Mind-altering machinery

Miami traffic; enough to drive one legally insane?/Wikimedia Commons

As residents of Alaska’s largest city struggle and steam their way through roads still clogged by an unusual volume of snow, maybe it is time for some serious contemplation of the country’s motor-vehicle addiction.

Four years ago, Dr. Robert Lustig, a California endocrinologist, authored for MedPage Today an essay titled “This is Your Brain on Trump” outlining how former President Donald Trump’s constant and usually bombastic Twittering drove emotions that affect the body’s normal production of cortisol, the stress hormone, and dopamine, the feel-good hormone.

In going on to describe what he labeled Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS), Lustig described how the former president knowingly or accidentally manipulated these hormones to influence the way people thought and behaved. Trump, like the rogue polebrity Sarah Palin before him, had a gift for whipping up his supporters and making his opponents regularly act like idiots in response.

This didn’t happen by accident. It was driven by biology and chemistry.

“The more dopamine and cortisol, the more we lose our ability to discern truth from post-truth, the more irritable we become, and the more we abandon our cognitive control and with little regard for the consequences,” Lustig wrote.

Pretty much every observation he made as regards the chemicals driving what came to be labeled TDS could apply equally to Motor-Vehicle Derangement Syndrome (MVDS).

“Greed drives dopamine action in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), the reward center deep within the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain (Freud called it our id). Appealing to our avarice with promises of “good jobs” and “healthcare for everyone” and “tariffs on our competitors” and “better trade deals” and “tax breaks”, Trump jacks up our dopamine the same way a roller coaster does,” Lustig wrote.

High-speed roads, smoothly flowing traffic, perfectly synchronized green lights and lack of impediments to getting from point A to point B as fast as possible appeal to the same avarice. These things make us all happy.

All true Americans love the feeling of the open road. But for the yang, the light and heaven of Third Century Chinese philosophy, there is the yin, the dark and the cold. 

This emotion is found in the amygdala, an almond–shaped part of the brain activated by fear, anxiety, and anger. When it fires up, as Lustig also observed, it sends “corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) signals throughout the CNS. CRH drives cortisol, which stymies our prefrontal cortex opens in a new tab or window (PFC) the executive function center (Freud’s superego)….Normally, the PFC makes you behave and keeps you from doing stupid things you’ll later regret, and acts as the “brake” on the NAc. Unfortunately, the PFC is a highly vulnerable structure.

“(And) dysfunctional PFC inhibits cognitive processing, restricts long-term planning, and translates into ‘I don’t care about the consequences.'”

Ludwig suggested Trump short-circuited the PFC with his xenophobia Tweets: “Build that wall. Banish that Muslim. Nuke North Korea.” And certainly, this was true for some or many, but not all.

Motor-Vehicle Derangement Syndrome

If only we were so lucky with what MVDS does to our brains.

Congested and/or slow-moving traffic can short-circuit or start to short-circuit the PFC on almost everyone. Other drivers who don’t do what we think they should do or are simply discourteous can likewise do the same. If there’s anyone reading this who has never, at any point, thought of another driver as “you asshole,” I’d love to meet her or him because I’m not sure such an individual exists.

We are all subject to that whipsaw between that dopamine and cortisol that makes for “lizard brain” as Lustig put it. And on the road, the maximum, end result of what he calls the “lizard brain” is what we now call “road rage.”

One could argue it makes motor vehicles far more dangerous than guns.

Guns, as it has been many times observed, don’t kill people; people kill people. Guns might be the chosen weapon of mayhem for some, but picking up a firearm does not instill in anyone the rage to kill. Guns are rather benign in this respect.

Not so motor vehicles. They are surprisingly capable of stirring the rage to kill or maim. Thankfully, most drivers suppress their desires to strangle others, but that doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t there. A prayer vigil is now underway for Steve Strode, a deacon at Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church and the apparent victim of an apparent road rage attack in the Windy City, according to ABC7 Chicago. 

