Alone in a sea of zombie drivers
INDIVIDUAL: One lonely commuter
GROUP SIZE: around 2,500 depending on traffic
NATURE OF GROUP: Other seemingly lonely commuters along the I-25 corridor between Denver
and Colorado Springs.
INCIDENCE OF SOCIOMETRY: Effecting change in American driving culture
-or- Alone in a sea of zombie drivers.
This report was originally published on a tri-fold display at
Sociometry Fair 2008 in Chicago. This vegan gutter punk is feeling it.
North then south, north then south, surrounded by so many people, yet very alone. This is my reality. I have a long commute, about an hour and 25 minutes one way during peak traffic hours, which is of course, when I need to travel. When I first began commuting this 75 mile stretch of highway, I was relaxed and enjoyed my “quiet time”, my time to reflect on deep subjects. But the longer I commuted the more I began relying on other forms of entertainment like radio talk shows, my ipod, bird watching. But, as with many things, doing things alone can get old, and sharing your experiences with others can make the experience that much more enjoyable.
With time, I came to the realization that I really was not alone. No. I was surrounded by people. Many times they were just tens of feet from me. But there was a problem. Not only were we separated from each other by the structure of the vehicles we occupied, but there was a certain inattention to the human aspect of each other. As I passed another person, I would not think of them as another person, but rather, a car. I understood that I was apart of a community, a culture, but that this community operates in near ignorance of the humanity of itself. It was rare to see communication within the community members, and when it did occur, it was not complex language, but was in the form of rudimentary light signals or the occasional hand gesture. Something needed to be done.
I began some intense research into the behavior of drivers as well as into the art of communication. In my research I found that The Transportation Research Institute, in Haifa, Israel, has determined that “Each driver is influenced by the collective behavior of other drivers. At the same time, each driver is also part of this collective, and thus influences others.” They also determined that “a small shift in the behavior of [a] few might be amplified or snowball to a much larger effect resulting in a changed traffic environment or a modified culture of driving.” Here I was hit with the feeling of grandeur. Here is the reason I have been made to commute. I was going to change the driving culture.
I started with advice from the manual by Don Gabor: How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends, the revised and updated version. I immediately applied the first of his techniques for nonverbal communication. -Smile- As I made my way north at 6:30 am, I smiled the biggest smile I could (no easy task at that time of day). I continued to smile for nearly 20 miles before I decided that I was not really effecting anyone because no one was looking at me. I determined it must be a visibility problem. I needed a sign. Here’s where I stumbled. There is something about a sign that encourages people to look at it. If I made a sign, people would probably look at it. That meant people would look at me. I was not very comfortable with this. I stalled with the excuse that I really didn’t know what to put on the sign. But in the end I resolved to step out of my comfortable anonymity and proudly display an “I’m Smiling” sign.
Attempt #1: 05/27/08: 6:30 am
I was not excited about my sign. It was not a sign that would make people look and say to themselves, “well, there is an extraordinary intelligent woman!” I felt more like it would be “Lovely, another whackjob on the road.” I failed to put up my sign.
Attempt#2: 05/28/08: 6:30 am
I had decided I was just fine being a wuss, and I didn’t even bring the sign with me. But, I felt guilty half way to Denver and started looking at all the people that seemed to hold this power over me, making me so self-conscious. Who were these people that put so much trepidation into my glorious plan of commuter culture change? Did I know them? Would they call someone and make fun of me? How would I even know and why did I care?
Attempt#3: 05/29/08: 6:30 am
Success. I pulled out of my driveway with the sign installed. I was a little anxious through my neighborhood and into my little section of town where people I know might spot me. But I settled down once I hit the interstate. It was more amusing than embarrassing. Right off the bat I was surprised how few people actually looked. I pulled into the left lane for optimal visibility. I saw people eyeing me suspiciously, or trying to act like nothing was different, like when you are looking at someone with food in their teeth. It was disappointing that no one smiled in return. It would seem that most commuters are not in a friendly mood first thing in the morning. I would try at a different time.
Attempt#4: 05/30/08: 11:00 am
I was heading north of Denver today and my car was loaded with luggage and various paraphernalia. The car was a little heavier and I was not in a hurry so I stayed in the middle lane, only occasionally using the left lane to pass. After passing a minivan being driven by a older woman and receiving a quick glance from her, I realized that other cars were not passing me. There were 10-12 cars stacked behind me in my lane and the right lane. I slowed down a bit to see if they would pass. The right lane crept up but just sat slightly behind me. After several more seconds the car furthest back in my lane pulled into the left lane and sped up. Normally a car would quickly overtake me and continue on. But this car slowed down next to me. I turned and looked with the biggest grin on my face. He was looking, but I couldn’t see his expression. I kept grinning. Finally he sped up and past me. After he past a few more followed suit, passing me very slowly. I continued to smile and other drivers continued to be very cautious when passing me. And still no one returned the smile. I understood that my sign was working opposite of its intended purpose. I was not being seen as a friendly driver. I was being seen as a possible threat that required either careful scrutiny, or complete disregard so as not to agitate me. But overall, most drivers did not acknowledge me at all. Perhaps they were just too oblivious to their surroundings to even notice. There were like a pack of zombie drivers. Lifeless and indifferent. Maybe I needed a bigger sign. Maybe I needed my sign to be more personal, something like “I’m smiling at you” or “It’s nice to drive I-25 with you.” Then again maybe my sign just needs a little more time. Maybe my fellow commuters are shy and just take a bit to warm up.