Across the world, in every country, on every continent, at any time of day, there is one thing we all do that is the perfect window into our psyche: we drive.
Driving a car has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a world where cars didn’t exist at all, say, the 19th century for the most part, or a world where cars were the gadget which was touted to replace the horse and carriage but nobody really believed it, say, the turn of the 20th century. That’s recent enough to still have people alive today who were alive then, although the chances of them remembering any of the early days of motoring are slim to none.
There are currently about 14 million passenger vehicles in Australia, and another 5 million other registered vehicles (motorcycles, commercial etc.). Australia has a population of about 24.5 million people. If you take into account the driving age population, there is at least one vehicle per capita on average. There are more than 700,000 new passenger vehicles sold every year, in a country where the population increases by about 400,000 per year. This last month as of the time I’m writing, SUVs have become the most sold car type in Australia for the first time in history.
These are ludicrous statistics, and show a love towards our motorized friends which seems to be out of control. And I believe it is. I’m going to go into a few theories I built around cars or driving in general, and I need some sort of trust from the reader that I’m not completely insane and that I do actually have points of some level of validity.
Much like those hiding behind screens and keyboards (ahem…), being hidden in our cars gives us enough anonymity to start behaving closer to our true selves. What and how people drive, in my view, can give anyone a general idea about what sort of people are all around them and what sort of society they form. It’s a free and fun way I use to set my expectations of the locals, especially when I’m in a new country. Except it’s not that fun as I hate driving. And it’s not free, because driving a petrol/diesel powered car is becoming more expensive every day.
There are two major areas I will focus on in my thesis (I can literally call this anything I want, so I’ll go with thesis because it sounds scholarly and educated): the first is what we drive, and the second is our driving behaviour.
The cars we buy
When I first arrived in Australia, about 11 years ago, one thing struck me in the first few days: the number of cars which had speed-related detailing. Yes, this is true; since I landed in Melbourne, the weather was definitely not something to write home about, and for some reason the cars just stuck in my mind. When I say detailing, I’m referring to rear spoilers, those skirty things around the base of the frame, the vents in the bonnets, the protruding wheel hubs… You have, by now, noticed that my motoring vernacular is on point (if you don’t actually know what a car looks like) or that I have no idea what I’m talking about (if you do know a thing or two about cars). I’m not a “petrolhead” by any measure, so my observations are those of someone who appreciates the intricacies of design without understanding utility. Like being able to appreciate a building without knowing the name of the style of arches used to prop up the ceiling bit. Yes, architecture is also one of my strong points.
Back to the Australian car park. I noticed these fast looking cars were everywhere. I also noticed that the actual cars were, in a lot of cases, the “S” versions of standard models. S as in “Sport”, but car manufacturers like using single or groups of strong consonants as they are more suggestive of understated power than full words. Think about the Subaru World Rally Cross – sounds good, but WRX is so much more menacing.
The other thing that struck me was that Australian law enforcement agencies really like to do their job. In the hallowed name of safety, many speed cameras have been installed around this country. I don’t have the blood alcohol level required to tackle the topic of speed cameras, so I’ll leave it for another time, but my main point stands: there are a lot of speed cameras in Australia, and also a lot of traffic cops in both overt and undercover vehicles, continuously driving around, making sure everyone is well behaved. If not, they are more than happy to dish out some truly outrageous fines.
I hope the contradiction between my two observations is clear. This country is packed full of fast cars, and is packed full of people driving at, just above or below the incredibly humble speed limit in those cars which are, in significant numbers, capable of driving at least double that limit. What’s the point?
In my view, this choice of cars gives one clear indication: those who buy them want to show that they can, if they so choose, drive fast, but they choose not to. In two words, understated power. I’ve long been a practitioner of understatedness, not in the motoring field but in other areas of life. I won’t go into details, I’m sure historians will have a field day unpacking this in the future as my person is bound to be their main interest. It’s only when I was thinking about driving as a topic that I started considering what this desire to express understated qualities means. I mentioned that I’m no stranger to it so I hope to be trusted that my thoughts on the issue are as objective as possible in this scenario.
