Counterblast: e-Journal of Culture and Communication, v.1, n.1 (November 2001) Copyright © 1999, Read Mercer Schuchardt, all rights reserved
Understanding Road Rage
New York University
It was in the August ’98 issue of Atlantic Monthly that journalist Michael Fumento took on the phenomenon known as “road rage.” Fumento believes, with substantial evidence backing his claim, that in fact, there is no such thing. Fumento shows that the term was coined in 1988, that it appeared in up to three stories a year up until 1994, when it received 27 mentions, and then spread from there. In 1995 “road rage” appeared almost 500 times. In 1996 the phrase appeared over 1,800 times. In 1997, there were over 4,000 usages of the term in the popular media, according to Fumento’s Nexis media database searches. From 1988 to 1994, apparently, only about three people a year were acting aggressively on the highway. But once 1994 hit, all of a sudden it was a fad, then a trend, then a true epidemic of crazy car behavior.
Scary headlines abounded, like: “An Epidemic of Aggressive Driving” and “Road Rage: We’re Driven to Destruction.” Unfazed by this, Fumento did something rare these days to see if he could counteract the persuasive pull of the Nexis database numbers. He checked the facts. If, he reasoned, road rage really is on the rise, then police departments all across the country will have records of it, since these incidents would qualify as reportable crimes, highway accidents, deaths, etc, involving a car and driver and perhaps other passengers. Fumento states that, contrary to the scintillating headlines,
there was not—there is not—the least statistical or other scientific evidence of more-aggressive driving on our nation’s roads. Indeed, accident, fatality and injury rates have been edging down. There is no evidence that “road rage” or an aggressive-driving epidemic is anything but a media invention, inspired primarily by something as simple as a powerful alliteration: road rage. The term was presumably based on “roid rage,” referring to sudden violent activity by people on steroids.
Thus Fumento, a self-described science myth debunker, dispels the myth of road rage by applying the same successful formula that works in nearly all of his stories: arrive at the scene of a media-reported crime and look for dead bodies. If there are no bodies, then declare that there can be no crime. From the Alar apple scare to asbestos causing cancer to the Erin Brockovich story, Fumento’s evidence says bluntly, “I don’t think so.” At first blush, Fumento’s notion that the semantic alliteration to “roid rage” is the source of the term “road rage” is quite compelling, but that hardly solves the puzzle, because it cuts off the inquiry just above the etymological root. The shallowness of his inquiry is so unsatisfying because, let’s face it, you know and I know, clear as the day we were born, that road rage is very real. It may not be statistically real, but it is definitely emotionally, psychologically, and experientially real. We’ve almost all experienced it: You’re in the car. The driver in front of you cuts you off, forcing you to jam on your brakes. You honk your horn to warn him of his proximity. He gives you the finger. Now you’re pissed. You flip him off in return. But he’s even madder, and gets out of his vehicle. You lock your door, keep your window rolled up and hope he doesn’t have a gun. After he shouts a few obscenities at you but fails to produce a firearm (for which your window is only theoretical protection anyway), you open your door and say, “Hi, I’m a criminal prosecutor, and my wife is the judge in this county. Do you really want to have this conversation?” He walks away, shamed, embarrassed, and publicly humiliated. . . . (Wouldn’t that be great?)
Okay, so the above example is hypothetical, but everyone, to some degree or another, has an implicit understanding of what “road rage” means either because they’ve been enraged while driving, they’ve witnessed someone else who has, or they’ve heard fantastic first-person stories from someone they trust, someone who doesn’t make up these kinds of stories. I have yet to meet anyone of driving age who does not have an essential idea of what road rage is. And I would bet, as a matter of course, that Michael Fumento also has some idea what it is. He denies its existence because that very denial is essential to his argument. It may also be because Fumento takes the train to work every day instead of driving, as he told me recently in e-mail.
