I’m okay, you’re not okay

93% of U.S. drivers — that’s almost all of you reading this blog — believe they’re above average drivers. If you don’t believe the ample research, just lurk at any of thousands of forums devoted to the topic of driving, or read the comments following any online news article about a traffic collision, or read this discussion on the harrowing comments from people who claim they are perfectly safe drivers while they text and talk on the phone.

I spend about an hour a day sitting on a bus, watching the traffic around me while I let somebody else drive me to work. I spend a lot of time watching your behavior behind the wheels of your cars and, I assure you, every single last one of you suck. Spend enough time driving, and all of you will suffer a momentary lapse of attention. The only reason you don’t have a fender bender every time you drive is because, for the most part, somebody else was paying attention at the exact moment that your focus lapsed.

It’s human nature, and we’re almost always able to get away with it. It’s only when there’s a relatively rare perfect storm when multiple parties don’t pay attention simultaneously that somebody pays the price of that everyday neglect. Because we almost always get away with it, almost all of us interpret this as safe driving. And those of us who do get into an ‘accident’ almost always blame an external factor. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, Duncan the cyclist has done it.

This is the Lake Wobegon Effect, where all of us are above average, though this is clearly impossible.

Walking hand in hand with this illusory superiority is the entitled, self righteous attitude that can lead to road rage. When you trip over a rock, it’s because you’re clumsy and stupid. When I do it, it’s because you distracted me. Usually we keep our opinions to ourselves on these matters, and we get along. In our cars, though, something transforms us from the mild mannered Mr. Walker into the maniacal and dangerous Mr. Wheeler. In his “Confessions of a Bad Driver“, James Schwartz at the Urban Country makes the case that this is akin to online cyber bullying, in which anonymity removes the social inhibitions that keep us acting out with antisocial behavior.

Schwartz’s conclusion and call to action:

In other words, we do things behind the wheels of our cars that would be socially unacceptable anywhere outside of a car.

It’s about time we acknowledge this as a societal issue, accept some blame, and start to view this behaviour as unacceptable behind the steel and glass.

What do you think? Will we ever be able to accept responsibility for our actions?

16 Comments

  • November 22, 2011 - 10:37 am | Permalink

    Hell no, no one wants to accept the fact that they do something wrong. The fact that society has the mentality to no be wrong, and blame someone else will keep it that way. I just keep on thinking about Mr Wheeler, what a great cartoon. I know im not perfect, the book that pointed that out to me was Tom Vandenbilts book, How we drive. Great read, it really does change the way i look at the road and behave on it. 

  • Andy
    November 22, 2011 - 10:45 am | Permalink

    I would be curious to see studies on how many people actually focus on driving when they are driving. We’ve designed roads and cars to make it so that it takes relatively little effort most of the time, so it’s easy to zone out (or text, talk, yell at the kids in the back seat, etc.). This is partially why I avoid the highways, since they are just so mind numbing compared to the county and state routes that are much more interesting.

    As a “hypermiler,” I’m constantly thinking about driving while I’m driving. Doesn’t mean I’m perfect, but it surely is the priority in my mind when I’m behind the wheel.

  • November 22, 2011 - 10:57 am | Permalink

    Ha! Take responsibility for our actions? That’s un-American to even suggest, isn’t it? I can say this because I’m an above average driver. ;)

  • Brian Ogilvie
    November 22, 2011 - 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re right, but depending on how you define “average,” it’s possible for more than half of a population to be above (or below) average. Imagine a closed world of ten drivers. One is very good and has never caused an accident. Seven are good and have caused one accident each. Two are very bad and have caused five accidents each.

    In this population, the mean number of accidents caused per driver is 1.7. Yet a full 80% of the drivers have caused fewer than the arithmetic mean, and thus could claim to be above average. The *median* driver has caused one accident.

    This is an example of the “long tail” phenomenon. I see it in other contexts: for instance, in my college courses, the mean number of absences per student is usually a lot higher than the median, because a small number of students skip a large number of classes.

    I don’t know if this is the case with drivers, but it is a possibility.

  • November 22, 2011 - 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Great point — we all assume a bell curve distribution of driver competence, but that’s not necessarily the case.

  • November 22, 2011 - 1:21 pm | Permalink

    We’re all above average, especially me.

    Only 69% of Swedish drivers, incidentally, believe they’re above average.  Not sure what that says or means.

  • November 22, 2011 - 1:23 pm | Permalink

    My turning point from impatient (and sometimes even angry) driver to patient came after reading Robert Hurst’s Cycling Manifesto book.  He discusses the topic  of road rage from the viewpoint of the cyclist, because this stuff applies to us as well.

  • November 22, 2011 - 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Have a friend who literally fell asleep at the wheel while driving on a remote highway and wrecked pretty badly. I’ve done long road trips, but I can’t imagine drifting off to sleep like that.

  • Kit
    November 22, 2011 - 2:40 pm | Permalink

    This is an excellent example of why MEAN sucks as a measure of anything practical.

  • November 22, 2011 - 2:41 pm | Permalink

    How many of us here are above average cyclists? ;)

  • November 22, 2011 - 3:29 pm | Permalink

    All of us are above average, of course!

    Sent from my Googaw

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  • November 23, 2011 - 7:15 am | Permalink

    You got that right. I still have my moments–when I witness stupidity of the sort that threatens my safety or that of others–that makes me want to punch the perp in the head, but that happens maybe once a month. I have dialed back on the yelling because when I’m angry I’m not enjoying my ride.

  • November 23, 2011 - 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I think that I’m an average driver at best. When I find myself imagining that I’m a superior driver to others, I make myself remember my own driving record.

  • November 23, 2011 - 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m a delivery driver in the tourist trap of Boulder, CO. I’ve driven cross-country 3 times. I’m only on my 2nd (and possibly my last) car. 
    I’m still average at best. 
    I’ve experienced near-misses while on the job, and yeah, lots of times I’m blaming someone else (pedestrian not paying attention, motorist texting, cyclist without lights, etc). I just take a breath and remember, I’m the one in the giant metal cage that’s capable of killing someone effortlessly, and it helps bring me back to reality. It’s also the reason I like cycling more to combat the “scariness” of driving. 

  • November 23, 2011 - 7:19 pm | Permalink

    I think anyone who realizes he’s ‘average at best’ probably has a leg up on most other people already. 

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