The key to all our transportation problems: empathy?

The key to all our transportation problems: empathy?


Empathy – real empathy – is hard to come by. I was about to say, “these days”, but I think people have fundamentally never changed throughout history. I think empathy takes effort. From birth we think of ourselves first, and in a way, it’s almost unnatural to think beyond that.

Truly understanding the experiences or feelings of others and applying this to how you respond to them requires not just self-awareness, attention, at least some intelligence, …. but it also requires sacrifice. We have to be willing to entertain the idea that if we understand the position of the person who we are confronted with in this moment, the best response may cost me something.

Now, to say that if we only had more empathy, then our roads would be a much nicer place to be is great and all.

But, this is one of those “if only we could bring about world peace” arguments. We’ll never get everyone – or even a significant minority – conducting themselves with empathy, but we can use it to inform our own behaviour.

“Hang on”, you say, “aren’t we just reacting to a competition for scarce resources?” Space on the roads? Parking? Time? Isn’t that different from simply lacking empathy?

It can be. But when it comes to respecting others on the road as opposed to simply getting that parking spot, I think that a lack of empathy rates pretty high as giving rise to aggressive behaviour such as every cyclist has experienced.

It’s pretty easy to see how a close pass on a cyclist would be rooted in a lack of empathy.

See, roads can make people crazy, more so when behind the wheel of a car (bestowing a heightened sense of power and privilege on the occupant), so people tend to see everyone around them as obstacles as opposed to other people.

Can we sell empathy as a personal, even selfish benefit?

From an article on Psychology Today: “Having poor empathy skills can lead to serious consequences. It can lead to conflict born of misunderstanding.”

The article goes on to say that empathy leads to fewer errors by physicians with better results for patients and better results in terms of job performance in business environments. It doesn’t just make people feel better, but has practical, real-world results. The same could be had on the road.

Can empathy have real-world benefits to traffic?

The problem with empathy…

1. The first problem the article mentions is not paying attention to people’s emotions. We are to minimize distraction, which on the road takes on a much deadlier role, but I’m thinking of the isolating nature of cars that tend to disconnect us from those around us. It’s not the same as someone cutting you off on the footpath or on a bike, where eye-contact, physical space, and ability to speak to one another, not to mention the personal risk associated with escalating the situation brings, make the situation a far more reasonable one to deal with.

The article suggests fine-tuning your ability to read someone’s emotional state. On the road, I would argue that there isn’t the need to decipher someone’s micro-expressions, as people are generally either minding their own business or displaying a more-than-clear emotional state requiring little interpretation.

Sadly, I don’t have a solution for the fact that vehicles dehumanize those on both sides of the glass, short of people using anything other than a personal motor-vehicle to get around.

I’d say try to see everyone as the people that they are, but that’s both obvious and useless at the same time. Maybe just try anyway…

2. The second problem the article brings up is identifying with the other person’s emotions but not knowing how to respond. Translating this to the road, I’d suggest this means that we evaluate our own actions.

This gets dangerously close to victim blaming, but I’ll just say that as a pedestrian and a cyclist, don’t be a douche. Ride predictably, don’t antagonize anyone, and avoid the flights of fancy that sees you as the star (or villain) of Premium Rush.

For those of you in vehicles, realize that your driving is not quite as entertaining on the outside as it is on the inside. You may not have intended to send a message as you squeezed the cyclist or ground to a halt at the last second from that side-street, but the message was sent all the same.

3. The third roadblock to empathy is essentially, not necessarily feeling any, but knowing you should. Cognitive empathy. Basically, you hate cycling and cyclists, but don’t necessarily want to kill them all the time. This doesn’t sound like empathy so much as doing the minimal amount to stay out of prison. I’ll go around you, but I won’t like it.

We’ll take it.

Likewise, however, I’m going to suggest that just because you are on a bike doesn’t mean that you are always on the moral high-ground, so maybe you can also use cognitive empathy to be considerate to the person that is inside of the car, as applicable.

4. And finally, from the article,

Stress, self-absorption, and lack of time can gang up on empathy to kill it. Knowing what your empathy roadblocks are and exploring ways to overcome them can help you develop a tool that is vital to your success at home and work.

You know what I’m going to seriously suggest? Leave earlier.

Yep, you’d be amazed at how much more chilled out you are when you have a bit of time to spare on your travels.

Empathy in the name of efficiency

There is a certain segment of road trauma/congestion/tension that can be cured by infrastructure, but there are also some that would be improved by empathy (letting that one person in instead of backing up a whole lane behind them, for example).

So, if you want to be part of the solution to the “war on our roads”, then look no further than to our friend, empathy. You’ll arrive happier, more relaxed, more fulfilled, and with time to spare.


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