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Construction zones bring out worst in drivers

Melissa Preddy
Car Culture

A recent commute at rush hour prompted me to ponder the psychology of tailgating. And when better but at the peak of construction season, when some of us spend many an hour corralled between ranks of orange barrels as far as the eye can see.

What exactly do those pushy people behind us think they are accomplishing by crawling up our bumpers?

The phenomenon is particularly annoying if you drive a smaller, more vulnerable auto, as do I. Surely those bigger rigs — I’m especially looking at you, F150s, Escalades, delivery trucks and your brethren — can see over my roof and perceive that I am not driving 15 mph just to annoy them. One would think the 50 or 100 cars in front of me, also creeping along at a walking pace, would be a clue that all the pressure in the world won’t cut their commute.

Last week, in a very well-publicized, well-marked construction zone, some dude in a black Dodge Ram was actually flashing his lights and revving within inches of my compact car’s rear bumper. He was the kind of guy who pilots by draping his wrist over the center of the steering wheel, letting his fingers droop limply. Great technique for handling the unexpected in stop-and-go traffic, eh?

Huffing and puffing and making — judging by his disgusted facial expressions — snide remarks to his passenger about the slowpokes ahead, he seemed oblivious to the realities of the roadway. Common sense would decree that when you travel a major construction area at 7:45 a.m. on a Monday, expect some delays.

What is going on in the minds of people who can’t stand to see a gap without wanting to fill it up?

They’re hacks with no clue about how to drive properly, but that is little consolation. I took a photo once of a giant tractor-trailer crawling inches behind me and the driver unexpectedly leapt out and barged up to my car, hollering threats and bad names. He didn’t like the fact that — in an active construction zone with workers present, where the prevailing speed was literally 5 mph — I was allowing five or six car lengths between my front bumper and the vehicle ahead. We had miles to go before there was even an exit from the freeway. It’s not as if my allowing a margin of safety was holding him up, but this “professional” was deranged at the notion of leaving a few feet between cars.

“When people are frustrated in dense traffic or gridlock at construction sites, they regress to irrational actions and non-adaptive attitudes,” said Leon James, a psychologist and faculty member at the University of Hawaii. James studies driver behavior professionally and co-authored the book “Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare.”

“Motorists are so internally incensed that they are incapable of controlling themselves when provoked,” he said, chastising me for taking the trucker’s photo, which he said was a risky act. “A gap of more than two or three car lengths becomes to them a provocation. So by being strictly safe you are provoking them. That’s the irrational logic under unstable mental states.”

James said that in surveys he has conducted people in general seem to feel that tailgating is “justified” in many scenarios, as when a slowpoke motorist is hogging the freeway’s left lane.

That’s probably why rear-end crashes are the most common form of vehicle-to-vehicle contact in Michigan, with some 78,307 reported in 2015, according to statistics from the Michigan State Police. (Single-car crashes are the most common type of accident, with 99,791 reported in 2015.)

The state police motoring tips note that “not being able to stop within an assured clear distance” is a violation of traffic laws, and suggests allowing at least a two-second gap by day, increasing to three or four seconds at night and in bad weather. That sounds reasonable, even on the skimpy side, to me. (To gauge the gap, note as the car ahead of you passes a stationery object such as a traffic sign, bridge or tree — count off the seconds as “one thousand, two thousand ...” etc. until your car passes the same place.)

My day-to-day objection to tailgating is that it’s rude and nerve-racking, and unnecessarily puts others at risk of a pricey and inconvenient car repair. But in 2015, 66 people also died due to rear-end collisions, in Michigan alone, and nearly 16,000 were injured. Isn’t that a good enough reason to back off?

We can hope, but James said driving by its nature tends to bring out the worst in us.

“People tend to behave differently depending on the social context of the situation or event. Driving is dangerous and unpredictable, so stress is higher and competition is strong,” he said. “The whole culture of driving is immersed in competitive and inconsiderate habits, attitudes, practices. Tailgating is just one of several involved.”

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