According to the ABC report, “Steve was heading home from work last Saturday morning when (police) believe he was rear-ended on the Dan Ryan Expressway, his wife said. When Strode pulled off on a nearby street, the people who hit his car jumped out and attacked him, his family said.

“Chicago police found him behind his car in the 100 block of E. Marquette Road, badly beaten and unable to speak.” He is now on life support. His wife believes that maybe his assailants were trying to carjack him, but carjackers don’t usually damage the car they want to steal and then leave it alongside the road with the owner.

More likely he was involved in an incident like that in Philadelphia on Thursday where police reported a driver’s car being twice shot after a following car “flashed their high beam lights two different times,” a signal to get out of the lane you are going to slow, and then followed “behind the victim with its high beams on for most of the time,” according to NBC Philadelphia. 

When the driver finally pulled off “onto the South Hanover Street exit, police said. The (following) vehicle passed the victim and fired two shots, which struck the driver’s side of the vehicle.”

This sort of thing is not uncommon. A border patrol agent in Texas was Wednesday charged with aggravated assault with a weapon after a road-rage driven attack on another driver and a roadside argument, according to KGNS-TV.

“Eyewitnesses told police that prior to the argument, a car cut off a pick-up truck (Roman) Rodriguez was allegedly driving,” KGNS reported. “Rodriguez reportedly hit the car from behind. The drivers got out and began to argue” after that during the argument Rodriguez pulled his weapon.

Another Texas driver facing charges for shooting up a Tesla in October is claiming it wasn’t his fault because the owner of the Tesla repeatedly brake-checked his truck.  As James Young told it to the NBC News affiliate in Houston, he feared for his life:

“As I tried to remove myself from the situation, the Tesla constantly corners me. I see an out to take the exit, and as I go to take the exit, the Tesla comes two or three lanes over,” Young said. “I don’t feel like there’s anything I could have done. There’s traffic in front of me, I couldn’t accelerate at this point. I couldn’t get over into the right lane or slow lane.

“Once he did get to my side, that’s when he had the window down and I was in fear for my life, and I kind of (went into) defensive mode at that point.”

Offense, the best defense?

So Young fired off some warning shots like an Alaskan hiker might do with an aggressive bear. Houston Police were not happy.

“It is never acceptable to settle a traffic dispute with a gun,”  Dane Schiller, spokeswoman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, told the TV station. Still, Young and his wife did produce a video of some pretty obnoxious driving by the Tesla owner that would indicate he had his own road rage issues.

That a Tesla should be involved in such an incident would probably not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has spent much time driving in Seattle, the Tesla capital of the Pacific Northwest, in recent months. Many drivers of many different vehicles harbor a huge sense of entitlement, but it seems to run especially deep among Tesla owners, maybe because they believe they are saving the planet by driving an electric car and thus deserve special treatment.

At the end of the day, as Texas’s Schiller observed, drivers are responsible for their actions,  but the role of motor vehicles in fueling the emotions that drive actions cannot be ignored.

In Anchorage, Hillside residents on the social media site Nextdoor are now arguing whether it is acceptable for drivers to turn left off Rabbit Creek Road at the Old Seward Highway while headed to the city. The argument against anyone making this perfectly legal turn is that it is “unsafe.”

And why is it unsafe?

It is unsafe because there is no turn lane and the drivers coming down the Rabbit Creek hill upstream from the turn are often doing well in excess of the road’s 45 mph speed limit or well in excess of a sensible speed of well less than 45 mph in winter when the road is icy and slippery and the force of gravity is compromising already compromised braking.

Some have suggested the solution to the problem is that drivers simply slow down in the interest of safety, but the majority view seems to be against slowing down. The argument against slower speeds appears pretty uniform across Anchorage.

Northern Lights Boulevard, a by-law, 35- to 45-mph road through the city’s Midtown is now often a 45-mph road in the 35-mph sections and a 55-mph highway in the 45-mph sections. It is not alone in this regard. Traffic on many Anchorage city streets often moves at speeds 10 mph father than posted or more.

