August 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Car Culture: Give dumb drivers a pass

One of summer’s greatest joys is the reduced volume of freeway traffic during morning and evening rush hours.

With Labor Day looming, however, the congestion will amp up and for at least some of us, so will tempers. From exasperation to frustration to full-blown road rage, emotions run high behind the wheel. We’re territorial, we’re stressed out and we’re in no mood for dithering and delays.

According to the 2014 AutoVantage “In the Driver’s Seat Road Rage Survey,” drivers actually report experiencing fewer unsafe motoring maneuvers compared to the responses in the roadside assistance firm’s 2009 survey on the same topic.

Nationwide, respondents (regular commuters over age 21) said they’re seeing 6 percent less tailgating, 5 percent fewer red-light runners and 6 percent fewer rude lane changers than five years ago.

Detroit, in fact, improved nine spots on the courtesy ranking, moving from the third worst to 12th worst — a “dramatic improvement” as AutoVantage noted.

Interestingly, though, as driver behavior gets safer, driver decorum has waned. Survey results show that horn honking, cursing and fist-waving all are up over 2009. Seems like we’re all still pretty angry behind the wheel.

Why is that? Steve Albrecht, a California workplace violence and anger management expert, said that multiple factors affect our attitudes en route. Crowded roads, aging infrastructure that leads to either pothole-ridden pavement or long construction zones mixed with a big dollop of work-life stress all add up to a tense commute.

“The problem seems to be getting much worse,” said Albrecht. “When have you ever seen people multi-tasking to the degree they do these days? And rush hours, which used to be maybe 4-6 p.m., now are 2:30-7:30.

“We all can get our buttons pushed and it flips a switch inside — and then we act out.”

I will admit to being less even-tempered than I’d like to be on the roadways, and that my headlight flasher gets a pretty good workout — though most people seem totally oblivious these days to that time-honored form of inter-car communication.

What gets me is not the overtly aggressive troublemakers — they’re easy enough to avoid by pulling over to the right lane or even taking a slight detour if a real maniac is on the loose. It’s the timid drivers who lock up the left lane by driving 61 mph abreast of a speed-limited semi-truck, stacking up dozens of faster drivers in a frustrating line behind them. It’s the non-stop chatterers who merrily tool along, out of step with prevailing traffic patterns, phones flattening their ears. It’s the GPS bots who change lanes or otherwise obey their Garmin, Tom-Tom or smartphone’s commands without applying common sense to the timing of lane changes, turns and braking.

They feel virtuous because they’re moving slowly and not breaking any laws — but they’re literally driving a lot of us insane with their inefficient maneuvers.

“There are a number of people whose skills are just not that good,” said Albrecht. “And they don’t realize the impact they are having on others.”

And they’re unlikely to realize the error of their ways no matter how many times they’re honked at, cursed or on the receiving end of angry gestures, he said.

“You can’t control other people,” he said. “They are not targeting you personally, so stop caring about what everybody else is doing. And if you’re still talking about those bad drivers by lunchtime, you have a problem. You’ve let it ruin your day, and the other driver has won.”

Albrecht publishes a downloadable stress-management protocol on his website, DrSteveAlbrecht.com, using the acronym B.R.E.A.D.S — it offers practical tips under headings like “breathing,” “relaxation,” “exercise” and so on. He also recommends distracting yourself with music, books on tape or other calming input while driving. And if you have a tendency to make adversarial eye contact with other motorists, invest in tinted windows.

“Get there safe and get there happy — that, after all, is your goal,” he said.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com.