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The Commute

In today's New York Times Verlyn Klinkenborg's editorial "The Psychology of Los Angeles Freeways and the Effect of Recent Shootings" caught my attention. There's no reason why I would know that the past few weeks have seen "at least seven attacks in the last 10 weeks, four of them fatal, the worst outbreak of apparently random freeway shootings in the Los Angeles area since 1987..." but it still a bit of a shock. Having never visited the U.S. that sort of information just serves to confirm its place in my head as a 'whole other world'!

I've been struck by the attentiveness and skill of the drivers around me, by the fact that nearly everyone signals a change of lane and tries to keep a reasonable distance between vehicles. In three months of freeway driving here, I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard a horn sounded in anger. And now I know why.

If nothing else, these good driving manners express the centrality of the freeway system in the consciousness of Southern California. I've begun to think of those lanes as a giant public square spreading all across the city, a square where most people try to contribute their mite of civility in hopes of keeping the overall experience as tolerable as possible. But there's another way to look at it. The civility on display may reflect nothing more than the profound hostility lying just below the surface.

As a friend from Fullerton puts it, you drive politely, without challenging other drivers even implicitly, because "they're packing." No one honks because no one wants a fight. People use their turn signals to say, as innocently as possible: "Changing lanes now! Not cutting in! No disrespect intended!"

When I've been doing motorway commuting here in the UK there have probably been times when I've wanted to shoot some other drivers - there's only so much 90mph tailgating that one can take. But can this be the only solution?

Do people in the UK need the real threat of execution on the roadside to improve their road manners?

I hope not.


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