[APAK logo] Issue #69, November 1st, 1996

Dr. Fandom shifts on the fly
by Ted White

Writing -- last issue -- about "aggressive driving" made me think about some associated phenomena.

This is a topic that can excite a certain amount of passion, particularly once you see where it is going, so I want to put a disclaimer up front: These are thoughts, feelings, and to some extent assumptions, but not hard-and-fast rules, and I hesitate to generalize beyond myself. But . . . .

Among drivers, it is my experience that the specific phenomenon I am about to describe is one known more or better to men than to women; but I can't say it is known only to men. It may be that the range of people with whom I've discussed this is too narrow -- too small a sample, if you will. I don't want to get into gender biases here, but my suspicion is that this is a brain hard-wiring thing, something determined by gender hormones before birth. But that's only a theory, and not one to which I am strongly wedded. That said, let's get on to it.

When I drive a car -- any car -- I operate largely on "instinct." By which I mean that I've internalized as reflexes most of the driving skills I've acquired. This means that in emergency situations I do not pause to think and consider the best course of action; I simply react immediately.

But my "instincts" go well beyond the internalization of acquired skills. Some are innate, and have been with me since birth, coming into play only when I started driving.

The first of these "instincts" of which I became aware (as a teenager) has to do with the perception of speed-rate and distance changes. Imagine you are driving down a highway which has only one lane in each direction. You are cruising along at, say, 45 or 50 mph when a car pulls out of a side road maybe a quarter mile ahead, turning into your lane. My mother (who taught me to drive) would immediately slow until she saw that the car ahead had gotten up to speed, at which time she would resume her speed. But I didn't do that. I watched the car pull out ahead, watched it pick up speed, and adjusted my speed only so that I wouldn't overrun it.

"You're going to hit that car!" my mother would exclaim.

"No I'm not!" I'd reply in exasperation. "By the time I get to him, he'll have speeded up and won't be there any longer." My mother treated it as a static situation; I saw it as a dynamic situation, continually changing.

In more recent situations, I've been waiting for a break in traffic so I could make a left turn (in Britain, the equivalent would be a right turn), and when I saw a suitable break, I'd make my turn. And my wife would blanch, clutch the door handle, and mutter, "You're trying to kill me!"

I'd snort and insist that I had "plenty of room" to turn in front of the oncoming car. Which I obviously did -- I've never been involved in an accident under such circumstances. But where I saw an opportunity she did not. (We'll ignore the fact that most drivers will slow down when someone turns in front of them; we'll presume that the oncoming car will maintain its speed even after I've turned in front of it.) It's a matter of perception. I could gauge the speed of the oncoming car, the distance it was from me, and know exactly whether I should turn in front of it or wait.

Thinking about this, I realized that I possessed a "sense" lacking in my mother and my wife. While they had to consciously consider what has going on, I had an immediate "feel" for it. I knew without thinking what I could and should do.

Carrying this to the next step, I realized that I often "feel" the road conditions in which I am driving. Since I drive around 100 miles a day on weekdays, I have plenty of opportunity to do this and, since I became conscious of it, to observe it happening.

I'm driving on an Interstate highway at or above the speed limit (absurdly set 40 mph below the speeds for which the highway was engineered), cruising along a quarter mile behind the car ahead in my lane. If that car slows or speeds up, I experience it first as a visceral feeling. If the car speeds up, it's like the relief of a pressure. If it slows, the "pressure" increases until I slow my car to match the other's pace.

It is a sense not only of change, but of the rate of change occurring. It is more basic than acquired driving skills. I believe I was born with it. And I believe it is why I enjoy driving as much as I do. It is in some inextricable way akin to the basic senses employed in athletic sports and activities, derived in some manner from basic body-awareness -- with the car an exoskeletal extension of my body.

It occurs to me as I write this that I first experienced this "sense" when I was a very new driver and still learning the peripheries of my car. If I came closer on the right to something (like a parked car) than I wanted to, I felt it in my right leg -- a sensation almost as if I had thrust my leg out to the right of the car and expected momentarily for it to be hit or broken off . . . as if I was riding a bike, say.

I have discussed this with a variety of people. No woman with whom I have discussed it has ever felt it. Some men have. But, as I said earlier, I haven't really discussed it with very many folks; this discussion here is the first with a group this large -- and I'm curious to know what the rest of you think about it.

In the meantime, I've talked about it with Lynda, and I don't make turns I know to be safe, but which scare her, when she's in the car. I am not, after all, trying to give her a heart attack.

Mrs. Smith finds skull of a young woman wrapped in paper. Reverend Smith buries it in the churchyard.

[APAK logo] Issue #69, November 1st, 1996

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