August 18, 2014

Did kids playing outside stall the arrival of road rage?

The increasing levels of competitive behavior, me-first attitudes, and dog-eat-dog morality are reflected in aggressive driving becoming the norm. The phenomenon is recent enough that its name was coined only in the 1990s. And yet if it's part of the broader trend of all things me-first and get-outta-my-way, it should have been rising since sometime in the '70s -- no later than the '80s, when careerism and the higher ed bubble were already clearly becoming the norm in the economy.

Why did interpersonal competitiveness take so much longer to show up in driving habits? It's not as though folks didn't have cars, roads, and traffic back then.

I think it was the presence of people in general, and children in particular, being more out and about in the '80s. Kids weren't just out walking and playing, they were riding around on their own little vehicles that you had to watch out for. Having kids around as potential accident victims made drivers take it a little easier, when they probably would have preferred to drive more aggressively. Even if you're a little man behind a big wheel, you're not looking for a criminal record.

Now that so few people spend any time outside their homes -- and not protected by another solid box like an office building, chain store, or automobile -- aggressive drivers feel they have less to worry about.

We ought to keep in mind how widespread me-first driving has become. It's not just maniacs weaving around other cars on the highway. It's treating stop signs like speed bumps even when they're four-way. It's peeling out when the light turns green in a slow part of town. It's turning a corner at 25 mph in a quiet residential neighborhood. And it's darting into your streetside parking space like the neighbors are going to think you're a stunt driver (they aren't). No matter how insignificant the stakes objectively are, everyone perceives their daily driving as though a NASCAR victory hanged in the balance.


It's enough to make even the anti-helicopter parents feel anxious when their kids are playing outside. When my nephew and his friends were walking to-and-from one another's houses, I had to yell at them a couple of times to get out of the street if they were just hanging around. It's a quiet suburban street, but when cars do come through, they turn the corner in front of our house like they're on a highway exit ramp.

That is a definite change since I was a kid. We not only hung out in the street, with plenty of time to move to the side if a car was coming, we tossed the football around, hit the whiffleball back and forth, and slapped the street-hockey puck to each other. The last time I remember seeing that in popular culture was the scene of street hockey in Wayne's World. "Car!" *guys get out of the way, car drives past* "Game on!" *guys resume game in the street*

I remember playing like that a few years after that movie came out in '92, but it was rare enough by the end of the decade that I don't recall being on the other side as a driver and having to stop every now and then while children moved aside. Helicopter parents had already begun to lock their children indoors 24/7, aside from school and activities that were supervised and chauffeured.

The case of road rage is likely part of a larger class of me-first phenomena that should have started circa 1980, but took at least a decade longer to come racing out of the gates. An outgoing and rising-crime climate has a pro-social effect on ordinary folks, who are more interested in getting along with and looking out for one another.

The difference from the early signals of competitiveness, such as careerism, is that the feedback from political and economic me-first-ism is less personal and face-to-face. You're competing for a job with people whose faces you may never see, and voting for policies like BOO TAXES whose cascade of consequences you won't immediately feel personally or observe in the lives of others.

But when it comes to driving aggressively when there are children crossing the sidewalk on their bikes, and throwing the football around in the street, the feedback that you should dial it down is immediate and tangible. Aggressive driving is an activity whose effects on others are impossible not to put a face on. It only flourishes in a climate of anonymity -- when people are cocooned indoors within a neighborhood setting, and when they might as well be faceless on the major roads and highways. Not just in the sense of "you'll never see them again," but in the physical sense of it being hard to see into today's cars, whose cocooning don't-look-at-me drivers have ushered in a change in design where all the windows are slit-like and tinted.



  2. I was wrong back then to use civilian deaths in car accidents as the measure of "road rage." Obviously there are many more causes of car deaths than just aggressive drivers. I wanted to focus attention on how much safer driving has become, contrary to what people think based on all the road rage coverage.

    But a lower death rate doesn't mean drivers are nicer, more cautious, concerned for others, and so on. They aren't, they're a lot more angry and reckless than they used to be.

    The more or less steady decline in car death rates points to a long-term technological change, not anything to do with psychology or sociology.

  3. What measures should we look at? Car accidents per vehicle-mile?

  4. Accidents are too dependent on other factors than just aggressive driving. The best way to restrict the focus to road rage is to simply look at the public awareness and discussion of road rage. Getting into the national media may lag the start of the increase by several years, but that's about the only snag. So we're talking the early-to-mid 1990s.

  5. Interesting to find a sort of street violence that doesn't line up to the public-private “cocooning” pattern. Figures it would be one which maps to people being frustrated when they're trying to move through the world without being disturbed or interacting.

    Perhaps, also maps to young people not bothering to get a driving licence any more. The drivers who are left are going to more frequently be people who aren't driving for pleasure, exhilaration, or in a relaxed way (they may even be less accident prone for this reason), and so tend to be very frazzled and serious about the whole thing, regard themselves as owning the road, etc. – middle aged “Top Gear” type Boomer and Xer men (who inevitably clash), “soccer moms”, trademen. Tough to tell if there's cause or effect there - whether its because relaxed people avoid the driving ecosystem because its high pressure or its high pressure because relaxed people avoid it.

