OT: Animal Behavior and Highway Driving

Humans are not animals, at least not in our value system. But in terms of mechanisms both physical and behavioral, there’s certainly some commonalities. Behavioral scientists, whose field has picked up in respect what it’s lost in pizzazz since the days of B.F. Skinner, insist that many (some say all) human behaviors can be explained by reference to our animal, evolutionary past.

Jack Baruth, an automotive writer who specializes in stoking controversies, says that bozo driver behavior is actually explained by animal instincts that survive in the atavistic core of Homo sapiens. First, he reminds us all how little we like….

…the people who wander from lane to lane for no reason. The drivers who speed up to match you as you pass them on the freeway, not out of anger or machismo but simply because their subconscious herd-animal instincts tell them that it’s completely safe and comforting to be driving at 75mph next to another 4,000-pound unguided missile. Tailgaters. People who can’t merge at speed. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Yeah. Hell is other people, on the highway. And they usually have Massachusetts plates, but that’s a whole other rant. So where does the animal bit come in?

I’ve watched drivers unconsciously pace me all the way from 55mph to 85mph or more as long as I increase my speed one MPH at a time, or from 85mph to 55mph if I slow down by the same increment. They’re not trying to be annoying; they are just operating on the herd principle buried in their backbrains. But if I slam on the throttle and go from 60mph to 70mph at max acceleration, they won’t follow.

If you move over for a faster car that then slows down right ahead of you, try moving back in behind them. They will almost always slow down 5mph or so, because they are slightly nervous at seeing you appear in their mirror. Then you can return to your previous lane and pass them again, using sharp acceleration to put distance between you and them and break the herd behavior.

He has several suggestions for, actually, manipulating the unconscious, herd-brain instincts of the inattentive driver.

…All of these tactics, and many more that you’ll discover independently, have one thing in common. They are designed to break the herding instinct by making you more visible, or more worrisome, to the unconscious driver. They turn you from just a comforting, indistinct presence in their mirrors or windshield to an actual, noticeable automobile that might not be worth sticking so closely to.

Naturally, we’re going to tell you to Read The Whole Thing™. Sometimes we find Baruth and his towering ego, which is so centrally present in each column as to deserve co-writer credit, annoying. But in this column he named several things that we do to keep moving on the road, and it never occurred to us to use the template of herd-animal behavior as a way to understand the migrating Massholes driving three abreast at three miles under the speed limit, with twenty miles of cars backed up behind them.

We’ll never think of them the same way again. But we’ll probably continue cursing them. That’s our instinctive animal behavior.

37 thoughts on “OT: Animal Behavior and Highway Driving

  1. Loren

    This observation on driving is Western centric. It certainly doesn’t explain the chaos of driving in Asia or Africa nor the shear assholedness of Arabs on any road in the ME.

  2. Aesop

    Perhaps, but it describes the exact same behavior among Califathead freeway drivers hereabouts to the nearest centimeter of witlessness. And it’s worse among the rural @$$holes than it is in the metropolii, given my daily 110 miles of commute through both regions to observe the phenomenon directly.

    Making the PIT maneuver legal in the driver’s handbook would solve the problem in short order.

    I can’t help wondering how much this post was influenced, however herd-instinct subtly, by the one a couple down on armored cars.

  3. John D

    Having “read the whole thing (TM)”, Mr. Baruth apparently races bicycles, drives a Fox, and gives no thought to his selection of toilet paper.

    Not sure I’d trust such a man’s opinion on anything. :-)

  4. archy

    As a long-time daily motorcycle rider [since 1961] I’ve certainly observed the described behaviour. Whatever the origin, it IS instinctive.

    But I always thought it more akin to a bunch of pigeons or starlings, rather than thundering herds of bison or nyati.

  5. LSWCHP

    Three abreast and all under the speed limit? I thought the “Massholes” thing just was a convenient joke on the name of the state, but man, that’s a triple hanging offence right there.

