How Humans Respond Emotionally to Potholes

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Some people get angry and bitter over the damage that poor pavement causes. But to protect from vehicular damage and accidents, some people take action.

The experience of driving in modern life is very different from the advertising of the 1950s, when singer Dinah Shore sang, “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” The camera showed us an open, smooth highway, where nary a care should cross the minds of drivers and passengers.

Instead, we today have traffic and potholes and detours. And in place of a perky song there are moments of discontent, frustration and, as is often reported in the news, road rage. One particularly disgruntled driver recorded his epic expletive-undeleted rant on the Internet about a pothole-pocked road in rural Ohio. From an armchair psychologist’s perspective, he appears to have lost his mind over bad pavement. (Note, the audio of the video is not for family or workplace settings.)

A University of Maryland sociologist, Philip N. Cohen, wrote about the emotions of the American driving experience some years ago for The Huffington Post. Cohen says that anger, bitterness and fear pervade the driving experience. For example, we might get angry when we switch lanes in slow moving traffic and then our new lane seems even slower. Did we make a bad decision to switch lanes? Or is someone ahead in our lane holding us back?

Bitterness comes from such things as when someone cuts us off, taking up 15 feet of road space that we think we are due. Never mind how that small slight has almost no effect on how much time it takes to reach your destination; they took something that was rightfully yours.

Fear in traffic is another emotion entirely. It comes from what Cohen says is “the constant danger of accidents [which] heightens our emotional responses to other drivers.” We might add how potholes heighten those fears, as rough pavement causes drivers to swerve or else they incur a very expensive car repair from hitting a deep pothole. Cohen adds that this fear of accidents “heightens our emotional responses to other drivers and…directs our anger and bitterness toward the individuals around us.”

Add this emotion: Bureaucratic frustration. This comes in the aftermath of driving incidents when no one is accepting blame or the financial burden.

In the Buffalo, New York suburb of Tonawanda, one would expect they have the whole pothole-problem scenario all worked out. With huge snowstorms and the freeze-thaw oscillations known to create potholes, drivers there should be skilled at both avoiding potholes and knowing how to get the damage paid for. But in January 2015, no fewer than 15 drivers all managed to hit a bridge joint that popped up on an overpass. Not technically a pothole, the chunk of concrete nonetheless caused thousands of dollars of damage to several of the cars.

The Buffalo CBS affiliate, WIVB-TV News 4, investigated claims in this and 128 other cases in eight Western New York counties, finding that only 13 had their damages paid for by the state. That means that 116 drivers with significant car damage from poor road conditions were likely left feeling bitter and angry, to say the least.

Some people put their emotions to good use, however. Consider how a group of bar patrons in Hamtramck, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, took matters into their own hands. After a session of complaining about potholes, they pooled resources to buy $120 worth of cold patch asphalt – 17 heavy bags weighing about 900 pounds – which covered the better part of one block’s road crevices. The group started a GoFundMe page that has since raised $4,475 to continue the effort.