Gridlock Guy: Driver’s seat a petri dish of our implicit biases

The headline alone might cause a few groans or closed pages. But in light of the extreme tensions and racial discussions of this dark time, now is the time to explore a theme that I’ve only become in touch with about myself in recent years.

We each carry implicit biases and subconscious attitudes that affect our everyday behavior, including how we analyze situations behind the wheel. Getting in touch with some of these won’t necessarily eliminate them. But this thought exercise should at least steer us toward acting with intention before a more visceral gut reaction.

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One reason that these biases can flare up even more behind the wheel is because we carry less empathy, in general, while driving. This is because the people in surrounding vehicles are just avatars surrounded by glass and steel. And since we also are in our own “glass cases of emotion” we usually have plenty of room to vent and fume in ways that we never would if that same driver were to cut in front of us in line or grab the last pack of toilet paper. We also almost never actually know the person that cuts us off, drives too slow, or tailgates us, so we are just cursing some “idiot” who learned how to drive via YouTube video.

The road rage fueled by the encased isolation between drivers is on full display in NASCAR, my favorite sport. In the middle of a race, during heated battles, drivers say the most awful things about each other.

Racers freely admit that they become different people when they put the helmets on and the adrenaline pumps. They refer to each other as “the 9” and the “the 18” during a race and not “Chase” and “Kyle.” And if they spoke to each other that badly and that often in person, they would probably fight a lot more.

This separation between cars, the distance between drivers, leaves a void that our biases often fill. And before turning the page here, stop — these biases far transcend race or gender. If someone in a certain car cuts you off, have you ever said, “Figures … it’s a Mercedes driver” or, if there is someone pedaling slow on the expressway, have you ever thought, “Stupid green-o in their Prius?” People aren’t born “Benz” or “E.V.” But we can have implicit biases about those characteristics, nonetheless.

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And this, of course, holds true for other, more controversial biases. Anger only fans the flames. Someone who wrongs us suddenly is somehow more wrong in our fickle minds because they’re different from us. “That (woman/millennial/foreigner/senior citizen/fat guy in a cutoff shirt in a big truck) can’t drive! Figures.” We honk, zoom, fume, and gesture and then go on and probably forget about it. And because the “offending” person is an equal to us and very well could have the same gripe about us, they likely go on with their day and let the aggression go.

But consider these same inherent biases we all possess and experience materializing in places more consequential than interactions between passing drivers. Imagine the feeling someone has when they are singled out by a police officer or aren’t fully considered for a job, simply because they are black. That is what our friends in the African American community are experiencing right now and why there is so much angst over the recent senseless killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

One thing that the white community needs to just swallow and stop fighting against is that, in general, we have it easier in America. That doesn't mean that the worst-off Caucasian automatically has an easier life than the most well-off African American. Instead, given the same starting point or set of circumstances, a white person is often going to catch more breaks in society than a black person would. Even that fact isn't in and of itself evil. People generally act more favorably toward people with whom they are more familiar. The black community does that also. So do women, millennials, high schoolers, refugees, and the rich and the poor.
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This fact takes a more impactful turn for African Americans in a society and country founded by whites, in which white people are the biggest racial demographic, that used to allow the enslavement of blacks, that institutionalized many discriminatory practices for generations, and is still recovering from those years of racism.

Acknowledging white privilege shouldn’t be a stretch, if we can easily see how we judge people we don’t know who wrong us in their vehicles. Picture that seemingly meaningless reaction behind the wheel amplified over a potential life-and-death situation, such as not seeing someone’s hands in a traffic stop or chasing a supposed burglary suspect. People are fallible and anger and adrenaline — and bias — can escalate mistakes. So we need to do a better job of controlling and getting in touch with our own biases (whether driving or in the rest of our lives). Understanding our prejudices should also help us empathize with those around us who feel oppressed.

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