Road rage redefined
Put a ‘normal’ and ‘average’ unsuspecting human being into this ecological boiling cauldron, and presto! You have a raging raving psychopath
Road rage that was the focus of the last couple of articles is really a leaf out of the larger whole of a recently emerging science of ecological psychology. Ecological psychologists look at the physical and social context upon which a particular pattern of human behaviour depends. They look for sets, or series of independent variables, ‘causes’, if you like, that produce the observed behaviour.
The ecological psychological approach would view the so-called joyous jaywalker or the belligerent driver as manifestations of ecological factors, both social and physical, where disregard for rules and regulations is a norm. On the other hand, the physical structure of the roads is such that it facilitates jaywalking and aggressive driving. In other words ecological psychologists view the individual psyche as a creation of the prevailing social and physical context.
The term ecology is derived from the Greek word ‘oikos’, meaning a house or a household. So ecological psychology deals with the impact of an entire range of stimuli, both social and physical on the human mind; ‘household’ being a city or a locality that one lives in. So the way the roads are built, set up, and managed would affect the behaviour and feelings of people on the roadsides.
Looking at road rage from the point of view of an ecological psychologist, it would appear that the physical structure of the roads and the other decorative features on roadsides would be another important cause of the so–called road rage.
Systematic studies of the effects of the physical environment on the organism emerged relatively recently in Europe and America. Eastern wisdom had long been aware of the impact of the physical environment on human psyche — some of the marriage and birth rituals in our culture testify to this. However, a systematic study of the impact of physical environment has never been attempted here. It may be because our culture is intuitive, rather than empiricist. Therefore one cannot really pinpoint any systematic study of the impact of the physical environment on human psyche.
Such studies however began in earnest in the West. It was seen in those studies that different physical features of buildings, houses, and rooms that people occupied, and interacted with, ‘produced’ different behaviours and emotions in those people. A whole new field of psychology emerged, called ecological psychology. While ecological psychology concerns itself with the impact of both the social and physical stimuli on the human psyche, environmental psychology, another related discipline, confines itself to the impact of physical features only. We now talk of ecological psychology, a larger, relatively broader new science, of which environmental psychology is a smaller subsection.
Having subjected the reader to this rather lengthy preamble, one may come to the point. Road rage, a heightened state of emotionality that one experiences as a result of being on the roads, may not only be caused by the characters that one encounters on the road. It may also be caused by such environmental factors as the physical road plan and ecological factors as road signs, advertisements, road blocks, speed breakers, cat’s eyes, underpasses and encroachments, etc. that one encounters on the roads. One may speculate that the heightened state of emotionality on the road, may not only be caused by the behaviour of people on the roads but also by the way the roads are built, maintained, managed and decorated.
Let us look at just two physical features of roads that may contribute to heightened emotionality. Speed breakers are small humps on the roads that are supposed to make drivers reduce the speed of their vehicles, in other words bring down the emotional level of activation. In most cases on the roads in our cities, however, the speed breakers perform exactly the opposite function for the human psyche. They add to one’s emotionality because one encounters these breakers without due warning in the form of road signs or proper painting on the breakers to warn the unsuspecting driver. The result is that he hits a breaker at the normal travelling speed with attendant shock to the psyche and vehicle.
If he is alert he might detect the breaker when it is dangerously near and may have to press hard on the brakes, again causing shock to the psyche, the body and the vehicle. Speed breakers therefore contribute to the heightened state of emotionality of the road users.
Note that it is not only the physical feature of the breaker on the road, but also the way it is maintained, or shall one say, not maintained, that causes the shock. No signs or road markings warn the approaching driver about the existence of the hump, hence the unpleasant surprise and the shock.
Another relatively new phenomenon is a different kind of a speed breaker, the cat’s eyes. This physical feature glows in the lights of an approaching vehicle’s lights and warn the driver to slow down. However, only a small minority of road riders slow down. Thus slowing down becomes a hazard for some drivers for they run the risk of being hit from behind by the fast moving vehicles, particularly public transport buses and mini buses. He therefore runs the risk of being in a double bind — if he does not slow down he breaks a traffic rule, may even damage his vehicle, and if he does, he runs the risk of being hit from behind by those who do not slow down.
Ecological psychologists call these features social traps — physical/environmental features that present a no-win situation for the people. Hence they lead to a heightened state of emotionality. Add to these social traps the attendant factors of non-functioning traffic signal, the sloppy policeman manning the non-functioning traffic signal, the advertisements, the roadside parking which is actually an encroachment of public land, the animal-driven carts, which would bang into any vehicle or person, with the standard (legitimate) excuse that they have no brakes and the noise and air pollution. Now put a ‘normal’ and ‘average’ unsuspecting human being into this ecological boiling cauldron, and presto! You have a raging raving psychopath.
Welcome to a modern thriving, throbbing city. It is good for the man who treats mental disorders but bad for the mental health of the city dwellers and road users.
This is the second of a 2-part series dealing with the characters that trigger off road rage. The first part was published on May 15, 2003. Humair Hashmi is a professionally certified psychotherapist who teaches at Imperial College Lahore