Friday, October 20th 2017

Carmaggedon: When you’re stuck in apocalyptic traffic

Lessons learned from L.A., Johannesburg, Sao Paolo and other metros where road rage is a danger to your body — and soul

BY RICK LEED — When stuck in your car in painful, frustrating, unimaginable traffic, already late for an appointment, who hasn’t felt like a Looney Tunes cartoon character, with steam coming out of their ears, fists pounding the steering wheel, and eyes turning red and bulging out of their head?

Road rage is usually directed at someone else who has done something heinous — or at the least, rude, like cut you off, changed lanes unexpectedly, or flipped you the finger.  But the inward-focused rage and fury that has no specific personal target is so often worse, creating more stress, more anger, more intense negative energy:  ‘Why the hell isn’t this traffic moving?’

All of this came into sharp focus, with all the drama of Hollywood, in Los Angeles during the second week of July when one of America’s busiest stretches of freeways, the I-405, had a massive closure for demolition and reconstruction.

It shut down the city. The only way for people to avoid traffic jams because hundreds of thousands of travelers — and tourists going to Disnleyland and LAX in peak season — was to take detours along very small and already congested side roads, or simply stay at home.  Civic officials were so desperate they actually enlisted celebrities with huge Twitter fan bases — like Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen, and Kim Kardashian — to help get the message out to the millions: stay the hell out of L.A.  Buy groceries, hunker down, cocoon at home and don’t even look at your car keys.

What happens when you add “cars” plus “Armageddon”

It inspired talk radio to coin the term, ‘Carmaggedon’ — likening the man-made catastrophe to Godzilla trashing Tokyo, with sci-fi sound-effects included.  With Los Angeles paralyzed, each of us reacted differently, which raises the question:

Can the collective conscious embrace events like this as an opportunity to reflect on our own ability to just ‘let go,’ instead of — at the extreme — going ‘drive-by’?

The question, on a psychological and spiritual basis is this:  What do you do when there is absolutely nothing you can do?

Does letting your blood pressure go through your moonroof as you foam at the mouth, lean on your car horn, and spew profanities really improve the situation?  We know it doesn’t, of course, but we often go nuts anyway.

My experiences in Los Angeles over the last few years include two memorable ones involving traffic.  One was when my 14-year-old daughter and I were going to see a school play on a Sunday afternoon (Annie, no less, about the eternally optimistic orphan, who sings that ‘the sun will come out, tomorrow’).  It was the day of the Los Angeles Marathon, which had recently had a route shift, and no one, including us, was prepared.  Giving ourselves 90 minutes to reach her school — normally a 20-minute drive — with a path that seemed quite clever, we found ourselves in grid-locked, unimaginable snarls of traffic with movements of several feet over the course of ten-minutes.

It was an hour since we’d left home, and we were barely a quarter of the way there.  Then, after two hours on the road, we had barely gotten another quarter of the way there.  We had already missed the whole first act of the show.  My daughter was crying, I was yelling, telling her that this wasn’t my fault, or anyone’s fault.  We both were exhausted and stressed and full of rage and resentment.  Even turning around and heading home without seeing the play — which we did — was still a disaster, because we had to re-trace our steps again at a snail’s pace.

How to let go of it, before totally losing it

During that awful trip--and during the other memorable one involving city-wide gridlock caused by a visit to LA by President Obama — I remembered things told to me  by two different and quite wise psychotherapists:  Getting mad, being upset, stressing out, becoming filled with rage and anger will not make the traffic dissipate.

The simple fact is that there is nothing you can do about the traffic, so, why beat yourself up over it?  Why not just ‘let it be’ and try to realize that you won’t get where you are going any faster by beeping your horn or cursing at other drivers (or cursing to yourself).  Why not try to breathe, find some inner peace, find some reserve of positive energy, maybe even — God forbid — find some twisted humor or irony in the situation?

Traffic, an inevitable reality of our current state of modern urban life, can’t be cursed away, wished away, or beeped away.  We can blame the other drivers on the road, or we can blame ourselves (‘why the hell did I take this street instead that street?!’), or we can curse or beep our car horns in a gesture that is equivalent to primitive man yelling or grunting or howling at an eclipse or some other natural occurrence or mystical phenomenon.

So, perhaps, the simple thing to take away from this is that sometimes, you have to accept that when there is nothing you can do to improve or change the situation, the only thing to do is . . . nothing.

RICK LEED has lived in the world’s top traffic capitals, including London, New York, and now, L.A. In the past two years, however, he has experienced even worse traffic in Mexico City and Sao Paolo, Brazil — proving that no matter how bad you think traffic is, it can always be worse.

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3 Comments on “Carmaggedon: When you’re stuck in apocalyptic traffic”

  1. Great article Rick. I like the down-to-earth manner in which you express yourself. I experienced a similar situation on Saturday night when I attended the Soundgarden concert in Toronto. I wasn't driving though, just trying to walk out of the front gates of the venue...along with thousands of others...and then the rain started. I'm always one to rush ahead and look for an opening to beat the crowds, but my partner urged me to keep my cool and go with the flow. He was right...we all got out, and as far as I know there were no fights. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  2. I can relate to what you say at the end about Mexico City. I was there last week, and drove through a traffic jam -- in a flood! The water was so high in certain sections of the freeway from the MEX airport to downtown that cars were immersed right up to their door handles. For sure water must have been gushing inside the interiors of those cars.

    The absolute worst, though, is the south side of Bogota, Colombia, which has a killer combination of congestion and smog so thick you might as well call is soot.

  3. Welcome to South Africa, where drinking and driving are a national pastime.

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