Want to meet your inner jerk? Just get behind the wheel

Uh oh! There’s going to be a wreck.

I was in the right lane on Clairmont Road when I noticed an accident unfolding ahead of me. A car had stopped to turn left into a school, and the Honda behind it was doing 50 mph and oblivious.

At the last millisecond, the Honda lurched right, just missed the car that was turning, and swerved back to continue in the fast lane. I caught up with the Civic because I wanted to see what sort of idiot would do something like that.

It was a woman in her 20s, “smart” phone still in hand, eyes still affixed to the device, reptilian brain still blithely in charge of the driving duties.

It was one of those moments when one realizes civilization is doomed.

Driving in Atlanta is literally taking your life into your hands, hopefully while at the 10 and 2 o’clock slots on your steering wheel.

Aggressive and distracted drivers are usually blamed for the madness on our roads. In Atlanta, we’re all 5 minutes late and fantasizing about using our cars as battering rams as we instant message our loved ones to let them know some idiot is keeping us from arriving where we want to go.

But aggressiveness and distraction are merely symptoms. At its core, it’s mass selfishness with a dollop of thoughtlessness.

We become different beings behind the wheel — angry, accusatory, suspicious. Or maybe we become our true selves.

Bryan Porter, a psychology professor at Old Dominion University who has studied aggressive driving, said studies have researched the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect.”

“Are drivers Hyde (behind the wheel) when they are normally Jekyll? Actually, it came down to (the conclusion) that people drive how they really are in general.”

Trend lines nationally and in Georgia show that roadways have been getting safer the past decade, or at least fewer drivers are getting killed. In fact, Georgia road fatalities dropped a third from 2005 to 2013, when 1,186 people died. A large part of that, though, is not better drivers, it’s better car design, seat belts and even some road engineering.

But roadway deaths in Georgia are up by a third so far this year, a jump that may be a statistical blip or a troubling trend. Officials are still scratching their heads. Distracted driving, like the airhead looking at her phone, is getting a lot of the blame.

“That leads us to the conclusion that the leading cause of the fatalities increase is an individual responsibility issue,” a Georgia DOT spokeswoman told me.

But she has this one wrong. People are very responsible, every single one of them. It’s everyone else who screws things up.

“When it comes to your own behavior, like if you cut someone off, you look for external reasons — the sun was in my eyes,” said Professor Porter. “But when you’re judging others, we make fundamental attribution errors: ‘He cut me off because he’s a jerk.’”

As George Carlin once put it, “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot? And anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

Jack Feldman, a retired Georgia Tech psychology professor, buys into the selfishness theory.

He sees Atlanta highways as incubators for mayhem. First, he said, more and more motorists are vying for limited space, which increases stress. Couple that with an increasingly narcissistic society, throw in decreased personal responsibility, and watch out!

“When you have stress, your natural tendencies come out,” said Feldman, a motorcyclist who constantly keeps an eye on motorist behavior for self preservation. “In a car, nobody’s watching you. You have anonymity and stress.”

Leon James, a “traffic psychologist” from the University of Hawaii known as Dr. Traffic, did a survey a decade ago that found Georgia drivers among the worst when it came to tailgating and serious speeding but among the best when it came to not running red lights.

Also, we were relatively compassionate. So, go figure — we’ll ride your arse, but resent you less than do drivers in New York when you won’t move over.

We are, indeed, complicated.

“There are norms everywhere; drivers try to fit in,” said James. “You end up driving like everybody else.”

While driving like everybody else, we all take little things personally, he said. We get a bit depressed missing a light, elated at making them, impatient with slowpokes and feel a deep sense of umbrage and unfairness when someone tries to sneak into our lane.

Yeah, I said, impatient drivers will cut in front of a line of waiting cars but we’d never do that in real life. We would never cut in the middle of the cashier line at Kroger because we’re in a hurry.

That depends, James said. One study showed that shoppers in Florida are very aggressive. “They call it shopping cart rage,” he said. Remember, you take on the culture you are in.

James said drivers engage in “mental venting,” fueling themselves with a running internal narrative about what’s wrong with everyone around them. Remember: George Carlin’s idiots and maniacs.

“We don’t train ourselves to be empathetic; we train ourselves to be more competitive,” said James. “We have a tradition as the driver, as the captain, as the tyrant who decides what’s on the radio or how fast we go.”

With that in mind, I made it a point to try and ease up a bit, like the good doctor suggested, to not think the worst about my fellow motorists.

Heading to work the next day (on Clairmont again) a car drifted over in my lane, causing me to take my foot off the gas and wonder aloud, “C’mon idiot! What are you doing?”

I passed and glanced. It was an old lady. I’m sure she was sweet.

And she wasn’t on her phone.