Slow Down, Individualists!

In the U.S., rules for interaction require us to maintain a hula-hoop distance from others in the interest of respecting people’s personal space. But we don’t always follow these courtesy rules on the road. In this post, Sarah Nell shows us how we drive our cars can tell us a lot about social interaction and individualism.

Distracted Driver Just Before Car Crash

My friends call me Captain Safety. It’s endearing and I deserve the nickname. The moments I am on full Captain Safety Patrol usually involve driving, riding in cars, or avoiding them while crossing the street. My friends tease me, but I don’t mind. You see, my concern about other drivers is more than mere paranoia. I am overly cautious because I am overcompensating for all the other idiot drivers out there.[1. I’m not insulting other drivers’ intelligence, don’t get me wrong. Rather, I’m just saying what I think everyone else has said about other drivers before.] I am certain people know the best driving practices. However, what’s interesting to explore sociologically is why do so many people choose not to follow these basic rules of safe driving.

My driver education teacher said using the word “accidents” to describe car crashes is a misnomer. Most crashes can be avoided if everyone drives more considerately and safely. Safe driving experts recommend following a 3-second rule that allows enough distance between you and the car in front of you. If you are too close to the car in front of you, and something goes wrong, things can go really wrong, really fast. Then driving dangerously, all in the name of getting to your destination a minute or two earlier, may in fact lead to an accident. Then you’d be really late… or dead. I’m not being overdramatic. About 35,000 people die every year in car crashes.

You might be wondering, “What is sociological about safe driving?” As someone who studies human social behavior, driving is interesting because it is a kind of interaction. On the road, as in face-to-face encounters, we come into contact with others with whom we must interact to accomplish the goal of the situation we’re in. The context of the situation determines the rules for interaction. Consider the different rules for different settings: buying a donut and coffee, meeting with a professor, attending a large lecture class, meeting your lover’s parents, a wedding, a funeral, etc. All of these situations have different goals and thus different rules for interaction.

Imagine how ridiculous it would be to walk around behaving as we do when we drive.

For driving, the goal of this interaction, presumably, is that everybody gets where they need to go safely and without delay. Do you think most drivers would agree to this goal? Most drivers do not want to potentially harm other drivers or themselves, I’m sure. But an awful lot of drivers seem to be more concerned about their own journey than others on the road. “Somebody better be dead to make me this late,” my friend joked, complaining about a major traffic jam. While he did not truly wish death upon others, his humor points to the role individualism plays in the interaction on the road.

Individualism is the idea that looking out for ourselves – not others – is a good way to go through social life because it will help us succeed and be admired. When individualism is at play, we fail to see that we are interdependent – we rely on each other to successfully complete any interaction, face-to-face or on the road.

We are often too concerned about ourselves, our own destinations, our own schedules, our own choices to adjust the radio or reply to that text message, our own driving style, etc. In a society where individualism is prevalent, we can easily get stuck inside our own “bubbles.” Our cars embody the metaphorical bubble we find ourselves in when individualism shapes our approach to driving. We don’t realize how our choices affect others. On top of that, our cars provide us with a false sense of protection and anonymity. We often feel invincible and anonymous behind the wheel. We act like we forgot the other drivers are human beings, imagining the highway to be a road race between uninhabited cars.

Imagine how ridiculous it would be to walk around behaving as we do when we drive. Imagine what it would be like if, in a busy hallway on campus, we tailgated, cut people off, paid more attention to our phones than where we were going, flipped the bird, honked our metaphorical horns, or shouted obscenities at passersby. This behavior would be absurd and rude.

If we are willing to cut other people off to get ahead, to pressure people from behind to move out of our way, to take risks for our personal gain that may endanger or harm others, why should anyone trust us on the road or off? Driving on a busy road with other drivers requires a lot of trust. The consequences of individualism in society and everyday life are as equally dangerous as they are on the road. Being mindful of those we share the (metaphorical and literal) road with will allow each of us to complete the goal of this interaction – to arrive safely at our destinations, wherever those may be.

Dig Deeper:

  1. In U.S. society, why are people in such a hurry?
  2. What does inconsiderate driving say about us as a culture? What clues about our culture can we learn from examining our driving habits?
  3. Give examples of real-life parallels to unsafe, individualistic driving practices such as tailgating, texting while driving, or cutting off other drivers. What do these practices look like in other settings like the workplace, government, and the family?
  4. What other seemingly mundane daily activities can be seen through a sociological lens?