Driving as a Culture-Specific Syndrome

There is a haze of hatred floating above the Valley of the Sun; a stationary dollop of ill will that clings to the city like cobwebs to the rafters of an old garage. Unlike the omnipresent fog of London, or the quiet sea of smog that drowns Los Angeles 357 miles to the west, this second sky is invisible to the eye, even the eye of a visitor freshly arrived in the New Midwest. It does, however, possess a certain smothering, tangible texture — it is a haze so strongly felt that its presence cannot be honestly denied by even the most jaded Arizona native, even those who have been swimming through the sordid vapor for so long that it tastes like water. Its existence is registered in that same part of the brain that makes you afraid of a large snarling dog even when it’s safely behind a chain-link fence, the part that makes you want to cross to the other side of the road when someone younger, taller, or darker of skin is heading in your direction. Modern world citizens feel ashamed of that scarifying lizard part of their brains, and try to rationalize the feeling away: perhaps they squirm uncomfortably in their vinyl seats and tell themselves that it is only the merciless triple-digit heat that makes them so irritable; maybe they drive a bit more aggressively than they are used to, noting testily to their traveling companions that there is certainly no shortage of provocation to do so given the reeling incompetence of the neighboring drivers. More than not, they just mash their feet to the accelerator, wanting to get the hell out of Phoenix, wanting to escape the awful tingling feeling at the base of their skulls that tells them this is all just terribly wrong, too single-minded to take note of their helpless passengers who are clutching the sides of their seats and frantically depressing the imaginary brake pedal that all passenger seats come equipped with. Certainly none of them will admit to the existence of a huge, choking cloud of rage blanketing the city, and none are likely to admit that such a phenomenon could have spurred their uncharacteristic behavior; the power of their minds to rationalize would power their cars much more efficiently than gasoline.

The opinions of Phoenician motorists notwithstanding, the cloud is there; it is as much a part of the city’s psychic life as the high self-satisfied cowboy arrogance count in the soil of Dallas, the ambient center-of-the-universe radiation that permeates New York City, and the powerful trace element in the water supply of San Francisco that infects young tourists with the delusion that they are in the absolute geographical nexus of hipness and cool bohemianism in the lower 48. No amount of East Coast skepticism can dispel the cloud, and no degree of Midwestern faux-folksiness can blunt its effects.

The point is, driving in Phoenix is just awful. Almost everyone there is from somewhere else, and every single one of them will tell you that wherever they came from, Phoenix is, automotively speaking, much worse. You might expect the handful of Arizona natives to at least not hate it, to accept it perhaps as “normal” because they have no standard against which to judge it, but that’s just not the case. Even they somehow instinctively know, with a sort of automotive a priori, that driving in Phoenix is inherently wrong, not meant to be, against the natural order of things so profoundly that quickly-submerged thoughts of divine retribution birth in the mind of the Valley driver who, stuck in traffic again, affords a passing hope (not quite a prayer) that Car God doesn’t find out and strike their fuel injector system with boils and blains.

Phoenix motorists exist in a state not so much of perpetual edginess spotted with rabid flecks of aggressive incompetence (like those of Chicago) or giddy viciousness undercut by a sort of doomed fatalism (like those of Los Angeles) or even of trancelike, drony ennui that is often mistaken for politeness (like those of the Twin Cities), but more of an eternally renewing outrage combined with a twitchy, disbelieving terror. Their mood is comparable to that of an office drone on his lunch break, waiting in the drive-thru lane of a fast food restaurant, when a gang of armed hoodlums rampage into view, leap into his idling car, and demand at gunpoint that he chauffeur them on a brutal tri-state crime spree ” and then his radiator starts to overheat. Certainly, it’s terrifying; if you’re caught by the authorities there’s sure to be hell to pay; and what’s worst, you’re hourly exposed to outrageous excess and terrible evil; but what can you do? You have no choice. You have to drive in Phoenix. There’s no other options. Your choices have been restricted without your consent. And so people just suppress the terror and outrage; they sublimate their emotions and pretend it doesn’t bother them all that much. Some may even fall victim to the Hostage-Captor Syndrome and claim to actually enjoy driving here, having developed a perverse sympathy for the streets that hold them captive.

But like other forms of energy, emotion never goes away; once the feeling begins it simply lingers, waiting to take on the most appropriate shape at the most opportune moment. Each twinge of resentment felt by one lover towards another swirls like a movie ghost around them, building up steam until it is released in a flurry of shouts, screams, half-formed accusations, and hurled electronics. Every disciplinary action, perceived slight, and public humiliation, every romantic rejection dealt to the disgruntled employee forms a bitter droplet of anger inside him, and each drop is transubstantiated into a bullet during the final bloody rampage. In Phoenix, all the drivers experience a small steam-burn of terror and hate each time they drive, and this anger floats up and over, adding to the big cloud of carbon monoxide, particulates, and automotive frustration. What will this big cloud eventually turn into? What will be its concrete shape when the time comes? Best not to ask, surely. Such a question certainly lies beyond the scope of this current work.

