Why is most everyone else a below average driver?

You know the people: it’s green, and they don’t move; they suddenly slow down to turn without using their blinker; they pass you, only to slow to a lower speed than yours; they slow down more than necessary for curves and crawl around roundabouts; they tailgate you and flash their highbeams even though you’re doing five above the limit.  You know the people.  And you might have wondered: why are there so many below average drivers?  Not necessarily dangerous drivers, but drivers who don’t think ahead, and don’t consider others, for all you can tell.

Why, indeed?  I don’t think I ever gave it much thought until I applied my, ahem, clearly above-average driving skills to looking like a below-average driver.  After a car ride that involved my wallet on the roof and other similar incidents or near incidents, it’s become painfully, odoriferously clear that our children do not deal well with curves unless they’re asleep.  The 90-minute drive to another family with young kids in particular without fail involves whining, stopping, and fresh air.  So this time we planned it with stops for fresh air, and plenty time for the drive.  And as I drove little old lady style around a bend, I realized that if the folks behind me were anything like my younger, childless self, they’d be muttering under their breaths about how some people just don’t know how to handle a car.

My younger self, for whatever reason, rarely if ever came up with another reason for slow driving than incompetence.  Kids close to throwing up?  Nope.  Spouse afraid of the drop-off?  Nope.  Distracted by a fight in the car or a fight before the drive?  Petrified because of a recent accident?  Weary and looking for a hotel after a long drive?  Nope, nope, nope.  Clearly below-average drivers, the lot of them.  Mutter mutter puddlebrains.

So, really, the reason most everyone else is a below average driver lies with me and my lack of imagination.  It’s simply easier to assume incompetence than to exercise my imagination to come up with a reason for that strange driving.  Without imagination, no empathy; without empathy, mutter mutter puddlebrains.  With my imagination engaged, on the other hand, empathy comes easily.

It scares me to see how easily I default into that assumption of incompetence, how lazy my imagination is.  It scares me even more to see how widespread a problem it is in the political arena.  We avoid the work of empathizing and instead assume ignorance and deploy sarcasm.  Witness the discussion around Brendan Eich’s resignation.  Witness, also, how roughly the same people who support the NSA gathering plenty of intelligence on US residents vehemently oppose intelligence gathering in connection with gun control, and conversely those that support gun control loudly protest the government listening to our phone calls.  Not only do they fail to see the tension between the positions they themselves hold, but they utterly fail to see how the people they denigrate actually share some of their most pressing concerns – albeit in the context of another political question.

I’m convinced that the prescription for both road rage and political rage is empathy, and I think I’ll start by giving my imagination workouts every time I’m tempted by an apparently lousy driver to mutter mutter puddlebrains.  With any luck, that’ll also make me a calmer, better driver myself.

Any other ideas on how to slowly build up the imagination and empathy muscles?

6 thoughts on “Why is most everyone else a below average driver?

  1. Janet

    You asked “Any other ideas on how to slowly build up the imagination and empathy muscles?”

    In the Secret of Happy Families book I just finished, he mentions a mother who plays a story game with her kids. They spot a person or group and then they take turns telling a story about them based on what they see, the writing on clothes, the expression on the face, the activity they’re engaged in etc. She said that imaginative game helped them learn to see things from another person’s point of view.

    Another idea is to listen respectfully when someone you know is explaining why she did something stupid. When I step on my hand or hit myself, I know it looks dumb, but there’s a reason why I got tripped up and I like to explain myself. I don’t have to, but it makes me feel better if someone knows how I ended up doing something so stupid. The easy thing is to laugh and make fun of the person who’s just made a fool of herself, but this is a case where it’s easier to find empathy because all you have to do is listen to the explination – you don’t have to use your imagination at all. But maybe it will expand you’re imagination for when you can’t get an explination.

  2. dstb

    My driving story from yesterday after reading your post: I drive down the street and a woman pulls out in front of me from a side street without really stopping at the stop sign or, it seemed to me, looking. There was plenty of room, so no big deal, but I really wondered whether she had looked. I am behind her at the next stop sign, we are both turning right onto a narrow “country” road. She goes, I stop, look to my left and turn right and almost run into the back of her. She has stopped and sort of pulled to the side of the road. There are no shoulders, so you really can’t pull off. She appears to be looking for something on the passenger seat and then behind it. Apparently no clue that anyone is behind her. She starts driving again, still poking around for something. I follow her to the center of town and then we part ways. I was headed first to the gas station. I started musing about your post and how I should view her driving when I realize I was lost in my own thoughts and driving past the gas station! Duh! No, I didn’t swerve in at the last second. I continued to the bank next door and used the driveway between the bank and the gas station to get to the correct destination. So, even without a cell phone, I can be a distracted driver!

    Driving with a new driver also makes me see how I judge others. Learning drivers tend to follow the rules to the letter, much to the consternation of other drivers. Did you know that you are supposed to pull up to the stop line, or stop sign (whichever comes first) even if you can not see what you need to, stop for 3 seconds !!! and then inch forward until you can actually see? Did you know that the speed limit is not a suggestion? Now, when I am stuck behind someone going oh, so slow, I try to imagine that it is a new driver. I don’t want people getting testy with my new driver, and I don’t want my new driver disobeying the laws.

    1. thduggie Post author

      Kudos for taking your lumps and driving a detour! One of my least favorite requests is “Please pull over as soon as you can.” It means I either have to creep along the main road for an unknown amount of time, or swerve off the main road without adequately braking. However, if I don’t pull off, the result is even less preferable…

  3. joyful

    I read somwhere that most people consider themselves above-average drivers. I get distracted easily, and can be pretty clueless about my surroundings. I can barely put a CD in without danger of missing something important.

    1. thduggie Post author

      I think many people just aren’t as aware as you are of their distractability. (Though certainly practice can improve your CD changing abilities.)
      Your comment reminds me of a course at work with our Occupational Health and Safety guy. He mentioned how people feel the risk is greater the less control they have, which is why everyone underestimates the risk in driving a car and overestimates the risks associated with flying or operating a nuclear power plant. It’s also why there are much stricter requirements for the latter.


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