Driving me Crazy

There are many ways to associate a country with biking.  The caricature (to the right) of the old French man riding along with a béret and baguette  is just that, a caricature.  In point of fact, this photo was the only image I could find easily on Google whether searching in French or in English,  which tells you something about how representative it actually is.  Except for occasional organized bike riders on small country roads, à la Tour de France, I did not see many bicyclists in Clermont-Ferrand.  And that’s not surprising: there are few official bike paths, and those that exist are often obstructed by pedestrians, parked cars, and delivery trucks.   Biking in town is not the norm.  And I am sorry, but I would not be the first to jump on one in Aix-en-Provence, either.

My family several times spent time in the Loire valley visiting castles by bicycle.  One time we were staying in Amboise, and that is the site of what turned out to be the most interesting visit of all: Le Clos Lucé.  Leonardo De Vinici was invited by François 1ière, then King of France, to come and work in this small castle in 1516.  He died in residence in 1519.  Now the castle is a museum dedicated to De Vinci’s work.  Models and animations of many of his inventions are on display, including his designs for automobiles. I looked up the invention of the automobile and found that it is pretty much impossible to credit anyone for its actual invention.  But it seems that we typically name Karl Benz who invented an automobile powered by his own four-stroke cycle gasoline engine, which was built in 1885.  If it is difficult to attribute the invention of the automobile to one person, it is much harder to attribute bad driving to one country.

In Europe, where many cities are set up so that walking to commercial centers is possible, or in the U.S. where that is not always the case. Whether a pedestrian or a driver, and whether you drive to work or only take the car on vacation, it is always the same: Automobile driving is a huge deal in terms of cliches.  Driving is the tip of another iceberg of cultural meaning and thus is the topic of comparison and cliché.  And, like the name calling about superficial relationships and superficial smiles, the comparisons form a never-ending round robin of accusations.  Let’s face it, you can always find a country or a region of your own country where the drivers are “worse.”  Or, if the drivers seem better, more respectful or law-abiding, you can always find a reason to berate them for that, too.  I hear people from somewhere in northern Europe criticize French drivers and then the French criticize the Sicilians drivers and so forth, and then one day my sister-in law, Tina-Marie, told me about the drivers in Bangalore (just to get out of the West for a second).  Tina-Marie said that when you cross the streets on foot you have to move smoothly and confidently, but very slowly without ever stopping, like a small family of snails, or you’ll get run over.  She did this, and brought my niece and nephew home alive as proof of the effectiveness of her strategy.

But what is bad driving, anyway (see my “Trouble with Concepts”)?  My friend Asher was a colleague of mine in psychology at a large Midwestern university, located it a small bucolic city.  When he moved home to Israel after a number of years, he was looking forward to driving in Jerusalem.  He described with great longing the passion, the gestures, the use of signals and horns to discuss current traffic conditions. I have to admit that I felt fine behind the wheel of a car in Jerusalem when I was there.  It reminded me of Manhattan driving; more like a single river of noise and ironic commentary on mankind than anything else.  Traffic in Jerusalem, like Manhattan, is a huge self-organizing system.

Even if most Europeans (by their report) spend their visits to the U.S. in San Francisco and Manhattan, occasionally dipping down to D.C. or else teleporting into the Grand Canyon, they tell me that for them the prototypical American driving experience is the I-70 long-haul across the country, where you snooze through Missouri and Kansas, or else the emotionally-indistinguishable I-80 drive across Iowa and Nebraska.  I suppose it is not so different from driving from Moscow to the Biakal, but no one ever does that.  The long stretches and the un-fun driving that cruising I-70 presents gets interpreted in some way; it isn’t just that people mention over and over what those stretches look like or how they feel.  The wide-open space around central Kansas and heading into eastern Colorado seems to get under people's skin. 

I have fond childhood memories of that particular drive.  Once a summer we headed out of Chicago and did the whole I-70 drive to Russell, Kansas, my father’s hometown, almost without stopping.  Sometimes my parents rolled us up into blankets and lay us (un-seatbelted!) across the back seat of the car and then my father accelerated and didn’t stop until he saw a sign for a Cherry Mash candy bar, got the hankering for chicken-fried steak, or needed to fill up at a gas station with the man who wore the star or a big green “brontosaurus.”  Sometimes we could see lightening breaking up the night sky and knew we were getting close when we smelled the oil in the air and heard the tick-tick of oil rigs moving up and down on the side of the road.  I loved those oil rigs, and not in a Beverly Hillbillies kind of way.  

