Traffic Is A Herd

Written October 2nd, 2009.

I drive a lot. My current commute is just over an hour each way, five days a week, and I'm somewhat infamous at this point for madly long roadtrips. (Western Nevada to West Virginia and back. Thirty-seven hours - 2500 miles - one way. Done with no stops to sleep.) When I drive, all I can do is drive. I can't be on the computer, I can't be reading, I can't be writing. At the least, I listen to music; at most, I have a conversation with a friend on my cell. I don't often have any passengers, though roadtrips tend to be taken with my dog and, now, my mate.

Saying I have a lot of time to think while I drive is a bit of an understatement.

On my current commute from home to work, there's a portion of curvier freeway going through Washoe City that has a speed limit of 50 mph. It's sandwiched between a 70 mph stretch and a 65 mph stretch, so the flow of traffic rarely slows down more than 55 mph, and usually goes around 60-65 on the hills where there are fewer intersections and thus fewer chances of police officers catching someone. Signs urging people to obey the speed limit and warning about fatal crashes pepper the side of the road - one of them even has fifty little handprints from a cub scout troop. Because of the lack of stoplights and the frequency of driveways and parking lots branching into the road, there's a fairly high chance for a high-speed collision. Policemen watch this section especially closely, and the drivers through Washoe watch for other traffic and cops just as closely.

Without a doubt, the Washoe stretch is my least favorite of the entire drive. I'm especially paranoid about cops, but I'm not willing to toe the line so closely that I never have to worry. I usually limit my speeding to 5 mph over the maximum and, in my ubiquitous white car, I generally slip under the radar, so to speak. In Washoe, though, cops are thicker and stricter, and traffic goes well over the speed limit.

(Disclaimer: the following paragraphs refer to policemen as predators and drivers as prey. This is not a value judgment or an opinion about anyone's moral character or good/bad intentions, but a circle-of-life comparison of human behavior to natural animal behavior.)

I've started to notice interesting adaptive patterns, both in myself and in other drivers. The flash of red brake lights is like the flash of the bright underside of a whitetail deer's tail - a warning, a pay-attention, a here-there-may-be-trouble. Cars slow like deer's heads pop up as eyes scan the roadsides for trouble - a pedestrian, a merging vehicle, a stopped truck, an accident, a waiting cop. Cops are predators, cougars waiting to pick off the renegades from the edges of the herd. Lone speeders don't exist in Washoe - they either know better or are taken out almost immediately. Easy prey.

The only defense against becoming prey, if you're not going to become invisible by obeying the written law, is to herd. The leader of the herd is vulnerable, the car heading a long line of speeding machines - he can be taken out as ringleader. The last of the herd is also vulnerable, since it's so easy for a cop to swing up in the empty space behind the line and take the nearest driver out. It's safest to be inside, not the first and not the last, somewhere in the middle of the herd where you can pretend to be anonymous and innocently caught up in the flow of traffic. The predator, the police, won't easy weave through the ranks to reach you - and even if he does, you aren't the only one in the middle, so his chances of seizing your nape instead of your fellows' are lower. There is a chance that two cops, working together, can pull over a short line of traffic - I've heard of that once - but that's a marked rarity.

You take your risks and accept them, you stay visible as potential prey, but you minimize the chances of being identified and singled out. You herd because that's safest, and you insert yourself after a ringleader but before the rearguard so that you're least likely to be caught - but it's still possible, still a danger, so your eyes are peeled and you're watching for red-brake tail-lights as warnings from your fellows that a predator might be close, or an obstacle might need dodged.

Some days, it's easy to remember that humans are animals, too.

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