Passing Glances


There are gaps in my pop culture knowledge, and, until last weekend, American Graffiti was one of them. But, I finally saw it. We watched it in a big tent in the quad at the University of Alberta's homecoming weekend. What has stayed with me, other than the blonde in the T-Bird, was how the cars were as much the characters as were Dreyfuss, Howard, Ford, Williams.

The grilles got a lot of looks. The headlights became eyes. The hoods were heads. George Lucas's camera shots and lighting brought out the personalities in the cars. There were even a couple of killer effective scenes where the camera gave us two cars side-by-side while we heard the disembodied voices of the human drivers talking back and forth to each other. The magical effect brought the cars to life, replacing their usual voices -- horn, engine, brakes, tires -- with the human versions.

Cars fascinate me. Not like they fascinate my dad, mind you,  or, for that matter,  the dudes in grade 12 who knew everything about a carburetor except how to spell it. My fascination runs along different lines, powered by different questions.

What happens to us when we surround ourselves by a couple tons of steel? How do we change? How does the car happen to us? What is the deeper meaning of being able to transform a thought of speed into the fact of speed in the firing of a synapse? Who buys which cars, trucks, and why? Why do people behind the wheel get so enraged at a stranger driver when subjected to an affront? Why do people pick their noses and examine the findings when they can be seen? What is the nature of the cyborg being formed in this melding of seatbelted human and smart machine? How do we best formulate the problem of cars in collisions? Are they bits of data that have become sync clogged *, or are they proof of the free will of error-prone human beings? In Alberta, why is everyone except me hauling or carrying another vehicle. And on and on.

I wonder why drivers look at each other when they pass on the highway. Are we trying to talk to each other? Just say hello? Send out a signal there's a soul in all of this technology?

And so today coming home from Calgary, after having stopped in Red Deer to argue with my right hip flexor, I added some bad social science to the equation. Each time I passed a vehicle or a vehicle passed me on my way back to the Henday in Edmonton, I made a point of looking at the other driver. The question: did they look at me at the same time? Here is the little data:

78: cars passed
58: drivers who did not make eye contact with me
20: drivers who did make eye contact with me
12: females who made eye contact
8: males who made eye contact

Now, this is limp social science. I don't know and can't control for whether they looked at me because they thought I was driving too fast, because they liked the look of the BMW, or whether they were somehow lonely or wistful or those other things highway driving makes you sometimes feel.

But is the friendliness-loneliness-curiosity factor somehow tied to geography?

Of the 20 drivers who made eye contact with me:

35: per cent encountered between Red Deer and Ponoka
30: per cent encountered between Ponoka and Leduc
35: per cent encountered between Leduc and Edmonton

Note: I did not include drivers of RVs, dump trucks or tractor trailers in my non scientific survey, which was conducted in safety courtesy a hastily devised pen-to-paper, but eyes-on-the-road recording system.

Sometimes the only time you have to sit and think and draw conclusions is when you are on Highway 2 going 110 kmh, or, to pass, slightly faster.



* Thanks to the brilliant web analyst Shawn for writing this word play. 

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