Marc Grober, a local advocate for road safety, has been lobbying for lower speed limits in the city for a long time and getting nowhere even though speed explains why more and more people are dying on Anchorage roads. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has recognized the problem.

“Vehicle speed at the time of impact is directly correlated to whether a person will live or die,” it notes. “A person hit by a car traveling at 35 miles per hour is five times more likely to die than a person hit by a car traveling at 20 miles per hour.”

According to its data, 75 percent of the people hit by a car doing 32 mph survive, but the results flip at higher speeds with 75 percent of those hit by a car doing 50 mph, a normal speed for most traffic on Anchorage’s Northern Lights, ending up dead. Speed kills, and it is more an urban road problem than a problem on highways where almost all Alaska law enforcement focuses efforts to police speeds.

“In the US, fatal crashes are disproportionately clustered on a small group of high-speed, auto-oriented streets, known as urban arterials,” NACTO says. “Between 2014 and 2018, urban arterials accounted for 29 percent of all fatal crashes in the US and half (49 percent) of all fatal crashes involving people biking or walking, despite making up only 6 percent of U.S. roadways.

“Urban arterials are typically signed for 35-45 miles per hour or higher, and are designed to support high speeds by featuring wide, highway-width lanes, sweeping turn radii, and few places to stop for people to cross. In many cities, urban arterials often lack basic protections for people outside of cars, such as sidewalks, even when bus stops are present or when the adjacent retail/commercial land uses encourage people to go there.”

Anchorage is the example

The latter paragraph pretty well defines good parts of Alaska’s largest city, and NACTOs warning about larger vehicles only underlines the deadliness.

“In the US,” it reports, “the trend toward larger vehicles compounds the problems posed by excessive speeds. In 2017, 43 percent of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities involved an SUV, pickup truck or other light truck. In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that pedestrians are two to three times more likely to die when hit by an SUV or pickup than by a passenger car.

“Larger vehicles are more lethal than smaller ones for two main reasons: they are heavier, which increases the force of the impact when combined with speed; and they have a taller frame, which increases the likelihood that, if struck, a person (especially a child) will be pulled under the vehicle rather than pushed onto the hood.”

But cities needn’t be death traps for vulnerable road users or as dangerous for drivers as is Anchorage. Some northern cities have solved the problem by design.

“Helsinki (Finland) recorded no deaths for the first time since records began in 1960, down from an average of 20-30 a year in the 1990s,” the Guardian reported in 2020. “In Oslo (Norway), there were also no pedestrian or cyclist deaths in the city, which has a population of 680,000, and no children under 16 died in traffic crashes in the entire country.”

The price to be paid for saving lives, unfortunately, mainly involved making life harder for drivers. Reducing speed limits played a major role in cutting deaths in both cities. Helsinki dropped them to 30 kph (19mph)  on most residential streets and in the city center, 50kph (30 mph) on main streets in suburban areas, and 40 kph (25mph) on inner city streets.

Such changes appear unlikely in U.S. cities full of people so addicted to motor vehicles and speedy travel that they find it all but impossible to abide by existing speed limits already much higher.  A poll by AAA, the motoring group formerly known as the American Automobile Association, found about 45 percent of drivers admitting they had driven “10 mph over the speed limit on a residential street in the past 30 days, and 11 percent admit doing so fairly often or regularly.”

The 2016 poll also reported that “about 87 percent of drivers engaged in at least one risky behavior while behind the wheel within the past month.” Texting while driving, which is as dangerous or more dangerous than driving drunk, was high on the list of abuses.

More than 42 percent of drivers “admit to reading a text message or email while driving in the past 30 days, while 12 percent report doing this fairly often or regularly,” AAA reported. “Nearly one in three drivers (32 percent) admit to typing or sending a text or email over the past month, while eight percent say they do so fairly often or regularly.”

There is no indication anything has changed since 2016. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies spend all of their time, effort and money focusing on stopping drunk drivers and demanding Americans “click it or ticket,” which protects those inclined to drive irresponsibly, while largely ignoring texting while driving which puts both innocent motorists and especially vulnerable road users at risk.

