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5 Sep

On the road again – When we moved out of Seoul and into a small mountain village south of the city over the summer, a car suddenly became a necessity for the first time in eight years. I had driven everywhere when I lived in the States, but after moving to Seoul a car was more of a hassle than anything. Now, with the closest bus stop a 30-minute walk away, the hassle factor has been outweighed by the need to go places. I am on the road again.

A man’s home may be his castle, but a man’s car is his war horse.

Not only am I on the road, but now my wife is too. She just recently got her driver’s license, and she also took some lessons at a nearby driving school. This past Sunday she drove to church, and yet I am still alive and in one piece. That right there is enough proof for me that there is a God.

Kidding aside (and on the off chance that my wife may actually read this), she’s doing pretty well. She’s a new driver, though, so of course she still has a bit to learn. That’s where I try to do my part, pointing out to her things that I do while I’m driving, and giving her advice on what to do and what not to do. Most of these things are very basic: always make sure other drivers know your intentions, make sure you’re aware of what’s going on around you at all times, drive defensively, etc.

I also try to talk to her about state of mind while driving. The most important thing I try to convey to her is what I call the “perspective theory”—it’s much easier to keep a cool head while driving if you keep everything in perspective. For example, I explained to my wife that you should not go through a green light if there is not enough room for you on the other side of the intersection, because you might end up blocking the intersection when the light turns red. She said, “But if I do that, someone will pull in front of me.” And I replied, “So let them. How much of a difference is that going to make in the greater scheme of things? What difference will the extra few seconds of delay make?”

This is how I try to drive. I try to remain cool at all times because I know that the stupid little things people do sometimes will not make that much of a difference in my life as long as I keep my eyes open and stay calm. I think it’s a great philosophy, and I think it would be even greater if I could actually follow it all the time.

My wife and I were on our way home one day last week, approaching the Jukjeon Intersection. There are three lanes at that point: a left-turn and U-turn lane, a straight and left-turn lane, and a right-turn lane. I was in the center lane, getting ready to make a left turn at the intersection ahead, when a car to my left began to drift into my lane. I backed off to let him in, and was quite surprised when he came to a complete stop. He wanted to get into the right-turn lane, but there was no room for him to squeeze in, so he sat there in front of me. The light was green, and cars were whizzing by on my left, and I could only sit there.

I very rarely use my horn, but at that moment I jammed my fist into the horn and let out a long, loud blast of the kind generally used only by taxi and bus drivers in Korea. I also demonstrated my grasp of the language by commenting on the aforementioned driver’s lack of intelligence, common sense, genitalia, etc. The car in front of me was finally able to squeeze into the right-turn lane and I sped off toward the intersection. Strangely enough, the light was still green. I guess time seems to go slower when you’re stuck behind another car at a green light.

We passed through the intersection and I took the road toward Gwangju and our village. There was complete silence in the car for about a minute—to her credit, one thing my wife does not do is nag, even when I may deserve it. She remained silent this time as well, and I finally said, “I shouldn’t have done that.” She didn’t answer, probably because there was no need to.

That wasn’t the first time I had lost my temper while driving, nor was it the last. No matter how hard I try, I find it hard sometimes to keep a level head in the car, and occasionally I find myself doing stupid things because I’m angry. This is nothing new, of course, since people do stupid things all the time when they’re angry, but when you’re in a car stupidity can mean injury or death.

I’ve wondered for quite some time what it is about driving that seems to bring out the worst in people. It doesn’t seem to matter what country or culture you are in, people in general are inconsiderate drivers—it’s just a basic human trait. But where does this trait come from?

I am a firm believer in the basic evilness of human nature—I reject any notion of the “basic goodness of humanity.” If humanity were basically good, the world wouldn’t be in the state it’s in. On a more practical level, though, all I have to do is look at myself—to do good requires effort, whereas doing evil seems to come naturally. Maybe I’m just a really evil person, but I suspect I’m not the only one who finds it easier to do evil than good.

Still, that’s a rather simplistic answer, and it doesn’t really come to bear on why people become lunatics when they get into a car. After all, most people will treat others with at least a modicum of decency when dealing with them on a everyday basis. When I said that humans are basically evil, what I meant was that we are ultimately selfish, and act out of self-interest. While that may seem like a rather weak definition of evil, almost all of the misfortune in this world is a result of people acting solely out of self-interest, without any regard for others.

