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Driving 95 North, with a Hat Tip to Dan Ariely

I thought I would bookend our weekend trip to North Carolina to see our oldest son with a set of blog posts about the trip south (which I posted on Friday, with a hat tip to David Kanigan), and the trip north (tonight’s post, with a hat tip to Dan Ariely).

I’ve written a few columns where I reference Dan, a well known behavioral economist. In particular, I’ve written about the responses Dan offers to readers’ questions in the Wall Street Journal. The most recent post I wrote about Dan was back in mid-May.

A couple of weeks ago, Dan received the following letter:

Dear Dan,

My daily commute takes about 40 minutes each way—and it feels even longer because so many of my honking fellow drivers are selfish and aggressive. How can we get drivers to show more respect for those around them? —Jamie

Here was his response:

In a word: convertibles. If we all drove rag tops with the roof down and no windows to shield us from fellow drivers, we would be far more aware of social norms and more likely to behave with some consideration for others. Driving often brings out the worst in us, and it can be shocking to see how myopic, self-centered and unaware we become behind the wheel—from driving recklessly to cutting into lines to picking our nose. All of this is much worse than our typical behavior when we, say, walk down a crowded public street. Pedestrians aren’t always polite, but they certainly don’t exhibit the same type of risk-taking and selfishness. Being in proximity to other people makes us more aware of our own standards of decency, and we behave accordingly. Noise-blocking (and often darkened) windows and the controlled environment of a car create an illusion of isolation, separating us from other drivers. It lets us feel that our actions are unobserved, which makes it easier for us to ignore our own standards.

I’m not going to completely disagree with Dan on this one, like I have in the past with some of his other responses. This seems like a clever response, but there’s obvious problems with such a solution, such as weather constraints that make it somewhat of a limited solution.

But the biggest problem that I have is that I think having a convertible would make me a more aggressive driver. I consider myself somewhat of a conservative driver, never going more than 10 mph above the speed limit. As I’ve written about before, that makes me one of the slower drivers on the road. And I get quite annoyed with people who drive well above the speed limit as well as people who simply don’t seem to give their full attention to the task of driving.

I think if everyone had convertibles, I might still be tempted to yell over to someone who I don’t think was driving correctly. The problem, if everyone had a convertible, is that the target of my yelling would now hear me, and I am sure that my suggestions would not likely be taken well. A confrontation would likely ensue, and just like that, I would become an aggressive driver.

So I think I would prefer if it just stayed the way it is. Let me yell all I want from the safety of my enclosed car. Doing so won’t turn me into an aggressive driver, but it will still enable me to feel like I’m the toughest guy on the road.

By the way, the music selections for the ride up I-95 North included “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen and the soundtrack from Camelot. I had forgotten what a classic The Rising is, and listening to Camelot made me realize how great Julie Andrews is – perhaps the greatest musical actress ever.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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