As a teenager I was very impressed with the profundity that began Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” It’s so metaphoric or something. Everyone is atomized and isolated in their technologically fashioned death machines, and they can’t achieve togetherness anymore. Not only that, they fear it. They no longer trust that they will let each other in; instead they are expecting a crash. An incisive commentary on our contemporary predicament.
This somewhat overwrought NYT Magazine article by Cynthia Gorney about merging reminded me of Ellis’s gambit, though the metaphoric implications are somewhat submerged, replaced instead with straightforward lessons about human behavior that can be drawn from traffic etiquette. There are two types of drivers, aggressive and polite, and they have the tendency to stalemate one another. When two lanes are forced to merge, some rush to the merge point, others get in line as soon as they can and seethe as the others pass them by and merge in front of them. Gorney is one of the latter, and she inexplicably expects New Yorkers to sympathize. You don’t have to spent to much time in New York City traffic to realize that the only rule of etiquette is that there are none, and you will be wasting a lot of emotional energy if you stubbornly expect other drivers to behave as if they are queued up to curtsy to the queen. Replacing deferential politeness on New York’s roadways is the predictability of aggressive action, the assurance that any perceived advantage will be seized. This clarity about what to anticipate from other drivers makes traffic move as best as possible in a near-impossible situation of overburdened roads.
But Gorney doesn’t seem to want to hear it when told by a California Highway Patrol officer that traffic is “not a matter of fairness or unfairness.” But the police officer is completely right. The road is not the place to stand stubbornly on ethical peccadilloes; it’s not wear you wage your private war against what you consider to be rudeness. It is a place where you respect everyone else’s right to be in a hurry by acting like you are in a hurry too.