For the best part of the 20th century and all the way into the 21st, most of the world has been entertained by the Americans (circa November 2016, the American people have morphed from entertainers to the object of comedy, but this is a topic for other, much more politically savvy people than myself). The American entertainment industry is so ingrained in everyday life, that movies and TV shows are consistently used as points of reference in explanations and detailing on the widest range of topics. The words “as depicted in the xxxxxx movie” have appeared too many times to count in written articles outside the entertainment sphere. Besides the obvious problem with such referencing, we can infer that the plotlines of American movies have potentially become normative in success stories around the world. The underdog to (super)hero transformation is now an expected life story, and the generation which grew up immersed in a deluge of such stories cannot be reasonably expected to see them for what they are: simply entertainment. American movies are, of course, not the only ones promoting this storyline, but the combination of the solo hero struggle with the fact that most first world countries have highly individualistic and self-centered cultures provides a mix not encountered, for example, in China or even India. In fact, the harsh truth of life is that most underdogs are, ultimately, either losing their battles or reframing their life view such that they stop being the underdog. Another good chunk of the underdog population are not underdogs at all, as Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly explains in his analysis of the David & Goliath battle of the Old Testament; an almost negligible number of underdogs do actually escape their condition. However, stories of winners winning and losers losing don’t sell, because they don’t provide the element of hope. Learning lessons from losers or losing is something many educational institutions fail to instill into children’s minds, and in a society where putting your best foot forward (or uploading your best side to social media) is mandatory, no adult wants to admit to learning from losers or being losers themselves. I’m only repeating what’s been said by many, much more intelligent people in the past and present, but for every successful Steve Jobs and Bill Gates there are thousands upon thousands of failed garage IT gurus. Their stories could, potentially, provide lessons extremely valuable for anyone looking to do the same, but somehow I think the title “How I failed to make anything of my revolutionary software company” wouldn’t sell nearly as many copies as Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs”. Alternatively, a story about Albert Einstein’s success is unlikely to enflame many young or adult ambitions – what do we care that a genius managed to take physics to realms thought inconceivable a few years before him? He’s a genius, that’s what they do. The only story which caught on in regards to Einstein was that he failed maths when he was in primary school, which makes an attempt to bring him down to underdog status. This is, sadly for those of us who struggled with maths all our lives, untrue.
The population who grew up believing in the underdog story has been given unprecedented access to credit and, through well designed advertising, were made to believe that you can make statements about your personality and your life story through the things you buy. They’ve also grown up thinking that the underdog stories they’ve been told since childhood are normal and to be expected, and their heroes are admired by many. Each of them is the main character in their own life story, expected to have a journey similar to that of movie heroes. Since the life most of us in the first world live is reasonably sheltered, abundant and boring (I mean this as lacking negative excitement), not many of us can claim such life stories without significant creative literary efforts. So what do we do? We buy a car which we think says “I’m a natural force; I’m reliable yet I can obliterate my opposition if I so choose. I bestow my kindness (safe driving as per the law) on most days, but know that I am a hero in the making and I will win when fully engaged in battle”.
This is a topic in which, so far, I seem to have very few fellow viewpoint holders. Personally, I am against SUVs for a myriad of reasons but I’m not going to list them because they may become evident regardless.
As I previously mentioned, SUVs have now become the most purchased category of car in Australia, for the first time in history. I’ve asked several SUV owners why they chose to buy an SUV, and there is a common list of reasons I want to explore.
Space: this argument is that SUVs have much more interior space than regular sedans. While this could be true, my question for those using this argument is: how often do you actually use your car filled up to capacity? Judging by the number of SUVs driving around with their suspension not fully compressed, I would say very few.
