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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

May 01, 1998

In those halcyon days just before and just after the turn of this century, automobile drivers felt a sense of fraternity that has no mechanical parallel today. My dad told me that in his youth, stranded motorists could depend on help from fellow drivers even on city streets. The American Automobile Association was originally formed as a way for "automobilists" to band together to lobby for laws that were friendly to car owners. The closest I ever came personally to this kind of camaraderie on the road was that felt by owners of British cars in the early '50s. Austin owners waved to Jaguar drivers - but always first because of the pecking order - and received a nod in return.

How different things are today. Road Rage is a growing threat in the streets as infuriated drivers become incensed over behind-the-wheel insults, real or imagined. Motorists are arming themselves and the newspapers and magazines relate stories of crashes that were caused by blind rage. If we haven't experienced this phenomena ourselves, most of us have friends or relatives who have been on one side of the Road Rage experience or the other.

But there are interpersonal signs and signals that can help defuse Road Rage occurrences or at least negate them a bit. These are some ways we can to cope with the disease:

APOLOGIZE FOR A DRIVING FAUX PAS - "If looks could kill..." was an expression my mother often used and most of us have experienced it, usually from a teacher at some level. Unfortunately, the looks that drivers give to each other often lead to confrontations that may indeed kill. One driver inadvertently cut off another or pulls into oncoming traffic, forcing another to swerve to avoid a collision. Maybe we ourselves make a turn without giving a signal and another driver must take evasive action because of it. That's when The Hard Look is given. Our signal for an automotive apology is one hand raised, palm up, and the shoulders shrugged with body language that says "I'm sorry." It will usually be met with a disgusted shake of the head but the situation is thereby defused.

RUSH HOUR TRAFFIC REDUX - Rush hour traffic is the curse of modern culture world-wide and it's the same in New York, Paris, London and Rome. If fate forces you into it on a regular basis, make sure your vehicle is in perfect running condition at all times. Breaking down during rush hour is like being wounded on the battlefield: you may not survive the melee. Air conditioning makes summer traffic almost bearable so make sure that yours works by exercising it periodically in winter. Always give the other driver the right-of-way even if he or she is wrong. Don't try to give morality lessons to other drivers when you're behind the wheel. The slightest fender-bender will tie up the flow for hours and you'll be a very unpopular participant. Buy the best sound system possible and play the classics as you drive. University research (confirmed by my daughter-in-law Cathy) has proven that serene music soothes the savage beast - even when the beast is in your driver's seat.

BAD MERGE INTO COMMUTER HIGHWAY TRAFFIC - This is akin to reentering the race after a pitstop at the Indy 500 and rather than bully your way in, ride close to the shoulder for a few yards. To do it right, match your entry speed to that of the flow of traffic as much as possible and start to accelerate to that speed about 100 yards ahead of your merge position. Pick a gap of no less than three car lengths. Don't expect a big-rig to slow down for you - pulling down 50,000 pounds quickly can result in terrible trouble. Pick your spot, use your left signal light and flash other drivers a pleading facial expression. Most will give you room to maneuver but don't try it with jacked-up four-by-four pickups or low-riders - their drivers often take it as a personal affront.

MISCELLANEOUS TIPS - Driving a big-rig is tough work and the drivers are always on a tight schedule. When one passes you on the left on the highway, turn on your low-beam headlights and flash them a couple of times as soon as it's safe for the rig driver to pull in front of you. He or she will flash the tail light on the truck as a gesture of thanks. Don't try to block nervy drivers who try to crowd in ahead at a toll gate. Show your magnanimity by waving them into line ahead of you and the miscreant may be appreciative and pay your toll for you - but don't count on it. If possible, avoid talking on your cell phone when you're driving. Not only is it dangerous, but Road Rage-prone drivers may take it as a show-off posture and may act accordingly , right or wrong. When the light turns green for you at an intersection, count to three, look left and right and then proceed. Road Rage drivers often consider running a red light an act of civic, social and cultural defiance.

Defensive, cognitive driving is probably the best deterrent to Road Rage. During my high-school teaching career, one of my colleagues would tell students in his driver instruction classes to drive like everyone else on the road is crazy. In this age of Road Rage, it might well be true.