So if Fumento’s drive-by sociology on road rage doesn’t ring true, then what exactly did he miss? Fumento was unable to answer his own inquiry because he only looked at the medium and the message, which, to his credit, is more of the story than you get from most journalists. He finds a message in the media that is refuted by the message in police records, and then declares that police records trump the validity of any TV or paper reports; case closed. But a media myth is a two-way street, and while the press can generate a fantasy overnight, they can’t believably sustain that fantasy unless it resonates with the viewing audience. If we didn’t believe that road rage was real, we’d simply switch channels, ratings would go down, advertisers would flee, and the story would be dropped by the next news cycle. Instead, road rage has had a solid ten year run. Were Fumento trained in media ecology, he would have seen beyond medium and message to that third axis to triangulate, focus on, and flush his quarry. It was the lack of this third axis that disabled Fumento from even clearly defining road rage, much less explaining what it means.
I’ll get to the third axis in a moment, but first let’s rewind a bit and ask the question that Fumento would have asked if he’d been thinking like a media ecologist and looking beyond the obvious facts of body counts and police records and into the more nuanced realm of the psyche: If, a hundred years ago, we had roads, cars, and anger, why didn’t we have road rage back then? Or what about since then, during any of our previous cultural crises—like the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, or New Coke? Each of these was a critical cultural moment during which a great number of people had good reason to be very, very angry. But instead, when they drove, they by and large obeyed the rules of the road while following some minimum standard of social etiquette. And, just for the sake of making this point extremely obvious, there was never an epic proportion of horse-and-buggy-rage. The Amish don’t experience road rage. Neither do the Hell’s Angels, though they presumably have a lot on their minds to be mad about, like the fact that Tom Wolfe doesn’t serve as their PR man anymore. Well, good questions have subtle answers. And in finding the answers to the questions that road rage raises, I think we also find a very compelling argument for why the world needs more of what media ecologists do.
Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you what I think road rage is: Road rage is an inevitable, albeit unintended, consequence of the Internet. Without the Internet, there would be no such thing as road rage. The undeniable reality of this seemingly random connection becomes screamingly obvious when you compare the two otherwise dissimilar media of cars and computers. As mediums and messages, they are quite different. But when you look at their conditions of attendance, then the parallels jump out at you and it all begins to make sense.
It was the then ultra-hip but now-defunct SPY magazine, who hinted at this connection by claiming that “the computer is the car of the nineties.” Their analogy went something like this:
Spy’s car/computer joke points us to the larger truth of McLuhan’s statement about switching between mechanical (the car) and electronic (the computer) forms of media.
In the case of using a computer, the conditions of attendance are these: The users are normally in a seated position, in a climate-controlled environment, with their hands free to manipulate the mouse and keyboard, so that they can change the reality they see through a glass screen on the monitor in front of them. Thanks to multimedia, the users can be manipulating visual reality while listening to music play on the machine’s CD player, so they can have aural relief from their visual monotony. The comparisons and contrasts look like this:
Conditions of Attendance
The car, you recall, is a medium of transportation. The message it delivers is you—“a misguided missile,” right to the front door. As a medium, it follows McLuhan’s dictum of extending our senses by multiplying the power of the foot. Where once you could walk (between two and six mph) to get somewhere, now you can drive (up to seventy-five mph in some states) not by running really fast, but by sitting still and pressing your now useless foot onto the gas pedal. You cover the same distance in a fraction of the time, unless you’re taking the Holland Tunnel, in which case I recommend swimming as the fastest route. According to McLuhan, the whole anxiety of technological man is that he is constantly switching between the mechanical and the electronic worlds. Robert Pirsig made the connection between electronic media and automobiles in his 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He writes, “In a car, you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.” But a multimedia computer is, unlike television, an active medium and, as such, it creates an appetite for speed: thus Bill Gates’s operating system that goes by the metaphor of “Windows”—the idea being that if you don’t like what’s happening in one window you can simply open up another, switching between windows ad infinitum. Database crunching numbers too slowly? Open up Word and compose a memo. Got writer’s block? Go surf the web for help on composing memos. And as everyone knows, most of the web’s metaphors are also automotive metaphors, which is why we call it the information superhighway.