    Language changes do make this all tough to talk about in the long scale – I bet the class and hierarchy conscious Vickys of the long Victorian Age (Victorian plus Edwardian) had plenty of “Sir, how dare you block my carriage / motorcar” moments (those are both stock stereotypes from that era, I think), but there doesn't seem to have had a specific linguistic signature term there, perhaps because vehicle owners in that time were higher status.

  6. A helpful rule-of-thumb is that the cocooning cycle relates to interpersonal and face-to-face phenomena, while the status-striving cycle relates to those that are more remote, abstract, mediated, and institutional.

    The fall in the violent crime rate is due to a decline in "beef between individuals" -- two guys who bump into each other at a bar, neither will apologize, and escalate into a fight, perhaps with a deadly outcome when the loser comes back with a knife or a gun. Or a rapist who has locked his eyes onto a particular target. Or a robber who sizes up a particular target.

    They're not going after bar patrons in general, women in general, or middle/upper class people in general.

    Peter Turchin's look into workplace violence, school spree shootings, race riots, and the like, shows that they follow the status-striving and inequality cycle. The offenders have beef with an entire group of people, larger or smaller depending on the aggrieved nut -- "people at my workplace" (going postal), "people at my school" (Columbine), "white people" (the knockout game), "sorority sluts" (the virgin avenger), and so on. We can add road ragers whose beef is with "drivers" in general.

    The psychology here seems to stem from the me-first attitude. If it's me vs. everybody else, then whenever I come up a loser, I'll get my revenge on that whole group of "everybody else." Competing for higher status requires you to get into the mindset of you competing against a whole anonymous, faceless crowd of rivals. You don't know who else is applying for that job or that spot at Harvard -- you have to go on the offense against "the competition" in the abstract.

    Running off with someone's wallet, getting sex from a specific girl, or sticking a knife in the guy who spilled beer on you without apologizing -- those don't require you to think about rivals in generic terms. They're particular individuals who you're trying to harm, not entire classes made up of interchangeable members (the "social substitutibility" principle).

  7. There is one apparent exception to the rise in violence of a group-targeting nature in the past 30-some years -- serial killers. They mostly target young women, frequently raping in addition to killing them. And many of them do think of targets as interchangeable members of a generic class that they have beef with -- sometimes women in general, slutty women (prostitutes being a favorite target group), women who look like that girl who rejected me (Ted Bundy), and so on.

    They tend to have aggrieved attitudes, talk about people in generic terms, and hunt them like animals the way you hunt deer rather than specific deer that you have beef with.

    Serial killing rose and fell along with the violent crime rate, though. It hasn't continued to grow like the other group-targeting forms of violence.

    My hunch (not having read a whole lot of the lit on serial killing, but mostly reviews / meta-analyses) is that serial killing requires both a me-first climate (it's me vs. a whole group that's wronged me), and an outgoing social climate to pick victims from (especially streetwalkers, who serial killers prey on way more than other types of women).

    The cocooning phase leads to a fall in the numbers of streetwalkers and hitch-hikers, which keeps the serial killers from having easy access to generic "slutty women."

    With the other forms of aggrieved group-targeting violence, the killer has insider access to the group that's wronged him -- no one looks at you funny when you show up to the building where you work, or to the building where you go to school, or to major roads and highways, and so on.

    If serial killers just wanted to bump off random women, they could get away with that (a la the virgin avenger), but they tend to want to gain their trust long enough to abduct, humiliate, rape, and torture them.

    Projecting out to circa 2020, that's where we're going to be in a real rude awakening -- serial killers. There's already so many bitter guys who would target whole groups of women, if only they could humiliate and rape them as well. Once that becomes an option, with the return of streetwalkers and hitch-hikers showing a little leg, the pent-up bitterness is going to explode.

  8. Would gang related violence go in the middle? When both trends are fairly high.

    Still small group and personal enough to be sparked between individuals (and groups) rather than between an individuals (and their groups) and a faceless other, yet faceless enough to be motivated at a group.

    1985-1993 (that whole era when loads of kids and teen entertainment had streets being overrun by gangs as a theme) had a particular boom in 14-25 year old aged killers engaging in gun violence even though older than 25 violence was already beginning to level off and fall:

  9. "Peter Turchin's look into workplace violence, school spree shootings, race riots, and the like, shows that they follow the status-striving and inequality cycle."

    Yes, but the venue changes depending on the crime rate. During the 1980s(high crime, high inequality), mass shootings were in the workplace("going postal"). But starting in the 90s, school shootings became more common. For some reason, cocooning shifts the burden over to younger people, in lots of ways probably.

  10. James Alan Fox studies mass murders and says there does not appear to be much of a recent trend. But I suppose inequality could be relatively stable over that time period.


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