Field Notes From Inside A Car

The Anthropologist's Guide to Aggressive Drivers

Take away our styled hair, cotton underwear and antiperspirant and what are you left with? The Savannah-dwelling, hunter-gatherer social hominids we like to pretend we aren't.

This less sophisticated truth is a useful thing to keep in mind, however. Especially when forced to slam on the brakes behind that aggressive moron who's very existence is threatened if they don't get one car further ahead of everyone else.

Because aggression isn't useful for either hunting or gathering. Aggressive hunters end up pinned to the wrong end of the deer antlers or mammoth tusks. It's the careful planners who stay un-punctured and able to bring home the bacon (or venison or mammoth steaks).

Aggressive gatherers aren't any better. Roots, tubers, fruits, berries and nuts don't come labeled and packaged in the wild. Bringing home the groceries takes concentrated effort and attention to detail, not reckless running about with a fierce stare and a bad attitude.

Which is not to say aggression has no value to our inner hunter-gatherer. It serves two functions, both social.

First, aggression is used, mostly by males, to fend off competitors when seeking a mate. Second, aggression is used to ward off things which scare us spitless. Much in the fashion of the frill-necked lizard, which presents its impressive skin flaps and nasty hiss only when panicked.

So, the next time you swerve to avoid an aggressive idiot, take heart. Underneath the dark glasses and surly sneer is an insecure jerk who's afraid you'll steal their (likely imaginary) bed-mate. Either that or they're scared generally and are hoping everyone will just go away and leave them alone.

A Hypothesis Regarding 4x4 Frequency Distribution

My son recently suggested 4-wheel drives are distributed on our city streets in Starbucks end-of-the-universe fashion. Spend time walking around almost any US city and you'll understand what he means. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, there are more than 400 Starbucks. As you leave one Starbucks it's likely you'll see another just down the street.

And so it is with the truck-like four-wheel-drives lumbering through our streets. As one thunders past, chances are there'll be another somewhere within view.

Not quite herding, but definitely keeping within range of each other. And I think I've got an idea why: it's a silent affirmation they are not alone.

Let's face it, no-one else likes these monster trucks masquerading as family sedans. They're twice as tall and twice as heavy as they need to be. They roll over if you sneeze too hard when cornering. They're ugly. And they are a very public statement that the driver is too self-involved to give a damn about the people beside them who can't turn, overtake or even brake safely because of these hypertrophic panderings to juvenile fantasies of rugged individuality.

In such circumstances, I'd want to keep others like me within sight as well. Anyone driving such a monstrosity down a suburban street to drop their kids off to school clearly doesn't have much of a conscience. Social pressure isn't so easy to ignore in public, however. If there's always at least one other four-wheel-drive in view, such drivers can take some comfort from knowing there are others out there just as selfish.

Yet Another Reason to be Pleased You Bought a Station Wagon

When my children were younger they would pass the time on long car journeys (ie anything more than a five minute trip) playing ‘spot-a-bug.'

It's a pretty simple game. You look for Volkswagens and, as soon as you see one, shout out ‘spot-a-bug.' The first to do so wins the round. Keeping track of how many rounds you win was officially part of the rules but individual victories were much more important than extended counts.

Today both my kids are in high school and the game has changed. As we head in to school each morning, or around to their various after-school activities, I'm regularly assailed with cries of 'MLC.'

They aren't talking about the National Australia Bank's finance and insurance company.

MLC stands for ‘Mid-Life Crisis' and the cry goes up each time they see a 40-plus man driving by in an over-powered, too-small-to-be-practical-for-family-use, sports-car. Judging by the regularity of the shout, there are quite a few MLCs out and about each day.

A few days ago my son claimed to have seen ‘the king of MLCs.' When asked to defend the claim he pointed calmly to the stream of on-coming traffic: ‘over-50; balding; round, mirror-sunnies; grey pony-tail hanging down; driving a brand-new, black Monaro.'

We could hardly argue with him.

Despite being only a little younger than these MLCs, I find my kids' attitude refreshing. It's refreshing because it is only one part of a general perspective -- shared by their friends -- that finds substance more interesting than surface and style. It's not the aging skin they are laughing at, it's the gawdy plumage tacked on to cover the wrinkles.

So, fair warning to anyone looking to assauge the sudden onset of mortal dread with impractical but phallic cars. Those beautiful young people smiling and pointing as you pass by aren't laughing with you.

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