Are We Wired to Drive in City Traffic?

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By UB therapist Bob Ryan, LCPC, ATR

Someone once said, “In the land of the free it’s my right to have an open lane in front of me at all times, and Lord help the person who transgresses.” This sentiment seems to say, That’s my roadway and I was just about to use it. Or to paraphrase the middle school send-up of the Pete Seeger classic, “This is my lane and only my lane.”

Maybe you have a family member or a loved one who drives a bit too fast, tailgates any and every vehicle in front of him, or is always jockeying for the fastest lane, only to swear, bang the steering wheel and roughly switch out of the lane when it slows. Sound familiar? It should. At one time or another it sounds like almost any of us.

Where does all of this frustration come from when we drive? Why are our emotions so primed and at the explosive as soon as we get behind the wheel? We know that our trip will take longer than we expect. We know that we will be affected by someone else’s bad or slow decision-making skills. So what gives?

Many driving enthusiasts will disagree with this, but bear with me. Maybe we shouldn’t be driving at all. Sure, driving is freedom, and as started above, this is the land of the free. But are we really free when there are more cars on a single major suburban roadway than there are people living in all of Montana? Maybe driving in Montana speaks to freedom, but not so in many of our major cities.

In my practice, when working with individuals who deal with anger and anxiety issues, early on we will touch on their emotional reactions stemming from driving. A common theme seems to be emerging, specifically a feeling of lack of respect. Our cars are advertised as cocoons of luxury, able to shut everything out. And in our society, if one can afford luxury the assumption is one should be afforded respect. Advertising aside, many of my clients report feelings of loss of respect in the society as a whole. Couple this with the isolating effect of a sealed off automobile and one can easily gravitate towards self-interest, i.e. lack of consideration for others. It seems to boil down to simple math: How much you drive x How little respect you feel on the road = How angry you get while driving. To mitigate the effects of the equation, you can start dividing by how much you prepare yourself mentally for the drive.

Driving on the open road is not the same as driving in rush hour traffic. For now, however, we’re looking at whether we’re evolutionarily equipped to drive in traffic. Our cars are powerful symbols of ourselves and highway or rural driving can be a very satisfying experience. City traffic is not designed for a road full of alpha drivers. As such, many individuals must work diligently at putting aside their instincts to dominate. There are many social settings in which we need to act in a more socially acceptable manner. It is driving, however, where our desires to be more socially acceptable seems to break down.

There are a couple tools drivers can use to help overcome the impulse towards anger while driving. Firstly, we all know, before we get in the car, that during our drive someone in front of us or near us will make a bad choice or delay us by not knowing what choice to make. If we acknowledge this in advance we are then emotionally prepared for it. It is a fact of driving in the city that we will be delayed or narrowly escape a fender bender almost every time we get behind the wheel. So ask yourself: Why am I getting mad? If you allow enough time for the drive plus delays caused by others all you need do is take a deep breath and acknowledge that you knew it all along and you were ready for them. While we are not wired to be docile and non-frustrated during rush hour, it is by far to our greater good to try and remain calm to drive another day.