Most of our schools will be back over the next week or so and that means an end to the holiday season and the return of commuting traffic. The towns and cities become much busier, the weather worsens and the impatience needle moves up the dial towards red.
It is an almost uniquely frustrating situation. On a crowded footpath you can sidestep, dodge, turn away or turn back. In a car you are stuck and can only watch the clock tick away the minutes. The helplessness adds to the exasperation.
I’m prone to it myself. Despite the years spent talking about it I still get very frustrated when I’m stuck in the car and cannot move.
Of course on one level we should all just take a deep breath and try not to get wound up. The grumpy ones do not get where they are going any faster.
At its extreme though this human reaction can become extremely serious. There are people who are of a personality type that is prone to aggression in the stress of traffic jams. There have been cases where assault or even murder resulted from something as innocuous as a traffic incident.
That may be very rare but it has happened, and not just in places like America. It has happened in Ireland.
Less drastically, I personally witnessed a situation recently where a somewhat elderly driver got his head bitten off by another driver for stopping on a yellow box.
The rudeness was breathtaking. I cannot imagine that any such reaction would have resulted from a mistake anywhere else. It is genuinely strange but true; if a little old lady walks out in front of you on the footpath you will almost certainly apologise and help her to pick up her shopping.
If the same little old lady cuts a driver off in traffic she’s likely to get a drastically different reaction.
There is a strange psychological effect going on here. In a car, we are not quite in public and not quite in private.
Imagine you are at home watching TV and your least favourite politician appears on the screen, spouting a view that you disagree with. Many of us will feel no compunction in venting out loud just what we think of him.
But if the same politician is sitting beside you at a dinner in the GAA club or some such, there is no way that you will react as freely. This is not hypocrisy. We are social animals evolved to interact with each other. A complex set of verbal and non verbal behaviours kicks in, designed to prevent an aggressive response and ensure social peace.
In the car we are somewhere between the TV and the dinner party. You are cocooned to an extent, and free to vent, but you are also in a situation where others can see you and can respond.
If one aggressive personality meets another it can escalate and tempers can be lost.
For the rest of us, it is important not to be part of the problem. Other drivers are not out to annoy you deliberately; when they make an aggravating move is almost certainly unintentional. Do not compete or retaliate.
Be patient and be polite. Others will usually let you in if you signal properly but will resist being forced to. Say thanks when you can and apologise if you need to. It is amazing how a small courteous gesture can diffuse traffic anger.
Glaring eye contact, gestures, flashing lights and blaring horns are all worse than useless. They do not speed you up and can be the last straw for someone else.
I am not likely to explode with rage any time soon myself. But I do catch myself becoming irrational and grumpy, and it takes an effort of will to make myself see the situation sensibly. The world won’t end if I’m ten minutes late.