    1. James

      LS,as a masshole/hampster hybrid(rare times even a maniac) working in both states have seen this on a regular basis from both sides of the border,plenty of bad drivers from all these states.I will say the few times have seen same lanes all going same speed is either a lot of traffic and boxed but more usually a armed tax collector right ahead daring folks to pass him/her.

    2. Mike_C

      Massholes: It’s not just the driving.

      I was introduced to the term by a friend from New Hampshire but have heard it used by people from Rhode Island (more properly, the State of Rhode Island and Providence [trigger warning!!] Plantations*) as well. I think people from Maine (hence “Maniacs” above!) also use the term; not sure about Nutmeggers** from Connecticut. “Masshole” has also been proudly reappropriated by select residents of this fine Commonwealth.

      When I first moved to Massachusetts from the Midwest, decades ago, I was struck by the aggressive incompetence (as opposed to the largely competent aggressiveness one sees in e.g. Taipei) in the Boston area. I am sad to say that complacently clueless driving is now the norm rather than the exception in many parts of this country.

      *Ironically, Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Providence Plantations, was antislavery.
      **Copious nutmeg ingestion leads to hallucinations. This may explain Dick Blumenthal’s reelection to the US Senate in 2016.

      1. James

        Wow,people drive in middle America?!I thought it was just the point of a flight were I go to sleep as the meal trays on plane are collected.

      2. Hognose Post author

        Thoughts:

        Roger Williams: It doesn’t matter, he was white. That’s college-speak for EVIL! and it’s why you have black wannabes like Rachel Dolezal (now Zambezi Kenyatta whatever she’s named herself) and Shawn King. And stop grinning, Mike: as Chinese (etc) one is an honorary white guy/gal, because your abused-by-whites minority got up off the mat, back in the fight, and didn’t stay supine and begging. Oppressors!

        Dick Blumenthal: What’s the LD50 of nutmeg? Asking for a friend.

        I dislike all gun control proponents, but phony combat vets are, as the underachieving kids say, “triggering”.

  6. DSM

    Does this explain the phenomenon of “I have just as much right as everyone to be in the left lane, they can just go around.” We’ve all had these folks but last summer’s vacation road trip really drove it home that it’s getting to ridiculous levels when my wife asked when was the last time we passed someone not on the right. I’m not a speed demon either, I’m talking speed limit here. Maybe I just notice it more now.

  7. Keith

    I have observed the same behavior on the freeway. Cars will clump up all doing about the same speed as long as something doesn’t disrupt the flow of traffic. It is a shame that on three lane freeways people don’t know how they are supposed to work. Yet driving is such an individual thing in the public thought, even not outwardly aware of it, it’s thought of as a right instead of the privilege it actually is. That’s why there will be immense resistance to computer controlled highways like are a staple in science fiction actually happening in reality.

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I think I’d go to the Awesome Indoor Range an hour’s drive away three times a week, if I could let the car do the driving and write while coming and going. Windshield time is wasted time if you’re just driving.

      Now, up in the mountains, in a sports car… that’s different, that’s driving for the joy of it. But I don’t even have a sports car, or a vintage car, any more; just a very good and very boring car and a utilitarian work truck.

      1. John M.

        I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. I sit in traffic in the middle of my town thinking that if we’d just put the robots in charge, we could all be doing 80.

        -John M.

  8. Roger

    The real pity is that the worst drivers from all the states retire
    to live in the sunshine in Florida. When they cross the FL / GA border, their
    turn signals cease to work. (that is if they ever worked before) Their fixation
    on staying in the left lane is broken only when they make a mad right hand dive
    to the exit they are passing scattering others supposedly sharing the road.
    Finally, the solution to the three abreast, five under line of idiots is a pair of
    front mounted Ma Deuces. Load ’em up with APITs & light ’em up.

  9. Eric

    When will bump drafting and PIT maneuvers for non-LEOs be legal?

    The ones who drive in the left lane at 55mph, refusing to get in the right lane after everyone passes them…. and the ones who force their way from the on ramp at 45 mph oblivious to your 70 mph speed…

    The ones who drive alternative energy rides plastered with bumper stickers touting their liberal rants, save the whatever, as a status symbol to saving the planet… zipping by at 80 mph in a 55 mph…

    We need to bring back the paddle… cops with paddles on their duty belts… giving some bent over at the ankles motorist ten whacks on the side of the road for each infraction as others slowly pass by… only then will driver stupidity cease, or at least, slow down!