Cars were an all-important thing in Russell, Kansas.  People drove everywhere then, as they probably do now.  I remember that my father’s Aunt Molly and Uncle Gottfried lived far enough from my grandparent’s house in town that we’d take the car each time we visited.  My granddad would sigh, shift some piece of hard candy from one side of his mouth to the other, and say “Ach ja.  Now we’ll go over to see Molly and Gottfried.”  Then, we’d amble out to the car, turn the air conditioner on HIGH, and back out of the driveway.  Some time later, we would arrive at their house.  A couple of years ago I walked from the house where my grandparents had lived to the house where Molly and Gottfried had lived.  Then I took out my cell phone and called my mother.  “Aunt Molly and Uncle Gottfried lived two blocks away from Nanny and Grandad,” I stated.  “Yes that is true,” she said patiently.  “Mom, we always DROVE to their house.  In the car.  With the air conditioner on.”  My mother had a way of controlling her voice when she doesn’t want me to react anymore.  “Cars are important in Kansas,” she said peacefully.  

When I first moved to France I was scared to death to drive, but I slowly got the hang of it.   Even now I try to remember how I felt at first, why I was so unwilling, and I can’t do it.  But driving seemed to be getting worse in our town around 2011.  It is wasn’t just my impression; there were statistics reported and articles in the paper.  My friends Bruno and Dominique were taking about this at a party once.  They confirmed my observation that the signaling of intended turns and lane changes seemed to have gone out of style.  “You know, in old cars the turn signal was actually a sign that came up on either side of the car when you pushed the appropriate button inside,” said Bruno raising an arm mechanically to signal a right turn.  Somehow, he said, the act of signaling has acquired the same connotation: it’s lame.  

I remember that around the same time there were a number of government proposals on the table in France involving driving and traffic regulation, and they may have been causing the resistance to being told what to do by things like lights and stop signs and stripes on the road.  If [then prime minister] ]Sarko says to do it, we won’t.  At my gym, I had been listening to one of those muscle-bound and mouthy guys that hang around in gyms in all countries.  The guy was snorting about the possibility of motorcyclists – motards – being obliged to wear something (I came into the conversation to late to hear what the something was probably a helmet).  “I’ll give up biking in that case.  When all the people left on the roads are poussins – baby chicks – it’ll be over for me,” he said.  My coach, Rita, cut her eyes over to me and then looked down.  She didn’t want to say anything because she knew how I feel about following traffic regulations.  

I admit that there are two personal-motivational background things to know about this obsession that I am developing about people following traffic laws, beside the fact that I don’t want to inadvertently run over someone.  The first is that I had to do drivers school in France, after having been legally driving in the U.S. for about 25 years.  France and several U.S. states have reciprocity agreements for drivers licenses, but those several states do not include any that I have ever lived in. There are probably entire books written on people’s experiences passing the driving test -- La Code de le Route -- in France, and I happen to know that my friend Jennie thought of writing such a book.   But suffice it to say that it is an arduous process to get a French driver’s license.  And, after all of that pain and suffering, you finally get your license, and you look around and the whole Code goes out the window. There is general agreement that most of what is in the Code is just learned to pass the test. It just doesn’t feel right.  The other motivational thing has to do with having had kids.  The idea of people swerving around my own little poussins in cars is pretty stressful.

When the husband of a friend at our children’s school was killed on his motorcycle when a truck decided to do an illegal U-turn, I went into action and called the local paper.  I talked about social norms and how what role they play in social life. I talked about how there are “prescriptive norms” which are the formal or explicit codes like the Code de la Route and “descriptive” norms, which is what people actually do.  Like, it is normative here in my city to park wherever the hell you find a place.  That is the descriptive norm.  My university’s parking lot is, for instance, a flagrant fire hazard.  No way could a fire truck get in given how the cars are crammed into every possible nook and cranny.

When interviewed, I talked about the fact that some norms develop for the sake of social identity.  High school students for example follow norms of dress or preferences in music in order to publicize who they are.  Other norms have to do with public health and safety.  In fact, both types of norms have been adaptive for humans being living in social groups.  Interestingly, some norms have gone from the one to the other.  In the kings’ courts of the 16th Century France, normatively people did not cut their lettuce salad with the knife and fork.  Instead, they folded the lettuce around their fork with their knife.  This was a good idea because the combination of silver and vinegar at the time could be lethal.  Now however we could all cut our salad without risking death as a possible side effect.  Still, this behavior has been preserved in the rules of good table etiquette, and those who want to signal their membership in bourgeois society still fold their salad.  My point to the interviewer was that, at least in developed countries, norms having to do with traffic regulation are not the social identity norms and treating them like folding salad is foolish and deadly.  The norms for the application of traffic law are for the good of public health and should be treated like norms for vaccinating children:  you do so in order to protect other people.

I know, I sound pedantic.  But I felt better talking to my cousin Mary who has lived in Florence, Italy for almoner thanmost 30 years.  She listened to me patiently, like our identical twin moms, and then sighed.  “Don’t get me going,” she said.  She has gotten so vocal in her scolding of the drivers in Florence, she said, that her son Andrea slides his 6’3” frame down in the front seat until just the top of his head is showing.  There is nothing less effective than confronting someone with an American accent on top of the language.  I know about that.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 2:01 AM JUN 30, 2011