Safety: this is probably the most common answer when people are asked about their choice, and the easiest to combat. Perceived safety for an SUV comes not from crash testing, but from size. SUVs have long had lower NCAP scores than sedans, only recently having tied the tally, but SUVs have always been bigger than sedans. To say an SUV is safe because it’s big is basically saying that, in the event of a crash, you crumple a lot less than a smaller car. This is true. To illustrate why it’s wrong to use the safety argument this way, let me bring to mind a simple number: 90%. This is how many drivers rate themselves as above average. The budding statisticians in the crowd would notice that you can’t have 90% of a population better than average, as in this case “average” is taken to mean “median”. This means that people overestimate how safe their driving is, and this is where the problem lies when using safety from size as an argument: we are worse drivers than we think, in the case of an accident we are as likely to be at fault as not. If you drive an SUV (I believe this was studied but I don’t have a reference), you are more likely to pay less attention to the road than in a smaller car, because of the added feeling of safety from size. A far fetched inference is that SUV drivers are ever so slightly more likely to cause an accident, but I won’t use this as an argument for fear that I can’t substantiate. Let’s say SUV drivers are as likely to cause an accident as small car drivers. If you are an SUV driver who caused an accident with a small car, packed with a family who could not afford to buy an SUV, and they are all killed as a result of their Mazda 2 being levelled by your Nissan Patrol, how would this sit on your conscience? Knowing that, had you been driving a smaller car, the family would have had a higher chance of living would weigh, in my opinion, too heavily. Knowing you are responsible for physical harm on others is a traumatic experience in any situation, and I don’t think car choices ever come into view, but by choosing a car less capable of inflicting harm we may reduce the level of this trauma before it even happens.
Driving position: the higher driving position is desired by many but, of course, not many can explain why they need it. A taller car has, by design, a higher center of gravity, which makes it a lot less safe and a lot more tippy-overy when performing an emergency swerve. Again, this has been a gap which has been closed recently by car manufacturers, but for the most of history SUVs have been less safe from this perspective. The only underlying reason I can see for wanting a higher driving position is a basic one: the need to be above others (or, as more and more SUVs fill the roads, the need to not be below others). Height has always been a symbol of status. Most nobles of yore had an elevated abode, as did the churches or monasteries in times of religious rule. Even in today’s world, houses on hills cost more than those in valleys, but we say we pay for the view, not because our house is easier to defend against invading hordes. Tall people have an advantage in their career and are perceived as being better at their job despite practical evidence that’s not the case. Being above others is satisfactory at a deep, visceral level that we don’t consciously acknowledge unless we interrogate ourselves honestly. And who wants to do that?
Towing power, ground clearance: I want to bundle these two as I believe they are the only acceptable arguments to buy an SUV. Unfortunately for most city dwellers, they can’t really use them, with the exception of those who own boats or other heavy pieces of equipment which require transportation on a semi-regular basis. People who live in the country are entirely justified in buying SUVs, for the simple reason of having a need for higher ground clearance (unpaved roads) and towing power (higher prevalence of heavy equipment/animals etc.), and we could also throw in size as an argument. In Australia especially, driving on country roads means that your car’s front grill has a higher chance than anywhere else in the world to meet extremely intimately with the backside of a wondering kangaroo or wombat, a bigger car might mean the difference between life or death in such encounter. For the occupants of the car, of course, the kangaroo won’t feel much difference between one or two tons of steel messing him about.
To conclude my position on SUVs, I believe that the arguments used by people to justify buying them are generally selfish and show a lack of consideration towards others.
How we drive
I must begin by making a very important distinction between what is driving behaviour shaped by traffic management systems and what is driving behaviour indicating certain character traits. The Australian traffic management systems are built by people who thought that traffic and drivers behave like the econs of capitalism: purely rational beings who will make the best decision which benefits themselves in the moment. This is, of course, utter nonsense. As behavioural economists have done before me, I will state that humans and the Australian traffic management system are hardly compatible, much like humans and pure capitalism. Of course, I don’t expect Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel prize; a pat on the head from someone outside my family would suffice.