A study by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in the United Kingdom found that texting while driving is about three times worse than driving at the legal limit for alcohol with driver reaction times “35 percent slower when writing a text message. Earlier studies at TRL showed that alcohol consumption to the legal limit caused a 12 percent reaction time increase; cannabis slowed reaction times by 21 percent.”

Sweden, which has cut road fatality rates in more half since 2006, has shown that with better law enforcement, lower speed limits and the redesign of transportation systems to protect people, safety can be greatly improved.  But getting that done requires the political willpower to do so.

And willpower seems to be the big thing most addicts lack. They just want another fix as is regularly illustrated by Anchorage drivers complaining that current speed limits are too low instead of paying any attention to the deaths on Anchorage streets.
















10 replies »

  1. “Marc Grober, a local advocate for road safety, has been lobbying for lower speed limits in the city explains why more and more people are dying on Anchorage roads.” Really, how about data to substantiate that assertion?

      • Of course F=ma is only a part of the equation {ok, I apologize for that lol}. Velocity also creates a shorter reaction time window as the FHWA has been acknowledging (though typically with respect headlamps as opposed to speed limits, unfortunately). And velocity does a range of things to traction, air flow, and other variables.

  2. The speed/mass energy equation really is amazing and not at all what most would expect. A grain of dust at the right speed is much more lethal than a piano at relatively a slower speed. Just like the same asteroid of the same size would cause different damage depending on speed and angle of approach. The energy transfer is exponential and not linear.

    In the summer on a good day I usually drive 5 mph over the limit, in the winter on a good day I usually drive 5 mph under the posted limit. I adjust according to the road conditions, but I am always amazed by those who think 5 over or 5 under isn’t enough. Sometimes 50 under is appropriate, whereas 50 over is never appropriate.

  3. A resolution adopting National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) guidelines and approving affiliation with NACTO has been repeatedly presented to the MOA Assembly and Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions (AMATS). A handful of Assembly members indicated “interest” but continue to refuse to act while most (including the MOA members of AMATS simply ignore the matter altogether). AMATS staff have instructed their bicycle pedestrian advisory committee that endorsement of such matters is outside their brief (clearly not true) while staff also indicate they are only “planners”…

    The question is this: if you can take action that is known to reduce injury and death, and you refuse to take such action, aren’t you liable for the death and injury resulting from your refusal to act? I think the MOA, DOT, and AMATS have blood on their hands. You?

  4. Hard to say what’s altering the minds of drivers today since 66% of the U.S. population takes at least 1 prescription drug and there are “Brown Jug” stores on every street corner in ANC.

  5. Go out to Ft. Richardson and try to find a section of roadway (including the Davis Hwy, a 4 mile straightaway with no traffic signals or stop signs that used to be the highway from Anchorage to Eagle River before the current Glenn Hwy) that has a 40 mph speed limit. You can’t find it, because it doesn’t exist. The maximum speed limit on post is 35 mph, and there are plenty of MPs eager to enforce it. If you don’t have the self-discipline to honor it, the Army will impose the discipline upon you, and that is precisely what is lacking throughout American society; both self-discipline, and imposed discipline..

    • Thanks, Reggie. There was actually a reporter in Texas writing about pedestrians deaths that made note of the military speed standards and reported this:

      “Smart Growth America’s report Dangerous by Design 2014 mapped pedestrian fatalities nationwide from 2003-12. During this period, 373 pedestrian fatalities were reported in San Antonio. During the same period, Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base and Randolph Air Force Base (AFB) had a combined total of zero pedestrian fatalities. Not a single pedestrian fatality on those installations for 10 consecutive years or more.”

      He has an interesting take, wihch also points a finger at the media which can share some of the blame for why the killing of vulnerable road users continues day after day:

  6. A liberal media twists and amplifies the words and actions of its political opponents. Biden has done more hateful things than Palin/Trump.

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