  10. Raoul Duke

    All kidding and ranting aside, I would contend that the terrifyingly poor template for new driver training is part of the problem.

    From day one in “Driver’s Ed.”, students are taught to fear their vehicles, to be timid, and to “drive defensively”. Usually, this is delivered in the most mind-numbing, top-down, boring way possible. Most new drivers just shuffle through it, and then get to shuffling through their driving, which is just another task in the day, like making coffee or taking a dump.

    I’ve noted that drivers who are exposed early to performance driving training or competition are much better (and safer) drivers in traffic. If you can make learning any task fun, you can get much more buy-in from the people learning it.

  11. Phelps

    Another mental hack that my wife taught me (as opposed to most of the ones in the column that I taught her) — if someone is riding in your blind spot or right beside you, put on your turn signal for that lane. They will almost always speed up to pass you and get out of the danger zone. They seem to be more afraid of the idea of you passing them than you changing lanes into them.

    1. John Distai

      You must be in the DC area! Put your signal on to change lanes, and the car in the desired lane will speed up to close the gap. You have to cut them off to make the change.

  12. Eric

    Driver’s Ed… excellent point. The instructors are teachers as a rule, who drive in all the categories discussed… so they are passing down their bad driving habits to new drivers :p

    We have turn signals? Good idea, and I always signal in advance… but it does little good.

    Left a few out… the ones in the left lane who stay even with a car in the right lane… the ones who see you are coming upon a slow driver in your lane, and as you signal, move up even with you so you have to brake to the speed of the slow mover.

  13. Ti

    That was a great read. I never thought of herding, but it makes complete sense.

    I talked to the local constabulary about this about 4 months ago. He said you can bring a complaint against a driver, but you better be ready to do all the leg work(courtroom, etc.). This means documentation, for me that is 2 in car cameras one facing forward and one facing backward. They come on when I turn key and they shutoff a few minutes after I remove key. Memory holds about 3 weeks worth of driving and is constantly overwritten for the boring stuff.
    Maybe herd, but I think a lot of it is ANONYMITY, they aren’t facing you directly and they are concealed in a vehicle. If there was database that I could go to and find out your address based on your license plate – I think people would be a lot more courteous in their car. It’s funny how you bring up some dingass’s driving when your basically 12 inched away from their face informing them of such – all of sudden not such a smart ass and really shocked when you tell them it’s all recorded.

    1. LCpl Martinez USMC

      In California , we got these motorcycle (rice rockets as well as dirt bikes now), essentially doing traffic breaks, stopping the whole freeway so they can do exhibitions on the freeway , while video-taping themselves.

      I heard this all started in the East Coast, now it’s here… where before we only had biker gangs (they don’t do exhibitions, but when they are in full force, it’s a convoy to behold , like Teamsters trucks in action on the freeways),

      I too have been thinking about getting these dash cams, one in front and one in back, preferably one you can twist around, to show the sides also if need be.

      Ti, what dash cams are you sporting? And did you do a lot of research, shopping around? I really want ones that have a screen so it’s easier to play back, say to cops right there and then. Any suggestions on options out there? Thanks, man.

      1. LCpl Martinez USMC

        ” If there was database that I could go to and find out your address based on your license plate “

        What i do, is get make/model, lic. plate, driver description, etc. and personally give said info to our traffic guys , ie. ‘keep an eye out for this knucklehead, he’ll cause an accident soon’, or maybe already has… don’t know if they can hold that info on file, but for the really serious incidents, traffic cops and community sgts. have used it to pay a visit to driver’s residence, just to give them a heads up that people have reported them and their driving dangerous habits.

        Also citizens can complain direct to DMV and report certain drivers, with license plate in hand, are driving recklessly. Unlike law enforcement though, I don’t think they can do much, except for re-testing drivers… when you do this to old (now dangerous) drivers, it makes sense, cause when re-tested they’ll fail. But for young drivers nothing i surmise will happen, since they’ll just pass the test.

