Gridlock Guy: Our roads need less bullies

201016-Atlanta-Even though traffic is down, highway fatalities in Georgia have not fallen. During normal times, traffic on the Downtown Connector would be bumper-to-bumper on a Friday afternoon. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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201016-Atlanta-Even though traffic is down, highway fatalities in Georgia have not fallen. During normal times, traffic on the Downtown Connector would be bumper-to-bumper on a Friday afternoon. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Some things that slow traffic and cause wrecks can’t be helped. Rain falls. Roads need repaving. Thousands of people have to use the same road at once to get to the same areas. Workers need room to construct buildings. A metro area of millions will inevitably run into these problems and slowdowns. The unforced errors are more frustrating.

A type of driving that has always existed really began rearing its head while the roads were nearly empty during last Spring’s COVID-19 shutdown. High-speed, dive-bombing bully-driving spread across Metro Atlanta about as quickly as the virus did. But there isn’t a vaccine to stop it.

The dangers of this high-speed, close quarters, aggressive navigating are obvious on the surface. Piloting a two-ton missile like a kamikaze in and out of lanes very simply decreases the margin for error. One sudden brake check or lane change by the seeming chicanes in the midst of the daredevil drivers could set off an explosive chain reaction.

Maneuvering with such velocity and intensity requires a certain trust in the surrounding environment. Drivers that operate on such close margins subconsciously trust that other drivers will move mistake-free and that the environment around them will remain constant. Of course, that is like a careless parent hoping teenage boys to not look at an open Playboy on a coffee table.

But, really, the modus operandi of the rising population of “Fast and Furious” wannabes is more sinister than a naive trust in the slowpokes. A selfish and superior sense of entitlement fuels their speed and zigzagging. They actually assume that their intimidating, reckless tactics will force the lawful drivers around them into submission. This, very simply, is bullying.

A school-aged bully is no different. These usually insecure trolls often have a size advantage akin to the higher horsepower a bully-driver possesses. Child bullies usually single out the smallest, least popular outcasts and make them feel even smaller and lonelier. They feel entitled to the victims’ food, pocket change, or, more broadly, their dignity. And the victims, through no fault of their own, are subjected to a more dangerous and stressful environment because of the entitlement of their aggressors. The exact same is true on the roads.

The other danger in driving like selfish schoolyard bullies is that culture is contagious. When drivers lower the bar for politeness and safety, non-bullies accept bullying as the norm. If other drivers even act just a little more intimidating and reckless than before, then the culture on the roads gets progressively worse.

The behavioral domino effect is what Atlanta and many cities are seeing these days. What used to be just a small group of over-aggressive drivers has now morphed into vogue groups of muscle car clubs that flex their supposed brawn as fashion statements. Those groups then make other drivers angry and even influence them to do the same.

The response to these tailgaters is not to fight fire with fire. Paying aggression back with aggression endangers all parties. If a car closes in on a slower driver, the slower driver should try to get over a lane to the right or just hold their lane. They shouldn’t brake check the bully or try to pass them back. That makes the culture on the roads even worse.

How ridiculous is taking such a mundane and necessary act as driving and turning it into a macho grudge match? Imagine zooming a cart around the grocery store and running up on people in the aisles closely, waiting for them to move. All that accomplishes is getting the inpatient cart-pusher to the next spot a few seconds faster for the cost of angering or hurting other shoppers. Doing that in a car is the same thing.

Slugging or spinning out a bully aren’t the options that solve these problems. Neither is giving the finger or the horn. But the temperature on the roads is too high and the behavior bar is too low. We need to do our part to stop allowing bullying from becoming the status quo on the roads.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.