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Subliminal road-rage?

Food for Thought

I can’t help but wonder just how much the design of today’s cars influences the rising prominence of road-rage on our highways. One can’t help but see faces on oncoming cars, with the grille suggesting a toothy grin, and the headlights representing eyes. Some sports cars, with their sleek profiles have always brought to my mind the image of a predatory shark.
My little Chevy pickup has a look of innocence, with its wide-apart “eyes” and perky little bow-tie. There’s nothing threatening about it. It looks friendly, compliant, maybe slightly dull, but there’s nothing about it to suggest or arouse anger. It’s also nearly old enough to vote and doesn’t closely resemble its more modern siblings.
I’ve noticed that so many of the newer cars have more aggressive expressions– especially those with headlights accented by a row of tiny, bright lights that add to the suggestion of anger. They seem to scowl at oncoming cars and imply “you’d better not try to mess with me.” The message may be unspoken, but there’s a definite air of, “get out of my way, I’m coming through.” And, unfortunately, too many of today’s drivers seem to echo the same message by the “me first” attitude they adopt the minute they get behind the wheel. (I can’t count the number of times some driver has aggressively crowded me over to the shoulder, or taken a hair-raising chance against oncoming traffic, just to pass me when I am going at the top of the speed limit, only to be right there ahead of me when I get to the next stoplight. What did he gain for all his rudeness and reckless driving?)
I think that getting into a car is much like getting into a role in a play, or dressing up for Halloween. We tend to take on the character of the role and our behavior changes to match the costume which, in this case, is the car. If your car resembles a shark, or a wasp diving in for the kill, you tend to drive that way. The farmer driving a dusty, rust-riddled old Dodge pickup that more nearly resembles a sweet-tempered plow horse, will stop and offer you a ride on a hot, summer afternoon. You might have to climb into the back end along with the toolbox and a basket of apples because his wife and two grandkids are crowded into the cab with him, but he’ll be friendly, go out of his way to drop you off close to town, and insist you help yourself to a couple of the apples before he wishes you good luck at finding a ride to wherever you are headed. The guy in the low-slung sports car with the scowling headlights is more likely to blast you with his horn and choke you in a cloud of dust as he speeds past so close that you dive into the ditch in panic.
I began to understand, quite a few years ago, that fact follows fiction more often than most of us would care to admit. I remember the futuristic cars depicted in comic books when I was a kid. When I was in junior high, designing their own dream cars was a favorite pastime of the boys in my classes. Their cars were their own versions of the ones in the comic books– low, sleek, streamlined, threatening, predatory, no-nonsense vehicles for aggressive, powerful, no-nonsense super-heroes. We thought then that such cars were pure fantasy, but like those who dreamed of rocket ships and satellites orbiting the earth, it took only a generation for those boys to turn into men who designed the real thing.
If you think back to some of the car fads of past years, you can see how the character of the cars seems to have affected the character of the people who drove them. Remember the boxy, wood-paneled station wagons? The ones that people used to joke hadn’t been “taken out of the crate yet?” The drivers of those were mothers and fathers of families of five or six children, Cub Scout den-mothers, fathers who coached Little League, retirees who wanted to have room to take along the fishing gear and golf clubs, and have room to haul home an antique dresser on occasion. Those people drove the way you expected– carefully, sedately, unhurriedly, sensibly. The vehicles tended to incite humor or gentle ridicule rather than defensiveness or aggression.
And what about the ’50s? The days of the Volkswagen? The VW Beetle was regarded with the affection and good-natured teasing that might be accorded to a clown-car, people tended to be protective and solicitous of such vulnerable little vehicles, and their drivers seemed to drive more or less apologetically, or at least timidly, as if aware of their own vulnerability. I think road-rage would drop dramatically if all the new cars were required to have happy faces, big red noses, or paint jobs featuring oversized polka-dots. And no scowling headlights.