Driving As A Social Activity

When we think of driving, we imagine it as a clearly defined activity. In some ways it is. Certain actions are mandatory for operating a car. Steering, shifting gears, accelerating and braking are all part of the physical activity of driving. And, everyone who is familiar with the act of driving, would agree that these physical actions are inherent to the activity of driving.

Harder to define, and more easily disagreed upon, are the cognitive and psychological aspects of driving. These facets of the driving experience rarely come to mind when considering the task of driving. The most logical explanation for this is that cars are equated with a method of travel, so the mechanical aspect of driving is the focus of this mode of transportation.

The driver, however, is more than just the operator of the vehicle. Mastering the rudiments of operating a vehicle is only half the battle. Understanding the rules of the road, how to anticipate various driving scenarios, and how to apply sound judgment are all crucial to good driving. Yet, the last two are not tested at the time of licensing, or at any point after a license is issued. They should be. These factors are critical to determining who should be allowed to drive and who should not.

One of the problems with setting standards for acceptable rates of anticipation and situational judgment is that perspective and subjectivity come into play. For instance, an article recently appeared in the New York Times about whether people with autism spectrum disorders should be allowed to drive.

Some people question whether these individuals are fit to drive, due to the nature of their impairment. What sets this group apart from “normal” people is their difficulty with social cues, rigid adherence to rules, difficulty adapting to unexpected situations and impulsiveness.

To complicate matters, this group runs along a spectrum, which makes each of them a little different, in terms of the severity of their symptoms. So it’s not possible to determine, precisely, how well this group can drive. Learning about the challenges autistic people face, makes one worry about how safe it would be to let them drive.

What was most fascinating about the discussion which ensued, on the above-mentioned article, was the emphasis on what the commenters referred to as the “social” aspect of driving. To them, driving is a social activity.

They drew this conclusion from their observations of autistic people struggling with social cues. Some commenters, who had autistic family members, saw this as the biggest obstacle to their learning to drive well.

By “social activity” these commenters meant: an activity where drivers must be courteous, and read each other’s expressions. Maybe knowing autistic people leads to viewing driving as an activity requiring courteousness.

Courtesy, on American roads, was abandoned a long time ago. Most drivers only notice another driver’s expression when they are engaging in road rage or some other aggressive or inconsiderate behavior. The rest of the time, they watch other cars’ positions, relative to their own car, and try to determine whether they will maintain their current course, or make a change in direction.

The driver’s intentions are what one should look for. Is the driver’s head turned or positioned to view traffic to the rear? If so, this would indicate an intention to change position in traffic. The driver’s emotions and facial expression are less important. So, it’s hard to see where those who are trying to judge the suitability of autistic people for driving get the idea that social skills are necessary to safely operate a motor vehicle.

Impulsivity, and the ability to adapt to the unexpected, would be more problematic. These traits affect judgment, which is far more likely to cause an accident than the inability to read social cues. Even so, the idea of driving as a social activity came up time and again on this article’s comments, as well as on other threads I read on this subject.

As I was thinking about the discussion on the New York Times article, I reflected upon my own experiences with a high-functioning autistic boy. I’m certainly no expert on autism, and one autistic person can’t serve as a model for all autistic people. Still, when trying to decide what constitutes fitness for driving, we have to look at what skills are necessary and determine who is able to learn those skills.

A number of years ago, an autistic boy moved into the condominium complex where I lived. He was around 14 years old.

His mother told the neighbors about his autism to help us understand some of his unusual behaviors. One thing she relayed to us was that he didn’t interact with strangers, so we shouldn’t be surprised if he walked past us without acknowledging our presence.

After hearing this, I never expected to have any contact with him. Shortly after he moved in, I saw him riding a bike in our parking lot. He rode, intently, in circles around the parking lot, yet he seemed aware of the cars driving around him.

One day, he was out riding, and he saw me come home on my bike. When I noticed him watching me, I said “It’s a nice day for a bike ride, isn’t it?” Imagine my surprise when he looked me in the eye and said, “Yes, it is.”

From that moment onward, we had something in common: we were both cyclists. Whenever I saw him around, I said hello and asked about his bike riding. Before long, we began having conversations, not only about bikes, but about his school and other assorted topics.

After getting to know him, I began to think he was capable of more than what his mother had told us. Even though our condominium association allowed him to break a few rules — pertaining to where he could ride and park his bike — he managed to compromise when asked to store his bike in the basement (a new location) for the winter.

Unfortunately, he was bitterly disappointed on his sixteenth birthday when his parents told him he could not get a learner’s permit. He loved cars, which he talked about incessantly, and had to accept his parents’ decision not to allow him to drive. To this day, I question his parents’ decision. I can’t help but wonder whether they were limiting him by unduly fearing for his safety.

After all, he did learn to interact with me, and a few other neighbors. He was able to compromise at times, despite his rigid adherence to daily rituals. And, overall, he was very bright.

Based on my own experience, I believe it’s impossible to lump people into groups, and categorically deny them the right to drive. Each person has to be considered as an individual; this holds true with respect to disability, illness, or age.

As cyclists, we want drivers to be as competent as possible. Incompetent drivers increase the risk of our losing life and limb. But, we really must ask ourselves, what is driving competency? How can we measure it? And, how can we ensure that it’s applied on an individual basis, and not as part of a sweeping generalization?

Regardless of how we, as a society, approach the training and testing of drivers, we must recognize the human tendency to allow personal perspectives to taint one’s view of what’s required to do something well. Is driving a social activity? In my view, it’s not. But, if you’re the parent of an autistic child, your views may vary.

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One Response to Driving As A Social Activity

  1. Timur Ender says:

    Great post. Car companies spend millions every year painting driving as a social activity. (A post about car advertising may be a good idea). Every car advertisement has a car speeding or doing down some off-road terrain. I always find these ads funny because 99.9% of the time cars are stuck in rush hour traffic and are rarely ever used in the way they are marketed.

    The car companies market the feeling of driving. Yet, no one stops and thinks what societal cost that this mass motorizations comes at. If only the bicycle industry had the $$ to compete with this type of harmful advertising.

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