It was Nietzsche who observed that instead of seeing metaphor as an embroidery of the facts, how metaphor is rather a way of experiencing facts and how, by making them objects of experience, we give life or reality to them. Theoretically, by viewing social behavior through framing metaphors, social scientists often see new connections and new lines of inquiry. Here let us metaphorically view face-to-face interpersonal  behaviors in terms of drivers' interactions on the road.

When you think about it, it is undoubtedly the case that the specific "wide awake" condition most widely shared among Americans is the act of driving. As my driving instructor used to stress many years ago (and always expecting a reaction of respectful awe due to his most mind-blowing fact), there you are rolling sixty miles-an-hour on a few thousand pounds of steel with only four hand-size pieces of rubber between you and the ground. No room here to drift into one's own little world (which may be why the highly intelligent have higher accident rates): those traits are in the processes of being eliminated from the gene pool through natural selection.  Further, drivers must be of common mind if they are to reach their life destinations and to ensure that they are, there are "rules of the road"--particularly the matter of knowing when to give to others or to assume that one has the right-of-way.

Next, consider the extent to which one's self is automotively linked.  For some, you are what you drive.  For most, one's foremost proof of identity is one's driver's license--hence its display being required to conduct economic transactions (like writing a check or taking out a loan) or consume alcohol.    The license is generally one's only proof of age in an age stratified world, hence its requirement for social novices seeking to enter the inner sanctums of the adult world.

For a full-blown course on many of these issues see Leon James's "Traffic Psychology at the University of Hawaii"


The trouble with life in the fast lane is that you get to the other end in an awful hurry.
--John Jensen

The key to successfully being able to safely reach one's life destinations lies, in part, with one's ability to successfully predict the behaviors of others and, of these, control those directed toward one's self.   (Individuals vary, of course, in their ability to make such calculations--which is the essence of EQ, or their "emotional intelligence."  They also vary in their ability to control others' feelings, thoughts and behaviors--which are the essences of social power.)  In addition, there enters into the equation others' success in predicting one's own behaviors--behaviors whose social successfulness, in turn,  are based on one's ability to infer others' anticipations and expectations of one's own actions.  Sound complicated?  It is, which is perhaps why the human primate is equipped with such a large brain.

The rules and norms of the road, of course, assist in these predictive abilities: a driver with a blinking right-hand light is going to turn right or change lanes. It is for this essence of predictability that we get mad when the vehicle ahead of us turns immediately one way after signaling its intent to go the other--we have no time to anticipate, no time to take that action into account. Is it not the case that analogous rules and norms exist in everyday life? Query: In what ways do we "signal" to others intended changes in the direction of our social action? To what extent do "social accidents" (producing such social injuries as embarrassment and diminished esteem)  involve the inability of actors to predict others'  behaviors as opposed to their acting unpredictably in others eyes?

Mechanisms of social control have always interested sociologists. Consider the following:


According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rate of all driver deaths (for 1994-97 model years) was 89 per million registered vehicle years.  However, the rates ranged from 20 for the Infiniti J30 and 37 for the Toyota Camry to 209 for the GeoMetro and 308 for the Chevy Camaro.  The rates reflect not only differences in vehicle size and safety features but in how they are driven--in other words, social psychological connections between types of drivers, the vehicles to which they are attracted, and the ways in which they are driven.


Drs. Leon James and Diane Nahl's Driving Psychology page, with rich resources in traffic psychology
Yahoo's listing speeding pages


U.S. News 11/11/96: A survival guide for handling highway nuts


Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Homepage



On the road of life there are pasengers and then there are drivers.
--1997 VW Jetta ad

For most Americans, obtaining a driver's license symbolizes coming of age and entering adulthood (in fact, the drivers license is a major proof of identity. For many young drivers, the automobile means independence and freedom, and often there is the exhilaration of flirting with the rules, of going too fast or driving dangerously. With age and a few accidents, one learns the refinements and nuances of the game.

Because of the link between driving and social identity, for many people driving becomes not a means to an end (getting from one point to another) but, rather, an end in itself. Thus in the postwar period of massive suburbanization, "cruising" became a way to obtain attention for those perhaps not receiving enough from the broader society, whether for American adolescents advertising their coming of age (in a culture largely bereft of rite-of-passage rituals that used to inform the community of such transitions), or Hispanic Americans driving slowly in their "lowriders" to affirm their cultural identities.

The American Automobile and Generations


The idea that there exists certain types of people who can be expected to act in predictable types of ways has long intrigued social scientists. One wonders if various personality types drive in distinctive ways, such as the thrillseekers, those bungee jumpers and skydivers, whose roadway risk taking behaviors produce white knuckles among surrounding drivers. Perhaps "true selves" are unleashed when behind the wheel in the privacy of their own vehicles. What typology of drivers do you carry in your mind? Certainly one would have to include:

The Good Samaritans

Yahoo's listing of bad driver humor





The very act of driving entails a particular style of awareness or field of consciousness: One is sensitized to traffic lights and signs, and not to cloud formations or air temperature; one learns to defer to sirens and flashing lights. So routinized, in fact, does driving become that its activities become automatic. Such habitual behavior is the essence of social institutions, serving to minimize doubt and narrow the scope of possible actions. The actor in the driving role does not contemplate actions that are not institutionally defined. This is why we are shocked when the norms are violated, as when we encounter someone driving in reverse on a freeway or discover erroneous directions on highway signs.

Despite the fact that all drivers engage in identical behaviors, a spectrum of driver roles and norms has evolved. During the morning highway commute, one can view some individuals applying make-up as they hurtle down the road, while others eat, read, or listen to the banter of their favorite radio disk jockeys. Moreover, each lane of traffic has its own norms and cast of characters. The rightmost lane, for instance, often carries the marginal drivers who do not wish to compete in the intensity of the inner lanes. On occasions, however, they do, becoming social deviants as they travel 50 mph in the leftmost lane.

The amount of concentration and calculation required does not decrease with speed. When one is turning left at a busy intersection, one's life may depend on how the situation is perceived. One makes moral calculations about the drivers of oncoming cars. For instance, if the oncoming car is going no faster than the legal speed limit, can I make my left turn?

Also entering into the decision-making process are inferences about how I appear to this oncoming driver:

Finally, the road also allows for distinctive forms of collective behavior. Striking truck drivers may park their rigs on the highway, blocking all movement. A violent rainstorm brings slower speeds, turned-on lights, and greater wariness. And a few expensive, fast-moving vehicles may increase the speed norm well above the legal limit.

Beyond its utilitarian functions, the automobile has come to carry considerable symbolic significance for its owner and/or operator, as is the case of many social roles. As O.B. Hardison noted, cars "are status symbols, coming-of-age symbols, symbols of virility, symbols of independence" (1989). A colleague was struck by the similarities between his aging mother and sixteen-year-old son in terms of the meaningfulness of having access to an automobile. For both, the auto symbolizes mobility, independence, and an adult status. The elite may choose to transport themselves in cars costing more than the homes of Mr. and Ms. Average American, while those at the bottom of the social order travel in older, often less reliable vehicles.


language of turn signaling, horn honking, closeness of following others, ...
Victim Visibility as an Inhibitor of Horn Honking Aggression in Traffic


Those of the functionalist theoretical camp focus their attention to those factors contributing to social solidarities between social members. Were it not for cars and the roadway system, the following solidarities would not exist:


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