LKE 06/08: Abi-Preperation Topical Texts with the typical analytical questions in the Bavarian abitur...

Andrew Ferguson:

Road Rage

It's a jungle out there. Well, not really: it's worse than a jungle. It's a stretch of roadway anywhere in America, and in place of the ravenous tigers and stampeding rhinos and slithery anacondas are your friends, neighbors and co-workers, that nice lady from the church choir and the cheerful kid who bags your food at the local grocery store — even Mum and Dad and Sis. They're in a hurry. And you are in their way. So step on it! Move it or park it! Tarzan had it easy. Tarzan didn't have to drive to work.

It may be morning in America—crime down, incomes up, inflation non-existent—but it's high noon on America's streets and highways. This is road recklessness, auto anarchy, an epidemic of wanton carmanship. Almost everyone from anywhere has a story about it, as fresh as the memory of this morning's commute. And no wonder. Incidents of "road rage" were up 51 % in the first half of the decade, according to a report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Some occurrences are grisly enough to make the headlines. Last year a high-speed racing duel on the George Washington Memorial Parkway outside Washington killed two innocent commuters, including a mother of two, traveling in the opposite direction.

More often the ethos of road anarchy manifests itself in the mundane: the unsignaled lane change by the driver next to you, the guy who tailgates you if you go too slow, and the person ahead who brakes abruptly if you go too fast— each transgression accented by an obscene gesture or a blast of the horn. Sixty-four percent of respondents to a recent Coalition for Consumer Health and Safety poll say people are driving less courteously and more dangerously than they were five years ago.

And the enemy is us. Take a ride with "Anne", a 40-year-old mother of three who would rather we not use her real name, as she steers her two-and-a-half-ton black Chevy Suburban out of her driveway on a leavy street in residential Washington. The clock on the dashboard reads 2:26. She has 14 minutes to make it to her daughter's game. Within a block of her house she has hit 60 km/h, taking stop signs as suggestions rather than law. She has a lot on her mind. "I'm not even thinking of other cars," Anne admits cheerfully as she lays on the horn. An oldster in an econo-box ahead of her has made the near fatal mistake of slowing at an intersection without a stop sign or traffic light. Anne swears and peels off around him.

Anne has a clean driving record with scarcely even a fender bender to her name. But when she takes to the highway, even her kids join the fun. "Make him move over!" they shout as she bears down on a 90 km/h sluggard in the fast lane. She flashes her headlights. The kids cheer when the unlucky target gives in and moves aside. "I don't think I'm an aggressive driver," she says. "But there are a lot of bad drivers out there."

Too true. But the example of Anne — prosperous, well-adjusted, loving wife and mother — raises the overarching question of road anarchy. Residents of late 20th century America are arguably the luckiest human beings in history: the most technically pampered, the richest, the freest things on two legs the world has ever seen. Then why do we Americans drive like such jerks?

The most common answer: What do you mean we, Kemo Sabe? Of course, you don't drive like a jerk. Neither does Anne — just ask her. Very few drivers admit being an obnoxious road warrior. There only seem to be three types of people on the road these days: the insane (those who drive faster than you), the moronic (those who drive slower than you) and ... you. But this merely confuses the issue. Surely somebody is doing all that speeding, tailgating, headlight flashing and abrupt lane changing, not to mention the gesturing and horn blasting. There's enough in the phenomenon of road rage to keep a faculty-loungeful of social theorists thinking deeply for years — or at least until the grant money runs out.

That won't be any time soon. With millions of victims and hardly any confessed perpetrators, road recklessness has become the car-related sickness du jour, deposing (for the moment) drunk driving from its long-standing reign. Like drunk driving , the issue has energized America's vast machinery of social concern. The Federal Government is spending money on research, Congress has held hearings, law-enforcement authorities have held seminars and developed special enforcement programs, and psychologists are treating it as a genuine, long-standing disorder. There are Websites devotes to the topic, including one —the Database of Unsafe Driving—that allows Web users to enter not only an account of their experience with an aggressive driver but also the "insane moron's" license-plate number, along with a proposed punishment. (Several of these—surprise!—are obscene.)

Driving is a curious combination of public and private acts. A car isolates a driver from the world as it carries him through it. The sensation of personal power is intoxicating. Sealed in your little pod, you control the climate with the touch of a button, from Arctic tundra to equatorial tropic. The cabin is virtually soundproof. You can't listen to that old Sammy Davis Jr. tape at home because your kids will think you're a dweeb, but in the car, the audience roars as you belt out I've Gotta Be Me . Coffee steams from the cup holder, and God knows you're safe. The safety belt is strapped snugly across your body, and if that fails, the airbag will save your life—if it doesn't decapitate you. Little lights and bells go off if you make a mistake: don't forget to buckle up! Change your oil, you sleepyhead! The illusions—of power, of anonymity, of self-containment—pile up. You are the master of your domain. Actually driving the car is the last thing you need to worry about. So you can pick your nose, break wind, fantasize to your heart's content. Who's to know?

The fantasies are shaped not only by the comforts of the cars but by their sheer tonnage a well. Affluent Americans of the 1990s—so responsible at home, so productive at the workplace—want a car designed for war. With its four-wheel drive and tons of booster-rocket horsepower, today's sports-utility vehicle would have come in handy at the Battle of the Bulge. Its driver knows that if he wants, he can swing off the highway and climb a sand dune, ford a raging river, grind deep into a trackless wilderness. Of course, he never does. But the unused capacity hums beneath the pedals at his feet and feeds the fantasy. Watch him roar past you on the road, and see the set of his jaw and the squint of his eye. This is not some corporate paper pusher at the wheel; this is no sensitive dad who does the laundry. This is Patton leading the Third Army. Disrupt his fantasy at your peril. "There is a real illusion of anonymity combined with potency because you have a machine you can command," says Jack Levin, a sociologist at Northeaster University's Program for the Study of Violence. "Top it off with the stress of work and people perhaps feeling insecure there, or with troubles at home, and it can make for a dangerous combination."

Road-rage experts have come up with various solutions to the anarchy of our streets and highways. We could legislate it ( lower speed limits, build more roads to relieve congestion), adjudicate it (more highway cops, stiffer penalties), regulate it (more elaborate licensing procedures) or educate it away (mandatory driver's ed). Others suggest an option perhaps more typical of America circa 1998: therapize it.

(From: Andrew Ferguson. "Road Rage", Newsweek, Jan 12, 1998)