The first area I will look at is traffic merging. Australian authorities had the brilliant idea to allow cars to be parked in traffic lanes outside peak hours. You’re also not allowed to park too close to an intersection. On a two lane road, this creates the following situation: the road has one lane in which you can drive, the inside lane being taken up by parked cars. Except in intersections (which all have traffic lights in Australia), where the one driveable lane turns into two. The two then merge into one again, after the intersection. The fact that some people sneak into the inside lane when the lights are red in order to cut in front of the other cars lined up on the outside line is a design flaw, not a driver flaw. The designers assumed cars would only use the inside lane to turn away from the main road, but in fact it’s just an invitation for people to do what I described. This behaviour serves only to slow down the outside lane, making it more enticing for people to cut in, which makes it self proliferating. The societal and personal trait is revealed not here, but in the willingness of people in the outside lane to let the cutters get in front of them. Coming from Europe, where this would not happen in a million years, I was shocked to see how willing Australians are to tolerate the cutters. I later managed to match this to a strong desire to avoid conflict. It’s not that people aren’t annoyed by the behaviour, but they tolerate it and, through inaction, allow it to proliferate (it just so happens that I could appropriately use the word “proliferate” twice in one paragraph, I don’t have word-of-the-day toilet paper). I’m yet to determine exactly what makes people be so non-conflictual, but it can only be one of the two. Or a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Firstly, people may just be more mature and cool-headed. Avoiding conflict is, after all, a victory of the prefrontal cortex over the amygdala, evolution’s way of saying “top of the food chain, bitches!”. We should all strive to control our reptilian brain, and if some people are more successful, then this is one of the small victories of humanity. However, I’ve met enough Australians so far to know that aggression is definitely on the cards here at least as much as in Europe if not more, so this doesn’t look like the deciding factor. Secondly, the aggressive reaction may be suppressed because of fear. I’m not going to go into why fear is so pervasive these days, but I’ll make the point of saying that fear is used in anything from advertising to media and political discourse to control and influence society. We might let the people cutting the line to get in front of us because they may be murderers, mafiosos or powerful people who could have us killed. Or stop the car and face us, violently, with a baseball bat, like in all those stories on the news.
The green light start
One of the most striking events in Australian driving is the green light start. Once the lights turn green, a big drag race ensues, with engines revved up, clutches burned (not so much, most cars are automatic) and thingymabobs thingymabobbed. I come from a very aggressive driving nation, where people drive as fast as the car allows, regardless of road conditions. Even so, I’ve never had a drag race at the lights before coming to Australia. It must seem like absolute insanity to anyone coming from countries where the smaller cars with smaller engines have won the battle for consumer’s pockets. I’m not going to express my personal opinion on this topic, although I guess it’s easy enough to deduce, but I’m going to try and understand what makes people want to do this in the first place. What is there to gain from being the fastest car “off the grid”? The most obvious answer is that this is a small battle which, if won, can provide the victor with that all so desirable little jolt of dopamine accompanying personal achievement. The cunning and rational readers will note that this is as much a personal achievement as is one’s favourite football team winning a reflection on the competence of its supporters. The car does all the work. Were there two identical cars, they would react in the exact same way, and the only variance would be the reaction time of the drivers. But I’m not fooled into thinking that a driver who just won one of these mini drag races thinks to himself “boy, do I have quick reactions or what?!”. No, most times they assume the qualities of the car as being their own, which makes the “victory” akin to an athletic achievement.
We must wonder then why these small victories are worth so much to people. Why does this seemingly trivial achievement matter so much? I think I may have found a possible explanation. Most of the Australian economy is service based, with white collar worker numbers growing each year. As a member of this crowd, one thing I noticed is that the office environment is extremely regulated. By that I mean most work done is part of a process; individual contribution is limited, with a tendency towards complete elimination. While this may be ideal for a corporation, as it makes people and roles easily replaceable, it is wreaking havoc on the self actualization of each individual working in these environments. Personality and personal qualities matter only so far as they allow one to stick with the process quicker or better. This happens at most low and middle levels within an organisation, higher levels being more flexible in accommodating individual personalities. However, since one has to go through the whole system to get there, even those who make it higher up are corrupted into thinking that a process is better than individual contribution. This may be right from certain perspectives, I’m definitely not an expert, but it seems to me that going down this path has very negative consequences on the workforce, as well as denying exceptional individuals the chance to shine. Not sure how Andrew Carnegie would have fared had he started his career in one of today’s corporate giants…
In this environment where most people who can afford fast cars work in jobs which don’t allow them to express their individual qualities, a small drag race win over someone at the lights becomes desirable and even essential.