So there you are, after spending eight hours acclimating your psyche to move in and out of virtual realities at light speed, you now are trying to drive home, and suddenly there’s a traffic jam. You’re stuck in your car, with only one window, and it won’t disappear no matter how much you reach for the mouse, which, in the car, is your horn. So you reach for the next best thing, the radio. If that doesn’t work, you reach for food, or a cell phone, or something, anything, to distract yourself from the extreme anxiety of unconsciously transferring your psyche from the electronic world to the mechanical world, and the anxiety mounts to such a fever pitch that you find yourself screaming, swearing, or, in the worst case scenario, reaching for the ultimate remote control, the handgun. A man in Philadelphia shot a woman in the car next to his for no other reason than that she didn’t accelerate fast enough when the light turned green. When he explained it to the police, he seemed surprised that they were upset with him. “But she wouldn’t go!” was what he said. Thus, we see in the comparison that the anxiety McLuhan described is experienced nowhere more directly than on the highway after a day spent at the office in front of the computer. When you spend eight to ten hours a day driving the information superhighway on a computer, you are unconsciously but automatically also training your psyche to become used to this rate of reality “when,” as McLuhan puts it, “information moves at the speed of signals in the central nervous system [. . .].”
In the computer-replacing-car world, consider the following strange, ironic, unintended but psychically unavoidable coincidences: Where Nissan has a car called the Pathfinder, Time-Warner has a website called Pathfinder. Where Ford has an SUV called the Explorer, Microsoft has a browser called Explorer. Where Lincoln has an SUV called the Navigator, Netscape has a browser called Navigator. The irony in these comparisons is not that one is real and one is not, but that the unreal one has made the other’s realness obsolete. Which is why, according to Harper’s Index, 86% of off-road vehicles have never been off-road. Or consider the electronic highway signs around Atlanta, Georgia’s perimeter, that indicate proximity to your destination with readouts like, “Approximate time to Exit 88: 5-7 minutes.” These electronic readouts from the highway signs are directly analogous to the web’s pop-up windows that let you know the kilobyte transfer rate and expected duration for completion of a download. The signs, in other words, actually encourage you to think of yourself and your car as a chunk of data in the process of being downloaded to your home.
And when we look back at Fumento’s dates of appearance of the term “road rage,” we see a historical parallel in that 1988 through 1997 were, in precise fact, the exact dates of the Internet’s rise to ubiquity in the daily lives of most Americans. Nineteen eighty-eight was the year that most office workers began to use computers instead of IBM Selectrics. Nineteen ninety-four was the year the Internet was first heralded as “the future of communications.” And 1997, according to Jupiter Communications, was the year that the Internet truly became a “mass medium,” meaning that it was the year that more than 50% of Americans had daily access and use of the Internet either at home or at work. Other studies have shown how Internet usage has also eaten into the standard five hours of daily TV viewing that Americans partook of prior to this new medium. Finally, as the icing on the cake, it was in 1997 that the Oxford English Dictionary accepted the term “road rage” as a neologism.
Thus, road rage is very real, despite Fumento’s arguments to the contrary, and despite his useful explanation of its etymological origin. Road rage is the incredibly unbearable frustration of being unable to successfully make the switch from the electronic to the mechanical universe while driving. It happens outside the car all the time, under different names. ADD, Going Postal, and a host of other modern phenomena will undoubtedly one day be linked to this inability of the human species to click from “reality” to “simulated reality” seamlessly without any psychic scars. Road rage is the intense anger you feel at not being able to click out of the traffic jam you’re stuck in. Without knowing why you’re so angry, you feel trapped in your car, claustrophobic, and anything—including violence—is better than suffocating under those conditions of attendance. Now notice what a gun actually is: it’s a live-action remote control—you use it to switch people to other channels, or rather, to get them off the one you’re on. Seen another way, the gun is a live action mouse—you just point and click, and boom, a new reality appears through the monitor screen of your windshield. To me, the truly amazing news about road rage is that so little violence has actually happened, as Fumento documents. I have friends and students who have told me that when they come to a traffic jam, they will deliberately take the nearest exit and drive in the opposite direction just so they can keep driving, even though it takes them further from their destination.
