Driving Is A Social Process – How Drivers Create Their ‘Self’?

In the twenty-first century, we live in a car-centered community. Many of us may not be enthralled to cars, but the relationship of much of humanity to the world is increasingly mediated by this ubiquitous machine. To such an extent that it is the car and its associated infrastructure (from roads and parking lots to complex suburban cultures) rather more than the human that appears to dominate the whole landscape in which we live in.

That way, driving cars (and other motor vehicles too) in our societies is more like a ‘rite of passage’ for teenagers. We often tend to think that the driving ‘privilege’ is a birth right! The act of driving is considered to be a nominal or an insignificant one that almost everybody does. And we tend to think it as a very individualistic and a personal act. But, when cars operate in social settings like roads, how can the act of driving alone be personal? The act of driving is equally an individual and a social process. The problem is that, sometimes, the social processes overlap our individual decisions on wheels, and so the ‘social’ part often goes unrecognized.

The individual part of driving can’t be any more obvious: we decide on where we are going and which route to take, we look for other cars and road user’s behaviour including pedestrians and stray animals, and we also pay attention to the road conditions like sharp turns or uphill, etc. We might like to listen our favorite songs, have a chat with fellow passengers, take a bite of burger or sip a cool drink (some idiots go for alcohols), wear sun glasses, or do whatever we want while still in the driver seat.

Also Read: Nissan Is Using Anthropology To Teach Autonomous Cars How To Behave

But we often fail to understand where the social processes actually over lap the personal with regard to driving. People buy specific car brands and particular models not simply because of personal preferences. Their affordability and purchasing power is based on their economic situation and is determined at the macro-levels of the society. There can hardly be any young buyers who doesn’t like a sporty Ferrari or an Aston Martin; none of our parents will dislike to own and tour a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Phantom or a Mercedes-Benz. Yet, their actual purchasing capacity forces them to end up with a tiny Nano or an entry-level sedan.

In fact, many of us drive our cars not because we like to or passionate about driving them. The act of being driven around by a chauffeur solely depends on one’s economic affordability. Don’t you think everyone will like to employ a driver if they are freebies? Not just the chauffeur, it is your money that determines what technologies gonna power your car. Fuel efficiency, performance, and safety levels of cars are not universal, and every technology comes price.

Moving beyond the affordability, every car users (drivers, owners, and passengers) attribute certain meanings with their cars. Cars give a sense of personal power to us; are a major status symbol, and mediate power relations between two people or groups. Cars perfectly mimic the owner and certainly driver’s social class to which they belong to. Take for instance, you happen to meet a cab driver with a driver of an imported Cadillac limousine. What is the image you construct in your mind for two of them? You are more likely to assume the comparatively higher economic and social status of the Cadillac driver.

Doesn’t the idea of personal image and symbolic status influence your car choices – small car or an SUV, size, colour, registration number, etc – which are supposed to be a personal decisions? We more often, consciously or unconsciously, relate such meaning to what we think as our car tells others who we are. We try to show others how successful we are by the cars we drive. We make our cars to flaunt our sub-cultural values and orientations, to make us identify with a particular political movement or a party, or even our environmental consciousness. Have not you noticed cars with “Do not Honk!” message on their bumpers??

American Sociologist and one of the foremost proponent of Symbolic Interactionism, George Herbert Mead, has observed that individuals try to create their “self” partly through the reactions of others. His theory on “I” and “Me” substantiates the idea that we learn about ourselves via numerous interactions we encounter with others. The self will cease to exist without the reactions of other individuals and meanings created within a given society. He has also elaborated on the significance of language, symbols and communication in our lives, the ways in which our gestures bring reciprocal reactions through the process of ‘role taking’.

In a social setting, like roads where we operate our cars, it becomes important to know the reactions of others (say road users) to us. Consequentially, we also construct images of others in our mind, and all these sometimes regulate our road behavior and determine our driving decisions.

Driving a car, especially in a road system that of India, is a complex yet an amusing phenomenon. With largely fractured road infrastructures, un-regulated traffic, and less awareness level and selfish mentality on part of road users, driving ain’t easy. Yet, we try to be safer on wheels by being able to anticipate every actions and reactions of other drivers, pedestrians, stray animals trespassing into roads, etc. A driver predicts every possible actions of fellow road users while driving and also breaks the expectations of others. Honking, using dipper lights and turn signals, automated braking lights, and hand signals are the gestures a driver makes to other drivers. That applies for a pedestrian as well, who looks for vehicles on the either side of the road, predicts their direction of movement, and exchange gestures in pursuit of crossing the road. Therefore, a constant interaction takes place on the road, making it an undeniable social setting and driving as a social process.

Also Read: The “SUV”ish Way Of Driving

Some stickers also encourage onlookers to share a particular belief

We also interact with others on roads in different ways. It is really fascinating to observe how people try to create a sense of ‘self’ among others through personalised registration plates, animated bumper stickers, funny quotes and pictures, party flags, and by fancy tuning and modding. These ‘artifacts’ forge an identity for the self and in addition encourage the onlooker to share a particular belief, for instance,  the religious symbols and phrases like “Jai
Mata”
or “Ram Ram”. Some stickers like the one I commonly notice in Delhi, that of theme parks like Fun ‘n’ Food village, Jurasik Park, or those of posh city clubs, let others know owner/ driver’s favorite places they visit or belong to. Others like ‘Press’, ‘Govt. of India’ or ‘G’ in red, ‘Police’ on private cars, ‘Advocate’, etc. tells others directly what the owner is up to. Many in India have the practice of writing names of family members, religious or caste groups they belong to, on the car’s windshield. Sharing such private information do help create a public self.

Here is the best part. While driving, our perception of a fellow driver might change based on those externalities, and that in part, determine our reaction and road behaviour. Haven’t you ever shout or honk irritability at someone who cuts off your lane with loud music playing inside his car, with some sporty tuning, or whatever? Okay, if you feel that the argument is tough, take the case of cars with “L” learners board or an Ambulance with a freakish siren. When you encounter such vehicles, you are duty bound to act as expected by law – drive cautiously behind a learning driver or pull over to side lane, slow down to give way for the ambulance to pass. Here, with all these symbolic objects on cars, you are bound to be influenced on your driving decisions.

Even car makers use monikers like brand’s symbol, model name, badges like TDI, V-TEC, Blu-Tech, ABS, Turbo, Sportz, etc. to indicate car’s technologies and make their cars appear distinct. I remember, decades back cars like Ambassador or Premier Padminis used to have signs like “Power Brake” or “A/C – No hand signal” to boast among other poor vehicles. Now, that would be foolish and funny since every car’s technologies have advanced. Thus, even those symbolic artifacts on cars keep on changing over time.

There can be outliers to the cases I have discussed above. But what fascinates me are those meanings and motivations behind such symbolic artifacts, and their roles in the social interactions that takes place on road
while driving.

Also Read: Road Safety Starts At Home

Dhiyanesh Ravichandran

Dhiyanesh is equally crazy about driving cars and writing about them. This guy loves everything with a steering wheel, so, at someday if self-driving cars take up all driving, he is sure to go nuts! He likes sedans of 90s era, esp W140 S-Class and R34 Skyline GT. Apart from usual motoring stuffs, he maintains a strong appetite for sociological perspectives on cars, their historical and cultural footprints. He owns a 1999 Fiat Siena passionately, and drives a Ford Fiesta.