The freeway is one of the most accessible environments to conquer for any driver. It’s one of the easiest, albeit boring, styles of driving and should not pose a major challenge to most drivers.
There are two behaviours which stand out when driving on Australian freeways, and I believe they both point to the same character trait.
First, there’s the “fast lane”. Specifically, it doesn’t exist. The outside lane on all European freeways is reserved for people who are intent on driving well above the speed limit, for reasons of being in a hurry, being extremely young thrillseekers or, well, see the point about the green light start. In Australia, the fast lane is being mostly used either by people driving 1-2 km/h over the speed limit, or by people driving exactly on the speed limit. While the assumption should always be that people try to respect the law, we’re not law enforcers ourselves. That job is reserved for the police, and it’s their duty to stop or slow down fast drivers. Driving at the speed limit in a fast lane looks like either an attempt to physically slow faster drivers down, or simply a lack of understanding that some people need to actually drive faster for reasons nobody but themselves must understand. It shows a lack of awareness of other people and their needs. The person doing this shows selfishness, low empathy and/or compassion. Before you judge me, I’m not a fast driver so I’m not one of the frustrated drivers stuck in a fast lane going the speed limit when my intent is to go faster.
Second, there’s the overtake. This is one by which I’m most frustrated and I presume I’m not the only one. Overtaking, especially on European freeways, is a reasonably easy affair, where the driver checks her mirror, makes sure there aren’t any cars approaching from behind, indicates, changes lanes, overtakes, gets back in the initial lane. Simple and easy. The sequence of events is similar in Australia, with one exception. The “making sure there aren’t any cars approaching from behind” becomes “making sure there’s a gap”. Regardless of how fast a car may be approaching, the overtaker will completely disregard the relative speeds and overtake if there’s enough room to squeeze into the other lane without being hit. The fact that the driver approaching from behind has to break and alter behaviour (which, the book says, is the main point about driving on public roads: it must be done such that other drivers don’t need to alter their behaviour as a result of your actions) has no significance whatsoever. It is, again, a very selfish and inconsiderate act.
I’m not saying here that most drivers behave this way, I’m saying that it happens way more often than in Europe, and overindex if I may. There are plenty of drivers who, like me, notice those behaviours and are frustrated by them, but most just hold it in while I forked out some pretty sweet cash to start this blog and say it in a public forum so historians can study it in the future.
…who am I kidding, our robot overlords won’t care about overtaking on freeways anyway…
The two behaviours, as well as the SUV prevalence, all point to selfishness as a cause, and most times selfishness is a symptom of the high regard one holds for their own person over others. Western culture, anglo-saxon in particular, promotes the individual above all else, since it’s a lot easier to sell more expensive stuff to someone who buys it for themselves rather than for others or, heavens forbid, a group. The fetishising of the individual has reached levels not easy to imagine even 50 years ago, the culture of “it’s all about you, because you’re worth it” is so pervasive that even bringing up the greater good in conversation is now derided or at least dismissed as socialist propaganda. The culture of the self is one of the reasons we’re still discussing the validity of action on climate change – were it something affecting First World individuals directly, rather than those elusive descendants or all those people in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India (just to name a few) living at sea level (are they even real??), it would be a different conversation altogether.
I started this work of literary genius by saying there are things one can learn about people from how and what they’re driving. I must make it very clear that this requires some level of statistical thinking, and that sweeping generalisations about individuals based on how they drive as a population are wrong. The only conclusions someone can draw are what traits are more or less pervasive than an already established baseline – like someone’s country of origin, for example.
In my case, the conclusion is as follows: compared to what I was used to, Australians are more selfish, less valued at work, and more influenced by American hero stories. All this from driving around a bit.