But what happens when “information moves at the speed of signals in the central nervous system [. . .]” according to McLuhan, is that “man is confronted with the obsolescence of all earlier forms of acceleration, such as road and rail.” McLuhan was right in predicting that, like the horse that made a comeback in entertainment once it had lost its primary role as a vehicle, so too the future of the car lies not in transportation but elsewhere. Witness the ads, taglines, and names of automobiles since the arrival of the Internet, persuading you to use a car “not for the destination, but the trip,” as a status symbol, as a therapeutic escape, as a sex symbol, as a toy, as a tool, as a weapon, as anything but a car itself. The car as psychic compensation for an Internet-sedated lifestyle is evidenced in the words “sport utility vehicle”—the term designated for cars driven by those least likely to have participated in any sport in the last fifteen years. The utility of these vehicles is in their ability to carry a ton of shit and let you plug in all your electronic gadgets to the otherwise-culturally-useless cigarette lighter that still comes as standard equipment.
Now the Internet fuels road rage in another way. By making the automobile almost completely unnecessary, the Internet has helped redefine the automobile industry in several interesting ways. The most notable of these has been to make the very car you drive more and more like a computer, and much less like a mechanical object. From the silence of the interior to the increased level of hand control driving (in which pedals are largely irrelevant thanks to better cruise controls) to the availability of car phones, CD-players, VCRs, GPS navigational systems, and now e-mail/Internet connections on your dashboard, the conditions of attendance for the modern automobile are being engineered to convince you that you never left the office. These electronic enhancements temporarily solve the problems associated with road rage while silently magnifying the larger problem of reality rage. Under mechanical conditions of attendance, the electronically attuned drivers will be able to sublimate their frustration by ignoring the traffic jam and jacking into their music, their cell phone, their alternate route home via global positioning satellite. But in doing so they’re more likely to have a crash, as evidenced by the effect cell phones have had on traffic accidents. Now interestingly, just as the computer is the car of the technological society, so, too, the cell phone has replaced the cigarette. As media and messages they bear little in common. But again, looking at the conditions of attendance, you see that they both are satisfiers of oral cravings, both require a hand to mouth language of gestures, both cost about ten cents a minute, both arguably cause cancer, and both are unacceptable in restaurants—a social medium—because they are both essentially anti-social activities. New York’s Harvard Club has little signs outlawing only two things to members inside its building: cell phones and cigarettes. Now these are not just idle or funny points of comparison; they reveal a real problem that requires a real solution. Clearly, the need is for the mechanical world and the electronic world to be somehow seamlessly fused so that the user can operate successfully in both worlds without doing damage either to his physical or mental world.
My prediction is that the next big thing in automobile design will be the Heads-Up Display, or HUD, which military pilots have been accustomed to for years now. In the HUD, the pilot of the mechanical plane gets to operate through a glass screen in his windshield that he can see through, and yet onto which are computer drawn lines projected from a terminal below the level of the windscreen. By a technology that combines the visual representation of both actual and virtual reality, the pilot can target his enemies and launch his missiles as though he were playing a video game that is flying through the air. In the death-dealing business of war (the purpose of which is to kill people and break things), this technology serves a dual purpose of making it not only easier to operate a mechanico-electronic airplane, but it actually makes it easier to kill real humans by reducing them to pixelated icons on a computer monitor. That today’s soccer moms watching the speedometer in their urban assault vehicles could use the same technology is something the folks at GE could suggest to the folks at GM. The likelihood of this happening is something that media ecological author Neal Stephenson has already suggested in his 1992 science-fiction novel, Snow Crash. Already anticipating the military/civilian marriage that the merging of the mechanical and electronic worlds will require, the after-market automotive industry has created a cigarette-lighter plug-in joystick built to the standard of the F-16, which allows drivers to mentally blast, blow-up, and annihilate their traffic enemies via imaginary missiles that launch real explosive sounds through the car’s stereo system. The metaphor behind this solution is obvious: road rage can be sublimated through imaginary violence, forestalling the necessity of real violence.
