Have you ever noticed that everyone going faster than you is a maniac and everyone going slower than you is an idiot?
— George Carlin
Hopefully, you are reading this in a self-driving car. You can return to sleeping, eating, talking, thinking, or doing anything else you want, all while your autonomous vehicle smoothly and safely gets you wherever you want to go.
If not, that means we still have human-driving cars, which means we still have to participate in this large scale prisoner’s dilemma called traffic. With focus and cooperation, we would all get to where we want to go, safely. But, we are in a hurry and the idiots are in our way. We said in a previous post that the main mechanism for traffic is braking. Everything before that is up for discussion. Traffic is the result of many things, ranging from the number of parking spaces at your destination to how much sleep you got last night to the decisions of Robert Moses. The one we are going to focus on is bad drivers. As everyone knows, bad drivers turn what could have been a pleasant experience into an unraveling dystopia.
What is the point of writing about such a mundane activity and fact of life? Impatience and self-indulgence. Precisely because it is old news and still a problem, like executing on The Basics. The futility of my real-time Road Rage Education Seminars (“You are going 55 in the left lane!”) has left me more disheartened than Cersei Lannister after her Walk of Shame. There are more than 230 million Americans with Driver’s Licenses. 40,000 of them die each year in car wrecks. On one hand, you could say that is a 0.0174% death rate. Seems low. On another, if that many people died in school shootings, people would be less apathetic.1 This goes beyond driving, but it seems like we shrug this off as, I guess this is the price we pay for the convenience of driving. A statistical life is still a life. If a single person did a single thing below, it is a win. It may even reduce this year’s number to 39,999.
Three Solutions (Hint: Only One Will Work)
Traffic is a structural problem. Traffic engineers seem to keep solving symptoms (don’t let people turn left at intersections) instead of the real problem (humans). Silicon Valley reframed it brilliantly. However, until the self-driving cars are really here, what do we do? There are two interim solutions: governance and self-correction.
The Silicon Valley approach is best is because it bypasses relying on self-correction. This is smart design because getting people to change is hard. Most readers will read this post, nod their head in agreement, and continue speeding up to red lights.
The political answer is periodic driving tests, fines, and revoking licenses. If I was a politician, my whole campaign would be: Hear me out. Driver’s Licenses, for people that know how to drive.
- Licenses must be renewed every 3-5 years by passing a driving test. This would have obvious benefits and second-order effects. You could entirely avoid trying to take keys from aging parents that are too old to drive safely. Like firing Milton in Office Space, the problem would work itself out naturally.
- The local government could partner with Uber and Lyft. You pick up a couple of passengers (you could even get paid) and within the app, the passengers fill out a questionnaire on your performance (e.g. on a scale of 1-10 how big of a ______ is this driver?). Throw in a virtual simulation at the DMV and you will have a good idea of who should be allowed on the road.
- By the time there is a wreck, the damage is done. Like we said above, ideally you attack the root cause. Notwithstanding, there should be fines for causing crashes. You have to pay the city $5,000 each time you are responsible for a wreck. The money goes to fixing potholes.
- A week in jail. If your gut says this is extreme, you will revisit this idea if you or a family member ever get into a serious accident caused by a bad driver.
In case those ideas take a while to work their way through the political system, let’s move on to what we can control right now.
Fundamentally, bad driving is due to a few key factors (I am sure there are others):
- lack of sleep
- disregard or misunderstanding of norms
- emotional mismanagement
Emotional mismanagement includes the unspoken belief that we feel no obligation to be polite to faceless strangers. As long as we are in our metal boxes with our windows rolled up, we effectively have the same anonymity we do in the YouTube comments section.
The news, in classic fashion, tells you about wrecks, but spends little time and energy figuring out ways to avoid them.
For instance, I think speed is largely irrelevant in most car crashes. Said differently, it is responsible in a similar way gravity is responsible for plane crashes. The rule-of-thumb is to allow for a car length gap for every 10 mph (e.g. If you are going 40 mph, allow four car lengths between you and the car in front of you). If you stayed in one lane with your full attention on the activity in front of you, (notwithstanding the featured picture) the only way you are going to get in a wreck is if you are Edward John Smith.
So, let’s get into behaviors that matter.
No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people.
— William Howard Taft
- Sleep. This will surprise some and be obvious to others. Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought. Sun Tzu didn’t even know what a car was, but he understood preparation and cause-effect. You are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you are fatigued. Not sleeping enough causes stress, stress leads to emotional mismanagement. Bad drivers always seem to be grouchy.
- Leave early. When you are on time, it shows you are in control of your life. When you are late or rushing, it signals the opposite. You are also more likely to be impulsive and irritable, like a bad driver. A coworker called into a meeting once and explained his situation to his boss, “Sorry, there was traffic.” The boss said, “I could have told you 50 years ago there was going to be traffic in Dallas, Texas this morning.”
A Key Performance Indicator is having 60 seconds to let your car warm up before you take off.
- No Gas-Brake. Hitting the gas, then quickly hitting the brake and jerking to a stop is the most irrational thing people do in a car (not even counting the added lifetime cost of replacing brakes). The only time someone should “hit” the brakes is in an emergency stop. Otherwise, braking should be nearly imperceptible to a passenger. Let’s look at two examples that fall under the gas-brake umbrella.
1. Accelerating to a red light or stopped traffic. Ask yourself, “Why did I just speed up to this red light?” It makes no sense. The one exception is if the light changing is dependent on your car being there (e.g. magnet or motion sensor).
2. The second example happens in bumper-to-bumper traffic. You are in an ocean of cars, stopped or barely moving. The car in front of you moves four feet. You stay still. The man in the car behind you cannot conceive why you are not tailgating the car in front of you. You already know what he does. He jerks out of his lane and passes you to take the spot in front of you. He looks at you like you are in the insane one. We see this person in traffic aggressively weaving in and out of cars, only to be two cars ahead of us at the next stop. When you zoom out from this situation, you can see how dumb it looks. The only way this makes any sense is if that one second makes a difference. Here is a secret, no one is ever one second late. See above: Leave early. The ironic part is somehow you end up ahead of that car.
Once you see these, you will see it everywhere.
- Stay in your lane. Think about it, changing lanes is one of the riskiest and stressful parts of driving. It is also one of the biggest contributors to traffic (best way to merge: zipper merge). There are four sides of a car (front, back, left side, right side). When everyone stays in their lane, you take two of the four out of the equation.
- Drive in the correct lane. The left lane is for the fastest cars on the road and for passing. That’s it.
- Margin of Safety. Look, have I ever watched The Office on an iPod while eating sushi with chopsticks and driving with my knee? Nobody is perfect. Like common sense, the key is to apply these things consistently over a long period of time. However, we are all going to occasionally do something dangerous in or with our cars. If you are under 35, you are going to text and drive until someone takes your phone or car from you. Saying Don’t Text and Drive is ineffective, so practically it would be more useful to make sure you have plenty of reaction time if something changes. If you are going to do it, do it with a margin of safety.
Sorry, I was driving when I wrote this post.
- Richard Thaler talks about this in Misbehaving. When we hear 40,000 deaths, that number generally causes less of an emotional impact than hearing about a single person, like Chuck Nolan, Forrest Gump or Captain Phillips. The former is referred to as a statistical life and the latter as an identified life. We are largely unable to feel differently about 39,999 and 40,000 deaths until there is a story attached to it. I think the reason for road rage is because we instinctively and emotionally know it’s not just a statistic and we feel the risk of death, so we go into fight or flight and get angry.
- Commuting: Stress That Doesn’t Pay (Psychology Today)