      2. Ti

        These were inexpensive ones called BlackBox DVR. I was thinkin’ more serious video like through gopro’s, but my wife got me these and I’d say that they work ok. Low cost($30) and pretty simple. Big thing according to reviews I saw was getting a good quality memory card to install in it, some memory write speeds at too slow for it. It has a built in screen to watch with so you can show’em right there. I haven’t used this in the hot summer yet, this is where I think the acid test will be with in car temps in the plus 45C range.

  14. Trone Abeetin

    Hey Hog, I’m just a Masshole because I was raised here. You however, were born here. That makes you an Masshole by birth. Come on chief, stop putting on airs, you can take the man out of Mass, but you can’t take Mass out of the man. Sublimation is so tedious, let it go.

    1. James

      Trone,while you make a valid point there is something missing in your post,hmmmmm….,it is,uh,oh,where your birth state actually is.Was this omission accidental or is there a reason you failed to mention it,nosy minds want to know.

      I will in spirit of openness/transparency though embarrassing say I was born in NY,not state but city!While out of there before me fourth month in this life the damage sad to say was probably already done.

  15. DaveL

    Since we’re on the subject of terrible drivers, maybe somebody here can shed some light on one peculiar ritual I’ve seen repeatedly in Michigan. A driver on a surface street approaches a standard diamond interchange and turns right onto the on-ramp. As he accelerates out of his turn, about 30-50 yards down he drifts to the right, almost completely onto the shoulder, before returning back to proper lane position. I see this all the time. Were they trying to give traffic behind them an opportunity to pass? Doubtful, since they do it even with slow-moving traffic immediately ahead of them. Is it just egregious oversteer? Again, I doubt it -If they were prone to doing this unintentionally, they’d be on the sidewalk half the time in urban or suburban driving. Any ideas?

    1. TRX

      Arkies have a different system. They’ll drive leisurely up an on-ramp, then slow to a top at the end to wait for a giant hole in traffic. After their patience wears out (about 5-10 seconds) they simply turn out into 75mph traffic from a stop.

      When you see Arkansas drivers move to the left lane when they near an on-ramp, there’s a good reason for that…

      Oh, and the ramp-stoppers will sloooowly accelerate, blocking traffic for miles, until they pass the speed limit and eventually come around you at warp speed.

  16. Docduracoat

    I think that people who proceed forward at a green light when they see they can’t make it through the intersection and then ” block the box” when the light changes should be dragged from their cars and summarily executed
    DON’T BLOCK THE BOX!
    ( rant over)

  17. Carl

    I noticed that when drivers look left before changing lanes, their bodies being coupled too tightly to the steering wheel, the car invariably make a left wiggle. Same for moving right. Said effort doesn’t actually result in them registering your presence, but it does alert you of an impending lane change.
    These articles are brilliant in observation, and while some things I’ve already been doing, it will certainly enhance my long, early morning, herding efforts.

  18. Ron

    I’ve been reading Baruth for years, and while I agree his ego is, hmm, notable, he’s been a successful racer on both bicycles and in cars. I’ve known a few pro racers, and the most notable thing they all had in common was a sizable ego. You need a sizable one to believe you can compete with the best and win when you have nothing but desire – and winning just reinforces that. I suspect that’s one reason why the very successful ones keep dying in small plane and helicopter crashes while they’re the pilot; they buy the machine for the convenience, and their ego insists that their phenomenal skill behind the wheel will translate to three dimensions. (This last point is *not* aimed at the author; anybody who has built his own plane is gets lessons aplenty in humility). But it’s a reinforcement in the fact that expertise, even world class expertise, in one field, may not translate into other areas.

    1. Ti

      An instructor pilot I used to work with called it “Thurman Munson Syndrome”. More modern might be “JFKJr syndrome”

  19. James

    Ron,I hope you are not suggesting my finish carpentry skills will not easily cross over to say Brain surgery?!

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