April 13, 2000

Laura Trujillo of the Arizona Republic:

> Dr. James,

> I'm writing a story about how firefighters say fewer people are
> pulling over for their lights and sirens these days. This isn't about
> those people who don't hear or see them, but those people who just
> refuse. Firefighters say it's much worse than it was 10 years ago.
> Do you have any theories on this? Is it a more rushed society? more
> aggressive?  rude? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

The fact is that people have traffic
emotions that have not been educated. As congestion increases there is
more of an emotional challenge to handle the many nerve racking close
calls--maybe hundreds every day for the average 30-min. commute. But this
is not the cause of the aggressiveness and rebellion against road
regulations and etiquette like ignoring fire engines.

The cause is in our socialization. We grow up being driven around by
aggressive drivers. This is half of the cause. As we start driving
ourselves, the habits learned in childhood are now modeled and we get more
aggressive with every generation as the habit is passed on.

The other half of the cause is our years of exposure to thousands of TV
scenes, cartoons, and commercials depciting drivers behaving badly and
having fun and getting away with it.

These two causes insure that we are cynical drivers, opportunistically
taking advantage of others, not a team player in traffic, willing to break
laws as a matter of routine, enjoying winning, hating to lose like missing
an amber light and having to stop. With this context in mind now, consider
the siren complaint by fire engines, and you can include other emergency
vehicles like ambulances.

Some people chase sirens for fun, but this is still rare, I think (there
is little solid evidence on any of this). Most drivers are either cynical
or confused. Why they're cynical, I explained above. This translates as
lack of care for the emergency vehicle and its public function. This is a
character lapse, in my view. Though this is a normal tendency, we should
fight it in ourselves because it threatens society and can lead us deeper
into less civilized territory--very unhealthy.

But others who appear not to respond appropriately to the emergency
vehicle may actually be confused and their slow reactions may appear as
uncooperative. Why are they confused? I can mention two causes. First,
they're not trained to do this. Some drivers can learn this on their own,
but others need training. So we need to train drivers how to behave around
emergency vehicles and big trucks. Second, the sound of the sirens have
not been updated. Several years ago an engineer in England proved that
drivers cannot accurately locate a siren's position and direction relative
to themselves--until the vehicle is very close, and by then they may be in
the way or not know how to get out fast and safely.

The female British engineer was interviewed on National Public Radio last
year and I hear her mention that she invented a new siren sound that is
like the old one but has in addition a second sound that's not wavy like
the siren. When drivers in traffic hear BOTH sounds in the siren they can
localize it from a distance and its direction. They installed these new
sirens in England, she said, but in the US there is a bureaucratic hold up
as to who has jurisdiction and who is going to pay for it.

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