January 11, 2012

Yesterday I picked my wife up from the local food bank just like I do every Tuesday. I rarely go inside because the crowd bothers me - I just don't like crowds. We pulled out of the parking lot and headed out of town headed for Wal-Mart. As we pulled off an on-ramp just outside of town someone refused to allow me to merge onto the road. And I cussed the driver out in language that I can’t really describe here — at least not without getting my column canceled. (To clarify: I often get cut off, but I use different language each time, as I try to keep it fresh.)

Lady Laura turned to me and said, in a serious tone, “You have a serious problem with road rage!”

After I got over my shock, I explained that I did not have what is typically thought of as “road rage.” Road rage is when someone gets so mad during a driving confrontation that they actually do something dangerous, confronting the other driver in a way that ends up in violence. Road rage is what ends up on the 6 o’clock news.

I explained that I have “righteous road indignation,” something completely different and reasonable. Other drivers, I told her, are a bunch of jerks because they cut people (me) off, drive too fast (or too slow), talk on their cell phones and occasionally read books while driving. I have a duty to point this out and to make sure to call them idiots, fatheads and morons — and in many cases, saying something unkind about their driving. What I don’t do, I explained, is actually confront any of these drivers.

I confine my remarks to my own car, and while I’ll do plenty of hand gestures, they’re not the kind to get you into trouble. My hand gestures say things like, “Are you really in that much of a hurry, my friend?” or “Perhaps you didn’t see me! I was already in this particular lane, sir!” They always involve the entire hand with all five fingers. And the gestures are never personal messages to you or the horse you rode in on.

Righteous road indignation is entirely non-confrontational.

I do make an exception for truck drivers. After all, I did drive truck for a long time and I know truckers who pilot huge rigs capable of crushing small villages and sometimes barrel along as if they can’t wait to get to the next village. Truck drivers usually have a phone number on the side of the cab. In those cases, I’ll have Laura write down the phone number and later call the number. I tell the dispatcher that one of their drivers is a maniac and needs to get off the road. (I learned long ago that you can’t always count on the “How’s My Driving?” phone numbers on the back bumpers. They often lead you to an answering machine that will say something really offensive.) I used to regularly call trucking companies and demand to speak to the dispatcher, hanging up with the satisfaction of knowing when the driver got back to the office, his boss would read him the riot act.

At least I did until one day last fall, when an 18-wheeler started tailgating me so closely that my rear view mirror was nothing but truck bumper. Were I to stop short, I’d end up a schmear on the underside of his truck. I pulled into the next lane, got the number, borrowed my brother's cell phone (he was riding shotgun with me that day) and I dialed the number on the door of the cab.

The guy who answered the phone sounded gruff and mean. Good, I thought. This jerk will regret the day that he tried to turn Sir Joseph into a skid mark.

I explained my situation: I was about to die horribly at the hands of one of their Neanderthal drivers, and I didn’t appreciate it. A minute or so into my rant, however, I noticed that the “dispatcher” seemed to have a very noisy office — an office so loud he could have been ...

I looked up to see the truck driver on his cell phone. He was looking down at me with an angry scowl. He gave me a gesture that was unmistakable and actually didn’t need very many fingers, either. Then he gestured for me to pull over. I hung up the phone as quickly as possible, let him get ahead of me, and made a quick turn down a side street. The truck driver barreled onward toward the next unsuspecting village.

Ever since, I’ve confined myself to reactions that are guaranteed to upset no one other than my wife. Righteous road indignation might be perfectly justified and reasonable, but it’s no match for honest to goodness, old-fashioned road rage.