Why other drivers speed up when you’re trying to pass

Okay. All drivers know this one.

You’re driving down a winding two-lane country road, and the car is front of you is going too slow.

This lasts forever.

Finally, finally, the road widens. Grasping for the onrushing gift of freedom, you pull out to pass.

And the other car … speeds up!

Argh! What a jerk!

Engage swearing finger!

It’s as though he’s doing it deliberately, and just won’t let you get by. Maybe he wants to make this as hard on you as possible.

Except, probably, he’s not – as New Zealand sociologist Carl Davidson is only too happy to explain.

“Those people you’re overtaking in the passing lanes most of the time aren’t thinking about the other person that is passing them at all,” said Davidson, head of insight at Christchurch-based firm Research First, in an interview with Yahoo Canada.

Robinson said that, just as drivers slow down when the road gets narrow, there is a natural, largely subconscious tendency to speed up anytime the pavement widens. This turns out to be triggered by our peripheral vision – and we are unlikely to even be aware of it.

“We all want to be the star of the movie that plays in our head. And so of course we think that person is deliberately trying to get me! To stop me from getting where I’m trying to get to."

“The conventional explanation is the person in the other lane is just being a jerk,” he said.

“But actually, you don’t need to reach that explanation to explain that kind of behaviour. You can explain it simply around how people perceive speed, and how they adapt to speed.”

So, most of the bad things that happen to you in traffic aren’t actually meant to single you out. Stuff happens, for very human reasons, without being intended to delay you, impede you, or make your life more dangerous.

“Those other drivers you’re mad at aren’t thinking about you. But the fact that you think they are thinking about you shines a really bright light into how you see yourself. And, to be fair, how all of us see ourselves.”

So why do we think the other car is doing it on purpose? That everyone else is a narcissistic so-and-so?

Davidson cites a popular aphorism known as Hanlon’s Law, which states we should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by human frailty

“We think that people are thinking about us, or talking about us, or noticing our behavior, because we’re the central part of the story of whoever we are. The reality is, that’s not the case. People aren’t noticing you, aren’t thinking about you, don’t pay that much attention to what you’re saying or doing – which is kind of liberating, right?”

A lot of Davidson’s work involves promoting brand awareness. He sees this me-centred perspective all the time.

“It’s a common phenomenon for us to deal with a client who could be anybody – a manufacturer of garages or sheds, or it could be somebody who’s trying to sell some new tourism product,” he explained.

“And from the way that they frame the questions they want us to deal with, it’s clear that they think that people think about their particular category all the time.

“Personally, I think about garages when I want a garage.”