While McLuhan was right about the primary uses the car would have in the technological society, he was wrong about the car’s obsolescence. Of course, McLuhan was never really wrong, but he does state, in 1964, that it will only be “a decade more, by which time the electronic successors to the car will be manifest.” In truth, I think McLuhan’s prediction only needs to be qualified by saying that the successor to the mechanical car has been the electronic car, completely reinvented as a fashion accessory—as such physically unnecessary but psychically indispensable. As McLuhan noted, the car is really a form of clothing, and both cars and computers have been marketed as fashion items in the last decade like never before. Macintosh’s “Think Different” campaign paved the way for Dodge Motor’s “Different” campaign, and the truth is that both cars and computers, while technically and physically manufacturable under the category of durable goods, have been manufactured to become both technologically and fashionably obsolete within three years, which is why both are heavily marketed with lease options that put you under no obligation to actually bear the psychic burden of owning such a predetermined signifier of your cultural obsolescence—should you hold onto either item beyond the warranty’s expiration, which is also usually three years. (I drive a 1963 Pontiac, one of the last truly mechanical cars on the road. It has survived 36 years of driving, and with any luck, it will survive the next 36 years. I also commute in a company vehicle that is a 1998 Chevy Suburban, tricked out with more electronic entertainment gadgetry than my own living room: I don’t own a TV, but my company’s Suburban has a CD, a radio, a tape deck, a TV, and a VCR all built into the center dash console. Now for movie nights, I can take my family out to sit in the parking lot. We don’t even have to go anywhere.)
And this is precisely the solution and the problem that the Internet has created. The test of the Internet as an effective mass medium is this: order ice cream online and see if it gets to your mouth before it melts. Bingo, you’re in the Twenty-First Century. Similar to the psychic claustrophobia an electronic citizen will feel when stuck behind the wheel of a slow-moving mechanical vehicle, so too the Internet, after enough exposure, creates a sort of physical claustrophobia in which the user simply has to get up and go somewhere, anywhere! Microsoft’s awareness of this dual impossibility is implicit in its tagline “Where do you want to go today?” and is conversely recognizable in the number of car advertisements touting the ability to “just drive” or the desirability of owning a car for the sake of “the trip, not the destination.” The result has been that in 1998, for the first time in the history of the planet, the number of registered cars (i.e., legally drivable cars) exceeded the number of licensed drivers in America. Remember that all cars can carry two people, and most cars can carry four. That there are now more cars than people who can drive says something tremendously significant about the future of road rage, as the congestion of the highways will undoubtedly increase, as more and more drivers transform themselves into lonely but mobilized monitor watchers, playing a live-action first-person shooter game at fifty-five miles per hour.
So how about answering those questions at the beginning? The Amish don’t experience road rage not only because they drive horse-drawn buggies at speeds that make traffic jams seem a normal rate of travel, but, more significantly, because they don’t spend the majority of their waking hours rewiring their neural networks to accept nothing less than lightspeed solutions to their daily problems. Hell’s Angels may or may not spend the majority of their day in front of a computer, but it wouldn’t matter because the conditions of motorcycle attendance force the reality of the road onto the driver in a way that a car simply can’t. The raw physical danger of high speed travel just inches above a concrete surface is made eminently manifest by the wind in their hair, the noise in their ears, and the temperature outside. This also explains why motorcycling purists are sometimes so adamant in refusing to wear helmets: it’s not safety they’re opposed to, it’s virtuality. The risk of death is, for them, preferable to the risk of being numbed to sleep by conditions of attendance that mimic electronic culture.
The origin and history of the context for cars and computers share some interesting common features, a brief discussion of which should help illuminate the strange trajectory we’ve placed ourselves on as a species. The national highway system, along with the people’s car, or “Volkswagen,” you recall, were two of Adolf Hitler’s ideas, and part of the reason he was so popularly elected by an economically downtrodden Germany. America saw the benefit of this and immediately mimicked Germany’s highway system after World War II and one of the little known facts about our Interstate system is that it is actually a network of military roads, leased to the citizens only during times of peace. But thanks to the atomic bomb, World War II left us with another problem, which was that of a swift nuclear strike that could eliminate all of our cities with the touch of a few buttons. Because the number one strategy in any war of aggression is to control the populace, this threat was deemed dire for interesting reasons. Since all of our national airwaves were generated out of a limited number of cities in top-down one-way mass mediums, it became imperative to create a communications network that could mobilize the massive number of Americans needed for resistance in the case of a nuclear attack. Thus Arpanet, the military and research institute computer network of two-way communications was invented, so that no matter which civilian centers were knocked out, communications could still travel all over the country by taking alternate routes on the multiple nodes on the network. Like the highway before it, the information superhighway saw little traffic as a military network, and thus Arpanet and subsequent systems were leased to the public, and from this the world wide web was born. Thus, the information superhighway is really a direct military descendant of the original vehicular highway which traces back to World War II. So in a very real sense, road rage is a phenomenon born of violence and will naturally lead to more violence, putting a new spin on the idea that those who live by the sword may die by the sword. In peacetime, we’ve beaten our swords into Plymouths, but the human toll of these electromechanical extensions still hovers around 40,000 highway deaths each year.
