Monday, March 23, 2015

20- It's War Out There!

I have slowly evolved into a conscientious objector to the fury of our times known as “road rage“. I’ve simply decided not to participate. It’s war out there! By anyone’s definition, it’s a war! Human beings pitted one against another, some fully armed, some totally crazy, some both, all with a mission... and thousands of pounds of steel and rubber to carry it out.
Their missions generally fall into one of two categories:
1. Get there before anyone else.
2. Don’t let anyone else get there before you.
The “Passers” against the “Impeders”, as it were. All battling it out.
As a former television news photographer and a long time freelance photojournalist, I’ve driven well over a half million miles since I first came to Colorado 40 years ago. I’ve been watching this battle brew for a long time and it grows worse by the day. Remember the first time you even heard the term... “Road rage“? How about the first time you heard of someone firing a gun in traffic? Have you ever had someone in traffic flip you the bird and you didn’t know why? Have you ever thought, even once, that you would enjoy seeing some harm come to that son-of-a-bitch who just cut you off? I know I have.
I’m not proud of it but I’ve been both Passer and Impeder in my time. I was a Passer when I was younger but, like most drivers, became more of an Impeder as I aged.
Passers are nearly always young. Don’t be fooled that many look older. Immaturity lurks just beneath the surface. They don’t think they can get hurt and don’t care if they hurt you. Nothing is as important as their need to be in front of the car in front of them. In the rear view mirror, you can spot them a hundred yards back, weaving and dodging in and out of traffic...cutting people off...changing lanes...blowing through red lights. “We’re in traffic for Christ’s sake. Why can’t he just wait like everybody else?” You can feel your heart speeding up...your grip on the wheel tightens. You press down on the accelerator to close the gap with the car in the next lane. That should hold him. But it doesn’t. And it’s not a “him“. It’s a woman driving the speeding SUV and she’s swinging far to the right... and into the safety lane... passing everyone on the shoulder...How can she get away with that?..........
Banging your fist on the dashboard doesn’t help.
I’ve often fantasized about a special power of some kind, you know like Superman has. I’d wish for the power to point my finger at any “problem” vehicle and have and all four tires blow off... simultaneously...Can you just imagine the satisfaction?....The supreme impediment. But being an Impeder is, in it’s own way, just as unsafe as being a Passer, and the conflict generated by the two can only lead to trouble.
I’d felt for years I should do something before I became a casualty of the road wars myself. Over time I was able to give up being a Passer, partly because of the traffic tickets I received (three on one occasion, a potential 18 points, speeding film back for Channel 9’s 5 o‘clock news show) but mostly because I took pictures and saw, first hand, the damage this recklessness did. It’s hard to ignore when you see the carnage day after day. So, I began by wearing my seat belt... at all times. I drove slower. I was more attentive, making up little rules for myself about changing lanes only after literally turning my head to check them out. I considered myself to be a very safe driver. But there were still problems. The warrior in me didn’t die. As the Passers began to take advantage of my new safety consciousness, I found myself moving in another direction. I became an Impeder. It didn’t seem aggressive. I told myself I was really helping by slowing down these scofflaws. But it didn’t end by simply blocking their way. I’d have to speed up, maybe even change lanes. Once they realized a game was on, they’d make even riskier moves. This was nuts. I had to do something because even as I saw the danger of my situation, my foot was reflexively pressing on the gas to keep that son-of-a-bitch up ahead on my left from cutting into my safe braking zone. Why, you bastard........ Well here we go again.
And so was born my plan to conscientiously object to the madness.
These other drivers brought out responses in me that were almost involuntary. I was often totally unaware of what I was doing, on autopilot I guess. I needed to bring my thoughts about driving to the front of my attention so I could take them apart and examine them. So that’s what I did, literally. I put the issue directly in front of me, on the steering wheel.
I taped a sheet of paper right over the air bag in the center of the wheel and recorded a minus sign each time I “engaged” another driver. The only way to balance a minus was to acquire a plus, earned by allowing someone else to go ahead of, or pull in front of me. Each time I did this, I marked a perpendicular line through a minus, turning it into a plus. So much as a flexed leg muscle meant I was reacting aggressively and put another minus on the chart. I graded myself very severely. I wouldn’t go home in the evening unless the ledger was balanced. That sometimes meant circling the block a few extra times until I obtained a final plus. But it changed my dangerous habits almost immediately, focusing concentration on my driving like nothing else had ever done. As long as my driving was at the center of my attention, I could successfully control both my active and passive aggressions. Over time it simply became a new and better way to drive.
I did this for 6 months, and that was about 14 years ago. I’m a far safer and much less stressed driver than I was before. It’s true from time to time I still get that little tickle in my gut when I see someone in the rear-view mirror doing something really boneheaded in the safety lane..... But I just don’t “engage” anymore. I stay out of the fray. Now I simply wave the wild ones by saying, “Come on by buddy, Hell ain’t half full. You’re an accident in the making and I want you past me and on down the road to your certain, waiting destiny”.

It’s probably a good idea to go through the routine again every few years as needed, but the trick is to recognize my own aggressive driving in the first place. I’ve got to believe there are lots of other people out there who could benefit from this little exercise as well. I mean, next time you’re in traffic, just look around at all the candidates who could make good use of this information, and don’t forget that familiar mug in the rear view mirror.