So, while we may be evil, it is generally not in our best interests to do things like stand in a clock tower and calmly pick off civilians with a sniper rifle. People who do this are indeed evil, but in addition they are also psychopaths. While it is indeed tempting to refer to certain drivers as psychopaths, most likely they are (more or less) functioning members of society. If you were to accidentally bump into them on the street, they would most likely not slug you in the stomach and then kick you in the head. But should you anger them on the highway, they will curse and scream and honk and cut you off—and they may even pull out a gun and shoot you.

Back to self-interest for a moment. Although you may be annoyed with someone who bumps into you on the street, there are very few people I know who would attack someone for that reason. Why? Well, simple—it’s not worth it. For every action we take, we weigh the possible benefits versus the possible negative repercussions. In our example, the benefits of slugging someone who bumps into you are practically non-existent, while the negative repercussions would likely be severe. So we mutter and grumble and continue on our way.

But what happens to this equation when we get into our cars? Our perception of the benefits and repercussions changes. Let’s say someone cuts us off. No big deal in the greater scheme of things, but we start thinking, “That idiot could have killed me if I hadn’t been paying attention.” Suddenly, our lives are on the line, and merely honking our horn seems mild indeed. Despite all the evidence that would seem to indicate people have no idea how dangerous driving can be, I think we all realize deep down that we are sitting in machines that could easily get us killed. It is most likely not a conscious thought, but it is there, and it raises the stakes in any interaction.

That’s one idea, at any rate, and while I think it does have some merit, I don’t think it fully explains why people act the way they do when driving. This theory would seem to imply that everything is based on a defensive impulse, when even a cursory examination of a few common situations (like the one I mentioned above) would show that that is not the case much of the time. I was visiting a friend on Long Island a few years ago, and we pulled onto an entrance ramp to the L.I.E. late one night. I was unfamiliar with the area and the ramp, so I took the turn a bit on the slow side, just to be safe. Suddenly, from behind us we heard an engine revving and high beams came pouring into the car. I didn’t speed up, and I didn’t slow down, and in a matter of seconds we were on the L.I.E. The car that had been behind us crept right up to my bumper and flashed his high beams repeatedly. Then he jerked his car to the left, sped past us, and pulled back in front of us. He then started to slow down, and I began to slow down as well—because I knew that if I tried to pass him he would likely try to run me off the road. Eventually we both came to a complete stop.

It was a bit nerve-wracking, sitting there at a dead stop in the middle of the L.I.E., but at the same time I couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity of it. My friend and I sat in the car, and I kept the car in gear, ready to gun it if the other driver got out of his car. But he just sat there, and so did we. Eventually he took off, and we followed at a reasonable pace. We caught up to him at the next light, and I looked over toward him, but he sat staring straight ahead and sped off when the light turned green. We did not see him again.

Now, if there was any threat to life in that situation, it was most certainly being done by the other driver. At no point was his life in danger from my actions. What’s the big deal? So, I was taking the entrance ramp a little slow. What does it matter in the greater scheme of things? Nothing—it doesn’t matter in the least. I don’t think this situation can really be explained by my theory above.

I’m no expert on road rage, but I’m guessing it comes from a combination of anonymity and power. Granted, it’s not complete anonymity, but the car does act as a barrier between you and the world. Also, I’ve noticed that people will generally avoid eye contact with other drivers—thus eliminating the human element from any encounter. The other drivers may as well not exist, except as abstract objects of our ire.

In addition, a car gives us immense power—the power to travel at high speeds over long distances, the power to weave and dart through traffic, and even the power to kill. With such power at our hands, and shielded by such anonymity, it is no wonder we get aggressive when we are behind the wheel (a similar case could be made for the Internet, but that’s another story entirely). A man’s home may be his castle, but a man’s car is his war horse.

These are just some ideas, though, things I’ve gleaned from my observations of human behavior (my own included). Of course, I can reason and conjecture all I want, but that’s not going to change anything. I suppose it helps to know why people act the way they do, but it still comes down to how I react to them—do I remain calm, or do I lose my cool? I’m definitely older now, and hopefully I’m a bit wiser as well. Now that I’m on the road again, it’s time to see just how much wiser.

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