Now as we have entered the twenty-first century with computers and cars obsolescing the need for each other, we find a very curious twist on what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history.” At lightspeed, individually and collectively, the only things you can see when you turn on the lights are the things behind you. The cultural effect is that we have not built flying cars or mag-lev highways or any other Jetsons-inspired future transportation modes. Even GM jettisoned its electric EV-1 vehicle last year, because no one could get used to the idea of plugging their car into a wall socket every 86 miles. Rather, with no known enemies to rally around and all the technology in the world to amuse ourselves with, car culture seems to be reverting to a time when things were much simpler. Specifically, there are three automobile manufacturers so far who are now creating cars that are throwbacks to the good old days of World War II. The most obvious of these is the Volkswagen Beetle, newly stylized but clearly the inheritor of all the original Volkswagen’s best design features. Second is Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, whose styling hearkens back to a 1938 Chevy Tudor or a 1940s British Taxi, depending on who you ask. And finally there’s the new Jaguar S-type, a car whose sales literature honors the 1952 LeMans Racer and 1959 Mark VI Jaguar as its spiritual predecessors. These neo-retro cars suggest that the automobile industry has sensed our collective psychic mechanical/electronic inversion and said, “We have seen the future, and it sucks.” In a literal interpretation of McLuhan’s insight about technological progress, these new cars attempt to let us drive forward while looking through the rearview mirror. Even in those cars not actively seeking a retro look, you can sense the urgency and terror as manufacturers try to find a new metaphor to sell more and more of a no longer necessary product. If, as McLuhan pointed out, the car extended the foot, then what do the Ford Focus and Toyota Echo extend? These automotive eye and ear metaphors, when considered contextually, seem almost pathetic in their desperation.
Finally, and we’re on the last lap here, the history of road rage shows us a lot about the car and the computer as tetrads. The car originally extended the foot into the explosive power of the car. The car extended individual privacy but reverses into what McLuhan calls “the corporate privacy of traffic jams.” While the car has obsolesced the horse, the Internet has obsolesced the necessity of the car, while unintentionally multiplying its ubiquity. The car requires a network of roads to travel on and a predictable and routine system of gas stations to maintain itself, which, on a long enough cultural trajectory, results in a McDonald’s at every rest stop and all the rest of the monotonous monoculture that the highway helped create. Thus the car has reversed into a sort of lunatic’s escape vehicle, because there is nowhere outside the asylum that the car can take her or him anymore. Since the predictability of highway culture eliminates the purpose of travel, then the subsequent birth of the Internet is really just a manifestation of this fact. With no compelling reason to leave the home office, today’s driver is truly all messed up with nowhere to go. Thus the car in the twenty-first century has had no choice but to become a retro fashion accessory, dressing the driver up as a sort of time traveler. What is retrieved is not the wartime feeling of common cultural purposes, but a virtual simulacrum of these “good old days” by the signifying design of the car without the signified fact of the culture that originally gave birth to it. In a PT Cruiser, you can pretend that life is like it was when your parents were growing up, only better because now you’ve got cruise control. Like the Volkswagen Beetle, the PT Cruiser is one of those happy cars that makes people smile when they see it. And who would mind being stuck in a traffic jam in one of these vehicles—everybody staring at you, ogling your happy retro car? You wouldn’t feel enraged, you’d feel like the calm, warm center of the universe you haven’t experienced since early childhood. If you underestimate the power of these feelings, then ask your dealer why the PT Cruisers are so hard to come by, and why they’re selling for an average of 9,000 dollars above the sticker price.
Thank you, and drive safely.
Read Mercer Schuchardt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org