By DOUG FIRBY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, March 9, 2018
The day that Wendy Mencel saw a man jump out of his car and start screaming at another driver at a traffic stop, she realized that something ugly is happening on our roads.
Mencel is co-owner of the Canadian School of Protocol and Etiquette in London, Ont. Instructors there teach people how to be better citizens through proper etiquette and considerate behaviour. It's not something she sees much of on the road.
"I was just shocked," she says of the raging driver at the stop.
Fewer and fewer of us, however, are surprised by such behaviour, especially in the traffic-choked GTA where constant congestion, speeding, abrupt lane changes, honking and one-figure salutes have become de rigueur. One recent poll found that one in three Canadians are victims of road rudeness every month.
Roadside civility as we once knew it is under siege. In its place is a country of mean-spirited, caffeine-infused fourwheeled brawlers. From Toronto's Don Valley "parking lot" to Vancouver's gridlocked Hastings Street, we jockey for position at rush hour much like NFL players clashing at the snap - dashing into the smallest of openings in the next lane and then accelerating and slamming on our brakes to ensure others are unable to do what we just did.
"When you're not keeping enough space, that's when aggression starts to grow," says Angelo DiCicco, general manager of the GTA division of Young Drivers of Canada and director of operations at Young Drivers' advanced driving centre in Markham, Ont. "Trying to be 'me first' ... that's when society starts to break down."
Trying to correct the behaviour of bad drivers can also be dangerous. Niagarabased communications specialist Darrell Neufeld recalls a terrifying incident involving his family on Ontario Highway 403.
When Neufeld tapped on the brakes to back off a tailgater, the enraged driver passed him, cut him off and nearly forced him off the road. His wife and two young daughters were in the car.
"That was the lesson for me," he says.
Mencel blames reality shows for establishing rudeness as the new norm - sometimes in ways that are just irritating.
Today's drivers often think little of blocking a lane with their four-way flashers while they double park or grabbing a handicapped spot while quickly nipping into a store.
"I don't even see people pulling over for funerals any more," she says.
Experts cite myriad reasons for the decline in our traffic etiquette, including an increase in drivers from countries such as India and Russia, where traffic chaos is common. But three causes stand out: higher-paced jobs, distracted driving and congestion.
The costs of congestion are well documented. Traffic researcher Brian Wolshon recently estimated that 4.2 billion hours of productivity in the United States are lost each year by cars idling in rush-hour traffic. In Toronto, motoring pioneers a century ago could putt at 16 kilometres an hour from Queen's Park to what is now the Gardiner Expressway in minutes. Today, rush-hour drivers following the same route average two to four km/h, says Baher Abdulhai, director of the University of Toronto's Intelligent Transportation Centre.
Abdulhai had his own moment of terror merging onto Toronto's Gardiner Expressway when he flashed his lights at a car that was trying to squeeze him into the wall. The driver stopped his car in freeway traffic, walked over to Abdulhai's car, pounded on the window and then walked away.
"It left me paralyzed for about 30 seconds," the professor said. In traffic congestion, "people do crazy things."
Part of the problem is that infrastructure has not kept pace with the number of vehicles on the road.
"We have some of the safest roadways in North America, but they're not built for the volumes we are seeing today," DiCicco says. "When you're in congestion, if you don't know how to share the space, it slows things down."
The loss of patience is "where we start to get road rage," says Sandy Hyde, president of the Etiquette School of Ohio. Drivers "don't think about how our actions affect other people. It's all about me."
Researchers at the Intelligent Transportation Centre, where Abdulhai teaches, have experimented with ways to optimize traffic flow on the existing roads. One experiment, called MARLIN (Multi-Agent Reinforcement Learning Integrated Network), uses self-learning computers installed in traffic lights. In simulations of downtown Toronto, delays caused by poorly timed traffic lights were reduced by 40 per cent.
Most of us can only dream of such improvements.
Instead, while we are stuck in congestion, we fret about the meeting we will be late for, the tasks going undone or the kid waiting to be picked up at school. And then, DiCicco says, we start to do stupid things - such as checking texts, eating bagels and fiddling with the lid on our double-doubles.
The phenomenon is particularly acute with younger drivers, who think they can multitask at the wheel.
"How do you tell a 16- to 20-year-old they're only capable of doing one thing at a time?" DiCicco says. "They don't believe it."
Jason Patuano, director of communications for Belairdirect Insurance, says such attitudes are foolhardy. "I don't think you'd want to go under surgery with a doctor who is watching a program on some popular platform," he says. "It's all about focus."
Those attitudes are not just among the young. Patuano says we're all guilty of thinking we can eat and drive at the same time. But what if you spill your coffee on your lap while you're driving? An August, 2017, Leger poll conducted for Belairdirect found that 95 per cent of Canadians think they are good drivers, even though almost all admitted to engaging in at least one bad habit behind the wheel. These include eating and drinking, using a cellphone, applying makeup or being romantic or intimate. Three per cent even admitted to flossing their teeth while driving.
Perhaps the worst thing about road rudeness is that it is self-perpetuating. DiCicco says both driving instructors and students get honked at constantly when they are practising or teaching safe techniques.
Often, DiCicco says, this happens when students are learning to make their first left-hand turns in traffic.
"The guy behind is so frustrated, he's honking the horn," he says. Sometimes, a driver will even go around a student waiting to make a left - "That scares the crap out of a new driver." It could also teach them to be more aggressive.
Suggestions on how to turn the tide are as plentiful as they are platitudinous. The U.S. National Motorists Association suggests avoiding left-lane hogging, passing quickly (not on cruise control), using turn signals consistently, dimming high-beam lights well in advance of meeting a car, avoiding tailgating and, of course, no multitasking.
Abdulhai says drivers need to change their behaviour, but - when that falls short - advanced technology has a role. "We have to educate ourselves that aggression is bad for everyone," he says.
Ultimately, though, driving automation might one day make driving decisions for us, thereby reducing conflict and improving traffic flow by controlling pacing.
We also have to accept that no tactic can help when roads reach absolute capacity, Abdulhai says. That's when it's time to turn to tools that manage demand, such as "congestion pricing" - taxing people who drive on overburdened roads.
Belairdirect is experimenting with a new tool that rewards good drivers with lower rates. Customers can download an app called Automerit, which rewards drivers who behave well with lower rates.
Acquaintances surveyed for this story suggested a variety of calming techniques, such as relaxing music, meditation and letting drivers into your lane. Mencel says drivers also have to accept they won't get home for an hour. "If you can't get into the mindset, it doesn't bode well for the people around you."
To Hyde, the Ohio-based etiquette expert, achieving harmony on the roads all comes down to following the golden rule of treating others as we would like to be treated.
At the same time, "I don't think we can make anyone do anything," Hyde says.
"They're going to have to want to change."