091618 human condition (toned)

Having returned from Italy some weeks back, I couldn’t help but remember the old saying that begins “When in Rome …,” particularly as it applies to driving.

For those who have had the good fortune of visiting the Eternal City, the experience of just riding in or driving a car may create lasting memories. For those unaware, tailgaters are commonplace, lane markers are just suggestions and motorcyclists do not believe the rules of the road apply to them.

With narrow streets and difficult parking, motorcyclists are everywhere and, if they’re Roman, will weave between and in front of or behind cars whenever possible. Taxis will try to wedge between cars stopped at lights and shamelessly maneuver around others, in such a way as to seemingly disrespect others’ prior positions in queue.

The strangest thing to an outsider is that all of this goes on rather calmly, with cab drivers allowing others to do to them what they do to others, and without much horn honking, unless, of course, things get a little too close for even Roman comfort.

As insane as this sounds, driving in Rome can be less anxiety provoking than driving at times on Baton Rouge’s congested roadways. Although I do maintain that Baton Rouge and Rome share the same pothole repairmen, in the three-plus decades I have called Baton Rouge home, I’ve witnessed a consistent and progressive decline in what we used to call courteous drivers.

Though we all try to get to where we’re going as quickly and efficiently as we can, there are always those who believe they have rights to cut in front of or weave or speed around others without a lick of guilt.

On the other hand, there are those who take time at stop lights to answer all of their emails or texts, totally out of touch as to when a light turns green, no matter how many cars are lined up behind. And unlike Roman cab drivers, those impacted by these actions get perturbed and honk or give glaring looks, which in turn might be considered provocative in themselves with the middle-finger salute often following if not potentially scarier gestures.

How do such behaviors become so commonplace and problematic?

It could be argued that our city’s roadways that have not been altered to accommodate the increased traffic have made us all worse and frustrated drivers. But the real answer lies in that human condition common to all known as "normalization of deviance."

Columbia University sociologist Diane Vaughan defines this as: “The gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm.”

Put another way, "normalization of deviance" represents a conscious choice or “drift” into an area that previously would have been considered risky. This deviation into relatively unsafe waters is then reinforced for the next time the opportunity arises because nothing bad happens.

In addition to drivers, this phenomenon occurs throughout industry and in most walks of life. Reputable engineers, physicians and pothole repairmen are not immune to this happening. It has been found to be the culprit in NASA’s Challenger and Columbia disasters and is the subject of discussions on safety in industrial plants and hospitals alike.

Anyone involved in public safety is aware of this occurrence and understands how devastating behavior associated with "normalization of deviance" has the potential to be.

Then what can we do? It’s unlikely our roads or drivers will quickly change, no more than we can expect cab drivers in Rome to stay within marked lanes. Perhaps we can start by taking a lesson from the alcoholic who realizes he or she has a drinking problem: admit there is a problem. 

— Kenney lives in Baton Rouge


Advocate readers may submit stories of about 500 words to The Human Condition at features@theadvocate.com or The Advocate, EatPlayLive, 10705 Rieger Road, Baton Rouge, LA 70809. There is no payment, and stories will be edited. Authors should include their city of residence.