in the long clogged lane is moving just as slowly. Which forms a bottleneck that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Which makes the backup grow longer.

      Fed Hwy Admin gives this solution: Open up huge wide spaces, go “slow” in order to go fast, then at the actual merge point, take turns.
      http://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/fhwahop12012/sec2.htm#sec24

  3. John Gorentz

    If you’re going to blame automobiles for rudeness, you need to come up with some sort of objective measure of rudeness and a comparison of automobile vs non-automobile societies. And even at that it will be difficult to interpret the results, because even within an automobile society you’ll find some people who behave one way and some who behave another. With that much variation you need a large sample size. And you’ll have to score different types of rudeness. For example, if cutting to the front of the merge line is a 10, what would be the score for writing a public article denouncing that behavior behind people’s backs? And would it be more or less rude to denounce it face to face? And what about people who write snarky comments on such articles under the heading, “Get off my lawn!”?

    Instead of cursing the darkness, some people light a candle, e.g. by positioning their cars across both lanes of traffic so that people who want to pass on the shoulder to get to the front of the line can’t do it. But there are those who would give that a high rudeness score, too, or so I’ve heard from people who have witnessed the results of such tactics.

    BTW, I hope it isn’t rude of me to point out that I’m glad to learn of The Bridge. I had never before heard of it until Dr Polet posted a link to his article on Front Porch Republic.

  4. Bud

    Matt is correct, merging at the last possible moment is most efficient and safest. This is true on both highways and surface streets. How can we educate all of the early merging “idiots” to courteously merge late. Queuing theory and courteous merging should be an important part of drivers education and drivers license testing.

    Jeffery Polet needs to study this subject and then write an informative retraction.

    As a further step to improving driver civility and safety, let’s start a campaign to turn off fog lamps. Unnecessary use of fog lamps cause unsafe nighttime glare for oncoming drivers. My car has both front and rear fog lamps. I have only needed to use them about three times in the past twelve years driving all over the state of Michigan. The only time a driver needs fog lamps turned on is when conditions require turning off the main headlights for improved visibility. This kind of fog or snow condition rarely occurs in Michigan. This is another topic for drivers education..

    While we

    1. Jeff Polet

      My editor at The Bridge, prior to publication, filled me in on some of the “efficiency” studies. This, for example: http://blogs.cars.com/kickingtires/2014/05/the-zipper-merge-convincing-motorists-isnt-a-snap.html or, in a different vein, this: http://amasci.com/amateur/traffic/seatraf.html I read the studies over and have to say I’m skeptical that bunching at the closing point works better, but I’m willing to consider the possibility that it might be more efficient. This would require, it seems to me, that everyone be playing by the same rules, which they would be if the state had laws and postings indicating such. We’ll see how many states take up this policy.

      I doubt, however, most persons who pass in the left lane are thinking about greater efficiency for the whole. They are thinking, I suspect, that they need to get through the construction zone as quickly as possible, and they don’t care whom they disadvantage in the process. It is this frame of mind which is the point of the article, as Karl clearly sees.

  5. Bill Fullmer

    Jeff, your overall premise is on target and well stated. A respect for all our brothers and sisters is critical to a functioning society. As for the closing lane issue, my sense is there are cultural differences and they may stem fromt Matt’s point of inefficiency. I’ve travelled through Chicago for 40 years and it took me a few years to adopt the Chicago culture of staying in the closing lane until a must merge arrives. I always felt a bit guilty, but…. Once back home I went back to merging early — at least most of the time.

  6. Frank Kalinski

    Matt is correct about alternating merging traffic; underneath this though is that we don’t apply ancient “rules of the road” from ships and boats which is the overtaking or faster vehicle, must remain clear of the slower vehicle. This makes wonderful-logical sense in that the overtaking vessel has the slower vessel in the forward sight picture. The slower vehicle’s operator would have to turn around or rely on mirrors taking his sight off the road. This along with “Mast Abeam” which determines the exact point of which vessel is ahead of the other and then must remain clear.

    This system of “rules of the road” applies to aircraft and downhill skiing too.

  7. Martin Magid

    The mathematics of waiting lines tell us that Matt is correct: It’s most efficient to use all lanes up to the merge point. In fact, some state have signs that say “Merge at the lane closure.”

