This past weekend I went on a short 1300-mile road trip with two of my friends. One of my friends had a college visit at the University of Southern Carolina scheduled on Friday afternoon. The plan was to leave at 7 pm on Thursday, drive through the night, arriving at 5 am. We would sleep for ~6 hours at a hotel, Shane would go to his visit, and then we would drive back to PA. Estimated travel time from Center Valley PA to Columbia SC was about 9 hours. We took my car, and I ended up doing all the driving.
By the time we got back to PA at 3am Saturday morning, we had covered 1300 miles, 9 state lines, and I had spent 21 of the past 48 hours driving. We had burned through almost 100 gallons of gas, almost 400 songs, and I’d consumed 13 cups of coffee. This was the longest I had ever spent behind the wheel of a car. I regularly make relativity long drives, 1 hour from school to home, 2 hours from home to NYC, 2 hours from school to Philly, 3 hours from home to the beach, 4 hours from home to Albany. I’ve even made a few trips to Connecticut and Massachusetts for work, but 2 back to back 10 hour drives was more then I’d ever done before.
20 hours behind the wheel of a car driving on interstates gave me a lot of time to think. While driving especially towards the end of both of the drives, I began to consider how adept yet awful people are at driving. According the NHTSA in 2013, 32,719 people died in motor vehicle collisions, and motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death for every age group from 3 to 34. Humanity has shown that we are terrible at operating motor vehicles. My own driving habits show this. When I’m driving long distances, I drive one of two ways: with the cruise control on, or with the cruise control off. Regardless of which I’m using, I have little “games” that I play while driving, which while they keep me fully engaged in the act of driving, I fully admit are not the safest way to drive. With the cruise control off, I keep myself engaged by continuously moving up and passing vehicles in front of me. Not to say I’m speed racer doing 95 in the left lane, I’ll often pass the person in front of me over the course of 15 minutes by going 1-2 mph faster than they are. With the cruise control on, I do the opposite, I keep myself engaged by trying to go as long as possible without altering my speed. I switch lanes to allow people moving faster than I am pass, or to allow people to pass who going slower than I am, but I try to avoid altering my speed, for no better reason than it’s something to do.
Neither of these are the optimal way to drive. The best way to drive would be to drive in the right lane, going to speed limit. However, I need these little games to keep me fully focused on the act of driving. My driving is goal orientated, “Im going to pass this guy in the left lane”, “Im going to get around this truck”, “Im going to drive another 30 miles before I stop for food”, “Im going to wait until I get to mile marker x to open my bag of chips”. I always need a short to midterm goal to focus on, and that fact alone makes me, and all people incredibly poor drivers. My singular focus while driving should be getting to my destination safely, but it’s not, I should never drive when Im tired, hungry, etc, but I do, I should always go the speed limit but I don’t, I shouldn’t get mad when someone else on the road is driving exceeding slow, fast, or generally not paying attention, but I do. A computer driving my vehicle would only focus on driving safely, avoiding wreaks with other vehicles, and navigating to its destination. Computers would not lose focus and start thinking about it has due next week, a computer would not dose off, a computer would not be thinking about what kind of food it wants to get.
That being said, it is frankly amazing that we humans are as good at driving as we are. Despite everything I talked about above, I’ve been driving since I was 17, put over 30,000 miles on my car in the last 2 years, and I’ve been in one motor vehicle collision since I began driving, a fender bender on a local road. When you think about what I actually did this weekend, it is astounding that driving is as safe as it is. I navigated a 4,000 lb metal enclosure at 70 mph for 20 hours across 6 states. I did this by keeping my piece of metal in between two lines with less than 1 foot on each side, while avoiding thousands of other people one the road. It amazes me that this system works as well as it does. If we were to propose the system we have today to someone living in the 1880’s, it would sound like a death trap.
I’ve spend the majority of my life driving in Central Jersey/ the NYC Metro-area, places known for their aggressive driving. Around my home driving often seems like a competition with everyone else on the road, given the general unwillingness by drivers to do things like let others merge, move out of the way for fast moving vehicles, use turn signals, etc. I think this attitude is largely a product of the way NJ is structured. NJ has a very high population density, and being communing distance from Manhattan, during 7-9 am and 4-6 pm, it is very difficult to get anywhere. Where I grew up in Jersey is right around the intersection of almost every major highway in Central Jersey, Rt.s 78, 22, 287, 24, 95, as well as the Garden State Parkway and the Turnpike. Traffic patterns are a mess, and constantly changing. Once you get past my town and closer to Manhattan, if you miss one off ramp you just added 45 minutes to your commute. It is these crowed highway systems that lead to the driving style found in this area of the country.
Having grown up driving on roads where you have to constantly be on the look out for guys in sports cars weaving in an out of traffic, as well as being fully willing to force your way on to an off ramp, giving other drivers the “You can let me merge, or you can hit my car, your choice” look, driving below the Mason/ Dixon was refreshing. The other drivers on the road in the south were almost suspiciously courteous, driving on 81 through Charlotte NC during rush hour I was cut off twice, to put that in perspective, making my 25 minute commute on Rt. 78 and the GSP I can expect to be cut off 4-5 times. I was amazed by the level of cooperation between drivers. When I needed to switch lanes, I put my blinker on and almost immediately, a space would open for me to merge into. The cooperation between normal drivers and truckers I also found interesting. In Jersey, trucks are regarded typically as annoyances to be passed as soon as possible, and if a truck is trying to merge into your lane, you should make sure you get past them and let someone behind you let them in. Driving down 81 however, drivers worked with truckers to make driving an easy experience for all. When a truck would want to switch lanes, the car behind them would slow down to make room for the truck. When there was enough space for the truck to fit, the car would flash its brights, the truck would move over and flash it’s brake lights as a thanks. First time I saw this I thought it was a coincidence, the second time I thought it was just a particularly nice driver. By the fourth and fifth time, I finally decided that was just a thing people do down there.