In any case, with such monolithic cumulae of angst and fury being constantly recycled through the lungs and hearts of Phoenicians, small wonder then that so many of the Valley’s resident’s can’t stand themselves, one another, or anyone else. And just as might be expected, the cloud that they have made out of their hate makes them hate even more, which causes the cloud to grow even larger, et cetera, et cetera. If people understood cause and effect the way it should be understood, the police force would just be one big Hate Crimes Division.

When one is confronted (and one often is) with a particularly gross or malignant specimen of reckless driving on the Phoenix streets, a quick scan is made of the bad side of the brain to locate a proper epithet with which to tar the offending operator. While one cannot discount well-worn favorites like “fuckhead”, “bastard”, and “motherfucker”, the perennial contender “asshole”, and the genteel and inchoate “you son of a... ”, no doubt the eternal champion is “crazy“, as in “that guy's crazy!” This is a comforting canard; it first detracts the blame of a poor judgement away from one's self and on to a mysterious other, then establishes, with always-too-hasty fervor, that the person in question must be on the verge of total mental collapse to have made such a monumental faux pas — “Certainly, ” goes the rationale, “I would never have done such a crazy thing. ” It serves the great role of deifying the user, placing him or her on a lone-wolfish, one-good-cop-in-a-bad-town promontory from where one can affect much-needed righteous indignation and pass judgment on the vile, half-crazed savages that make something as simple and necessary as driving a constant trial. And most of all, it is a blunt, a barrier. When you say that another person is crazy, you isolate his activities, place them in the domain of madness, and the implication is that such behavior is atypical, when in fact the truth is much different; by calling them insane you shield yourself from the truth that everyone does the exact same thing.

Driving in Phoenix does, indeed, make you crazy. Driving is a dangerous enough proposition anywhere; there is a certain distant, antisocial mania that grips modern man when he congresses with any kind of a machine, much less one that weighs a ton and can move at a hundred miles an hour. And the consumerist frenzy that drives the car market has itself birthed some unfortunate psychosexual neuroses. But driving on the streets and freeways of central Arizona drags so many unique disorders and imbalances into the proceedings that it is virtually a case history, a psychogeographical file folder that would provide any young and ambitious psych major with a doctoral thesis to build a career on.

Observe the following subject: a young woman (Caucasian, early twenties, unmarried, no children) is piloting a late-model Japanese subcompact down 24th Street, just northwest of downtown. Take her as a test, an object lesson on the unusual stresses operating a car in the Valley of the Sun places on the healthy and the unhealthy alike. The fact that she is driving at all is evidence of denial: she can ill afford the drain on her paltry income caused by the car, its exorbitant insurance rate, and its hideously expensive operating costs. Yet and still she drives it, and drives it virtually everywhere she needs to go, thus insuring that its need for repairs will be ever greater. Further evidence of her denial is the fact that, while an environmentally aware young woman, she has so bonded with the car psychologically that she rationalizes away any pollutants the car might produce (something about its being Japanese) to alleviate her sense of guilt.

Normally a passive, un-aggressive person, she manifests a merciless hostility bordering on the psychopathic behind the wheel. Her hatred of any driver who “crosses” her, from whom she perceives a slight, is far beyond any hatred she has ever felt relative to the objective size of the pain it causes her. She, like thousands of others, will often risk her life in an attempt to catch up to someone who has offended her driving sensibilities, just to see what they look like. Another car merges ahead of her without signaling; she tallies this activity mentally, numbering it in her mind with a compulsiveness not otherwise seen in other aspects of her life. Normally not given to paranoia of any stripe, she thinks nothing of engaging in wild speculation about what the drivers near her may be planning in the immediate future, how this might affect her own automotive plans, and whether or not it would be wise of them to carry out these almost certainly obnoxious plans considering the poor quality of the day she has just had. While not diagnosable as schizophrenic or hebephrenic, she constantly talks while in the driver's seat: to herself, the car radio, the other drivers, and even to her car and the cars of those around her (although she has not gone so far as to name her vehicle, a fairly gender-restricted affectation). She takes, infrequently, to suicidal reveries in which she envisions pressing her foot to the floor and plowing into the rear of another car, her last sight on earth being the look of shock and terror on the faces of the foes that occupy her target vehicle.

When driving, she, as well as almost all vehicle operators, becomes a shaky mass of paranoia, schizophrenia, sociopathology, rationalization, hallucinatory detachment, obsessive-compulsive mania, and hair-trigger neurosis; she and these other madwomen and madmen form a mobile nation of the insane, creating a culture of insanity the population of which is amorphous and unquantifiable. They drive, and in driving, they change; for at least a half an hour each day, the young woman becomes one of a terrifying mob of lunatics with nothing but mechanical habit guiding their morals and tons of motorized momentum at their fingertips. It is a constantly moving kingdom, the realm of a mad king and a faceless and distant queen and a transient and disaffected populace; a morass of men and women that everyone feels the need to be a part of but that everyone wants to escape once they are. It is the land of speed and direction, of time and destination, of a people who know only blind, selfish acceleration and who obey no laws but ill-defined and arbitrary Rules of the Road and the cold, unchanging Laws of Physics. It is an explosion of selfish drive, a protean dystopia where everyone comes to visit, but few choose to stay.