Dispatches From Suburbia: Does Driving a Car Change Who You Are?

Dispatches From Suburbia: Does Driving a Car Change Who You Are?

The aftermath of a collision. Photo credit: Sanjida Rangwala.

The aftermath of a collision. Photo credit: Sanjida Rangwala.

Drivers in many large cities, like the Washington, D.C., metro where I live, are really aggressive. Some of this may be due to poor road design that facilitates the movement of automobiles and may therefore embolden speeding and other reckless behavior. I’ve also wondered whether the nature of being inside an enclosed, powerful machine may in itself engender an anti-social mindset. To what extent is bad driving a result of externalities and how much is innate, and how can we possibly separate the two? Or, put another way: is driving making you (and me) a bad person, and what can we do about it?

Shortly after I moved to D.C., I had one of those experiences on the road that are all too familiar in this place. I was driving my small sedan and had just pulled into a left lane to turn into the short access road leading to the building in downtown Silver Spring where I lived at the time. I had on a turn signal and started to turn my wheel.

Suddenly, a minivan pulled around my car, blocked me in the turn lane, and turned left in front of me. I watched as it turned left again into the parking lot of a neighboring complex. I turned my own car away from it and into the separate garage for my building. Our destinations had been entirely different, and the other driver’s behavior had not provided any real advantage. So why break an obvious traffic law to pull ahead of and in front of a turning car?

Having lived here now for several years, I realize the better question is: why not? There are rarely negative consequences to this type of behavior. Drivers are almost entirely anonymous. I didn’t catch a face and I wasn’t in a position to take down a license plate. Traffic police don’t seem obviously interested in enforcement of this kind. We know that police disproportionately stop Black and other people of colour, so increased police enforcement is not a desirable solution.

Everyone I’ve met in the D.C. metro has a similar story. It’s often an out-of-state plate, or at least someone who doesn't live nearby—people here are quick to point at the stereotype of the Maryland driver. Of course, the bad driver is almost never your neighbor, and you know better, so it’s definitely not you.

A colleague tells me she’s become hesitant about yielding to pedestrians at unsignaled crosswalks ever since she was rear-ended a few years ago. You may choose to stop, but others might not. In fact, an unauthorized homemade sign went up earlier this year next to a bike trail in Northern Virginia instructing drivers not to stop for cyclists or pedestrians. Apparently, it might lead to collisions with those who choose not to stop, thereby slowing down everyone else—or at least everyone in a car.

It’s unsurprising that many parents are afraid to let their children walk alone to school or to the park, and those who dare are at risk for social and sometimes legal censure.

The state highways near my home, characteristic of those in the suburban areas all over our region, are designed to facilitate the efficient movement of car traffic. However, they’re also lined with houses, businesses, schools, and bus stops. These roads are rarely congested. I notice many drivers going at freeway speeds, weaving without signaling, only to slam to a stop at the red lights spaced at half-mile intervals. When I wait at one of the bus stops, I feel a continuous breeze from these speeding cars. If I’m walking with a friend, we can’t converse and must keep vigilant. What is to stop these vehicles from accidentally breaching the often too short curb? Will they choose to brake at a signalized crosswalk or barrel right through?

I cross these streets quickly, untrusting. The road is too wide, the turning radius too forgiving. We can blame the traffic engineers or the state code. That’s kinder than blaming the drivers, who could very well, on another day, be ourselves.

Three times so far this year, I’ve walked to the bus stop near my house to find the road blocked by emergency vehicles. Three head-on crashes where turning-traffic from a local cut-through met straight traffic from a state highway. On one occasion, a through-traffic lane was not obstructed and I was able to get onto a local bus, which was almost immediately side-swiped by an impatient driver swerving around the pre-existing crash scene. So much for everyone’s morning commute. Might as well go home, crawl back into bed, and try again the next day.

I reported this intersection to the Maryland State Highway Association, which maintains this road, and they promised they’d study it. Shortly afterwards, I noticed the speed limit near the intersection had been lowered from 40 mph to 35 mph, which would bring it in line with the designated limit for roads abutting residential areas in the state code. The section that passes through a nearby shopping district in Wheaton has also been lowered to 30 mph, the designated limit for commercial areas.

It may not really matter. A driver will go as fast as they are comfortable and the road is designed to hold traffic at much higher speeds.

When you’re driving, the other entities on the road are obstacles. By contrast, when you’re walking, you may nod politely to a stranger in your neighborhood; you may make a neutral comment about the weather, smile at a baby, or try to pet a puppy.

Making small talk with other drivers is an absurd endeavour when you’re cocooned in your shiny metal casing getting to your destination as fast as you can. Sometimes you honk, unaware and uncaring of whether the other driver is confused, lost, or struggling with a needy child. Your fellow travelers are reduced to a license plate or car make. That mom-mobile with Ohio plates, that jerk in the Lexus. Get out of my way. And don’t ever get between me and my free parking.

For those of us who don’t drive as often, it’s tempting to vilify those in gas guzzlers. They’re not just destroying the environment; they’re also ruining our community. They are the reason why we don’t know our neighbors, why children no longer roam free but must be shuttled in cars to predetermined playdates, and ultimately why our civilization is doomed. Cars don’t kill people, but angry people driving cars sometimes do. Of course drivers have stories too: of entitled pedestrians who don’t wait for the light, or cyclists who don’t signal and cross multiple lanes of traffic and expect all others to give way. It’s become a race to the bottom, where bad behavior by some licenses worse behavior all around.

We recently got around to downsizing to one vehicle and I’ve started driving my husband’s SUV. I’ve noticed how easy it is to go faster when I’m seated at a higher perch. I notice that I get cut off less often. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be a tall white man all the time. I become conscious of the vast distance between me and the road, how insulated I am from others around me, to the extent that I sometimes don’t notice to stop for pedestrians, even at marked crosswalks. But no one can hurt me. I can see why it would be seductive. I can see why these types of vehicles are so popular.

Some futurists predict that soon we won’t have to worry about driver behavior, because we’ll have switched to using autonomous electric vehicles and banned the use of personal automobiles. We won’t have to be concerned about transportation equity because universal basic income will mean that we’ll all be able to afford to call a ride whenever we want. We’ll be driven to parks to go for walks or bike rides on designated trails from the bikeshare where the car drops us off. Without human drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians, our streets should be much safer. This scenario may not be ideal, either, as it may still leave us alienated in our individual pods. Moreover, some of use like to drive (or bike or walk). So we’ll still have to negotiate out use of the public commons.

In the urbanist community, we often talk about ways to make our road experience safer and more pleasant for all users, whether inside or outside of automobiles. Yes, we can put in more speed camerasbump out curbslower speed limits, and slim down our streets. But I don’t believe we can solve this problem by policy alone. We all need to do better. Driving a car doesn’t have to make you a bad person. Ultimately, it's up to you. 

A more locally specific version of this article appeared in Greater Greater Washington.

Sanjida Rangwala grew up in Canada and lived in multiple places in the U.S. before landing in Silver Spring with her husband and two cats. She thinks way too much about infrastructure, inclusivity, and why we live the way we do. In her entirely unrelated day job, Sanjida figures out where the genes go in the genomes.

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