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We all manage this every day

Driving Protocol as Democracy on the Ground

In this season of uncivil discourse in the United States, when the very definitions of words are disputed along party lines, and undisputed facts are as hard to come by as steel pennies, I thought I’d strip the varnish from our democracy, shucking off the layers until I brought the fine old wood underneath back into the open air.

With our self-selected communities on social networks, and our smartphones giving us an excuse not to interact (much the way cigarettes used to, in some circumstances), we spend little time engaging with each other on the commons. Our institutions, one and all, have failed us as support systems. Not church, school, government, corporation, or social club has provided us a way to meet each other on equal terms. Even the family appears to be fraying at times.

And yet, every day, we all do interact with each other — on the highways. We all drive. Rich and poor, black and white, Jewish and Christian, Ph.D. and high-school dropout. We get in our cars and negotiate our way to work, school, shops, play. And negotiate it is. Like ants with their feelers touching each other as they pass, we all assess each other, if only for an instant, as we decide whether to jump into traffic or wait, to let the side traffic in or fence it out. This mutual assessment is rapid and sure, and the decisions it leads to are amazingly good.

While news reports focus, naturally, on the moments when our decisions fail — the horrible accident during rush hour that holds up traffic for miles — they find little to report on the billions of successful trips, executed sometimes at great peril (think Jersey Barriers streaming by at 70 mph six inches from the side mirror), that end simply in a parking lot or garage.

This is democracy at work. Every driver is voting with his or her wheels, and we manage it with great aplomb. Yes, it’s true, some dicks continue to tailgate, even though it’s clear that they, as well as everyone else, would be better off if they left a buffer between themselves and car in front (as demonstrated in this article). But more often than not, people have a sense that what works best for everybody works for them.

Someday, Google or a Google-like company will be controlling all our cars, and traffic will stream along like blood cells in your circulatory system. The cells have no individual will. The whole enterprise is just optimization math for getting similar-sized units into and out of channels of increasing and decreasing diameter. For automobile occupants, that will be more like socialism, with a (hopefully) benign dictator determining every move. But for now, we perform the entire dance through the interaction of individual wills, and we do a remarkable job of it.

And what governs our driving behavior? It’s not a strict set of algorithms, but rather a patchwork of laws, habits, understandings, silent agreements, mores, customs, conventions. Thus, the entire stream of traffic on an interstate travels at 10–15 mph above the posted speed limit — because it makes the most sense, and everyone mutually assesses the situation and interprets it correctly. When a line of traffic with the right of way streams along past a car waiting to enter from a side road, some driver slows a bit and gestures to the waiting car to join in, even though a half dozen cars behind the “polite” driver have to slow down as well. And when a driver from a side road wants in, and no one is letting them, they finally point their nose into the oncoming flow and pry open a spot, with the driver being cut off relenting with a tap of the brakes and more or less good will. Somehow, we manage to stay on our side of the yellow line, most of the time.

And we do this all with a limited set of tools for expression. There’s the horn, of course, and the angrily shaken fist. There’s the lights-flash, brake lights, and turn signals. But that’s about it. With a limited vocabulary we execute this marvelous ballet.

We’re all frustrated by the amount of traffic on our roads, and we’re all trying to get where we’re going as efficiently as possible, and yet we manage to put up with a great variety of indignities to ensure that 99.999% of us get where we’re going eventually. It’s an amazing system of mutual agreement.

And lest you think that this behavior is universal, just remember that in some parts of the world, people are using cars as suicide bombs, hurtling them at their enemies. And even here, there are instances of people driving down the highway on the wrong side and killing others. So, driving norms are not by any means universal. But they serve us pretty well.

We Americans, as a nation, can do incredible things when we all pull together. Driving behavior is proof that we can. As we groan our way through the final days of election season, try to remember that we’re all in this together.

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