As a frequent traveler on New York City’s roadways, I’m a huge believer in aggressive driving—which I define to be taking every advantage other drivers give you to move forward toward your destination. Much like the maximizing selfishness that organizes neoclassical economics, driving aggression provides a simple and predictable principle by which to predict what others will do in any given situation, making navigation through traffic proceed according to a regular logic. This is why driving amidst taxicabs makes me secure—they are most consistent in their maniacal aggressiveness—perhaps since they have an economic motive to do so, and acquire more fares. So it all knits up nicely. Anyway, what this means in practice is that one must be conscious of never showing weakness on the road, never show signs of yielding as lanes merge around an acccident or a construction site, or else you’ll be repeatedly cut off. You can’t let pedestrians start crossing against the light, or else a wave of them will block the intersection. You have to totally habituate yourself to accelerating when approaching an obstacle in your lane so as to get in front of the cars beside you in other lanes—merges happen easier at higher speeds. Most of all you have to trust other drivers will have the sense to avoid you when you have to make a blind merge, say from Roosevelt Avenue or Queens Boulevard onto the BQE, or from the Grand Central onto the Interborough Parkway, possibly the most dangerous interchange on the eastern seaboard. Believing in the good sense of other drivers and presenting them with a uniform code of behavior is all important the more snarled and congested traffic patterns become. Nothing is worse than “polite” deferential drivers, whose eagerness to be liked or to be “fair” introduces all sorts of chaos into the system. Traffic is not about justice; it is about flowCautious drivers, as well, undermine things; they tend to be indecisive, disrupting the flow and creating chain reactions of unpredictability. Worst of all are confused drivers, who forget about the other cars around them as they begin to panic over finding their way. My philosophy is that it’s better to be lost than to crash, Bonfire of the Vanities notwithstanding. Missing your exit, I think, is better than veering across lanes of traffic in the last minute at inappropriately slow speeds because you didn’t know where you were going.
But Monday’s WSJ article about Belgium’s traffic problems made me wonder about the limitations of my driving philosophy. The opening of the article is great:
The intersection outside Isabelle de Bruyn’s row house in a quiet residential neighborhood here is a typical Belgian crossroads. It has no stop signs. Now and then, cars collide outside her front door.
“The air bags explode. One car flipped over in the street. Part of one car ended up here,” says Ms. de Bruyn, a real-estate agent, pointing to her front steps. Her brother-in-law, Christophe de Bruyn, adds: “In America, they have stop signs. I think that’s a good idea for Belgium, too.”
The suggestion isn’t popular at the Belgian transport ministry. “We’d have to put signs at every crossroads,” says spokeswoman Els Bruggeman. “We have lots of intersections.”
I love that—we can’t put up signs; there are too many intersections! There’s an almost touching faith on display about the good sense of drivers, of humans in general, that they don’t need a sign telling them what to do at every juncture. It’s as though Belgium is refusing to acknowledge that society has become so complex as to require bureaucracy to administer it. And signage has the potential probelm of making people less cognizant than they should be; if they start to rely on signs to dictate all their driving behavior, they stop using common sense and stop being so alert. This sort of counterintuitive reasoning, favored by libertarian economists, is usually brought out to explain why wearing seat belts or helmets makes you less safe (you and others around you feel safer and all let their guard down) or why social welfare programs generate moral hazards. Any kind of shared social responsibility (dictated by signs or prompted by legislation or manners and mores) theoretically erodes personal responsibility and the state of total vigilance we are presumed to adopt in the state of nature.
So it would seem like Belgium should have the safest streets around, with everyone personally responsible at every moment for how to proceed, based on a simple guiding principle, yield to the driver on the right. The emphasis on personal responsibility quickly leads drivers to escalate the principle into the kind of relentless aggression I was just advocating, an egomaniacal pursuit of maximizing one’s traffic advantage. This has not so salutary results:
A driver in Belgium who stops to look both ways at an intersection loses the legal right to proceed first. Such caution might seem prudent, given the lack of stop signs. But a driver who merely taps his brakes can find that his pause has sent a dangerous signal to other drivers: Any sign of hesitation often spurs other drivers to hit the gas in a race to get through the crossing first. The result is a game of chicken at crossings, where to slow down is to “show weakness,” says Belgian traffic court lawyer Virginie Delannoy. Neither driver wants to lose this traffic game, she says, adding: “And then, bam!”
Traffic becomes yet another zero-sum game, another quotidian task turned into an occasion for intense competition for its own sake.
So all this leads me to think that my attitude towawrd aggressive driving contributes to the general spread of a “There’s no such thing as society” mentality that rejects social safety nets, etiquette, and so on that makes social existence run more smoothly in a spirit of mutual cooperation and occasional sacrifice. Yet I can’t imagine venturing out onto the FDR Drive with a different attitude; I can’t imagine not believing that the collective welfare is better served by my selfish committment to thrusting myself forward at every possible instance. Am I under the spell of ideology when behind the wheel—in the quintessentially American role of individual driver, of my own car and destiny—or am I really a small-government conservative in what I do, if not in what I say?
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