  8. Karl

    Clearly, the (including Matt and others concurring) point is missed? Focussing on the matter of getting there first is all the shallow minds can percieve? The “automobile” may be only one vehicle in this example,… there are many others. As a community, I think we have reduced ourselves to an acronynm,.. MFSOB.
    The first two letters represent “Me First!” (you’ve figured out the rest already?) People have forgotten how to put the greater good in front of “what’s-in-it-for-me?”
    I happen to be one who attempts to straddle the lanes, and hope those who catapult ahead of all those who arrived earlier don’t get through.

    1. John Q. Public

      When you refuse to allow people to pass, you are creating angry drivers who will engage in dangerous maneuvers that put other drivers at risk. I’ve seen it literally hundreds of times. So much for the “greater good.”

      Sometimes I drive in the closing lane until I get to the merge point. It has little to do with “being first” and a lot to do with not driving in stop-and-go traffic among drivers like you who view it as a competition in pursuit of “fairness.” If traffic in the open lane is moving, I will merge earlier, but anyone who wants to pass is allowed a smooth merge.

  9. Mike

    Editor,
    Would you please take these comments to the State of Michigan Highway Department? That they may consider a change of signage to effect a more harmonious merging of personalities . And if you could keep us informed of what comes about, Thank You for a good topic and thoughtful discussion.

    1. JR

      Mike, you’ve identified the main problem I think, which is poor signage. Most drivers assume when they start to see the “left lane closing in two miles,” “one mile,” etc. signs, that they are expected to get into the right lane and stay there. Those who are familiar with zipper merge theory, fly by the drivers who think they are obeying the signage, cut in ahead of them, further slowing the right lane, and as a result create resentment in the right lane drivers and a perception that they are merely uncivil jerks. If the state would create and use signage in construction zones that made the expectation clear that both lanes should be used up to the point of merge and then vehicles alternately proceed into the through lane, everyone would understand what is expected, and the tension would be eliminated.

  10. Eric Warden

    Merging at the site of the bottleneck is fine, but only if people do it in their proper order. Don’t kid me: The people who dash to the head of the line are not thinking of a better world for us all; they want a leg up for just themselves. And you haven’t even mentioned the idiots who advance by burning up the shoulder.

    This article was about so much more. How interesting that this part of the piece has monopolized the comments.

    1. John Q. Public

      When a flat-out wrong example is presented as a metaphor for rudeness in an automobile as a corruptor of public mores–the central theme of the article– I would expect it to generate most of the comments. I’m glad I read the amasci.com link–it saved a lot of writing. I drove 150,000 miles a year for ten years of my life, and the methods described there are exactly right.

      The key to smooth traffic flow is space. If you don’t tailgate, you can simply ease off the gas instead of braking and contributing to stop-and-go. I still always have people behind me honking at me because I allow anyone who wants to merge to do so, at any point they want.

      People who move to the head of the line are being completely rational, regardless of their motive. What they exhibit is this: “Most people here are behaving stupidly. I think I will just do the smart thing.” Why on earth would I unnecessarily join a traffic jam just because hundreds of others with a misguided sense of ‘fairness’ do so?

  11. John Q. Public

    Mr. Polet:

    Re: Greeks, public life, and idiocy.

    Did you give any consideration to the idea that perhaps the Greeks were wrong? Your conclusion is based on the apparently unquestioned premise that communitarianism is morally superior to the pursuit of self-interest.

    1. Duane

      John,

      I agree that Mr. Polet was wrong, but not for your reason. I think Mr. Polet wrote more from emotion than reasoning. He appears have been upset by a particular event and carried those feelings into his writing rather than pause to think through what impact he might have with the article.

      He talks about what he doesn’t want to be ‘habitual’ and yet he seems to make no effort to understand what is the structure of habit and the means to ceate a good habits. I wonder if he has made any effort to research Skinnerian theory of behavior and habit. There have been innumerable books written on the subject. It is straigth forward when distilled down to the ABCs, antecedent, behavior, consequences. I believe if he better understood these elements he could have written an article that offered information not emotion and migth have offer help for people.

      By only focusing on behavior he dislikes, he encourages those behaviors and he discourages even extinguishes the behaviors he might preferred. That is what leaves the impression Mr. Polet is more about emtional venting than thougthful information about changing the behavior of motorists.

      I am especially disheartened because Mr. Polet has a platform that few others have, one that can reach thousands and he uses it to vent not think.

      If only he would have been more interested in engaging people about the incident, it could have been simple to create the ‘good’ behaviors and the means to make them be habitual. He might have help many become affected by such situations and help others avoid contributing to them.

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