Road Rage

Aggressive driving is America's car sickness du jour. But is there a cure for thinking everyone else on the road is an idiot?

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It's a jungle out there. Well, not really: it's worse than a jungle. It's a stretch of roadway anywhere in America, and in place of the ravenous tigers and stampeding rhinos and slithery anacondas are your friends and neighbors and co-workers, that nice lady from the church choir and the cheerful kid who bags your food at the local Winn Dixie--even Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis. They're in a hurry. And you're in their way. So step on it! That light is not going to get any greener! Move it or park it! Tarzan had it easy. Tarzan didn't have to drive to work.

It may be morning in America--crime down, incomes up, inflation nonexistent--but it's high noon on the country's streets and highways. This is road recklessness, auto anarchy, an epidemic of wanton carmanship. Almost everyone from anywhere has a story about it, as fresh as the memory of this morning's commute. And no wonder. Incidents of "road rage" were up 51% in the first half of the decade, according to a report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Some occurrences are grisly enough to make the headlines. Last year a high-speed racing duel on the George Washington Memorial Parkway outside Washington killed two innocent commuters, including a mother of two, traveling in the opposite direction.

More often the new ethos of road anarchy manifests itself in the mundane: the unsignaled lane change by the driver next to you, the guy who tailgates you if you go too slow, and the person ahead who brakes abruptly if you go too fast--each transgression accented by a flip of the bird or a blast of the horn. Sixty-four percent of respondents to a recent Coalition for Consumer Health and Safety poll say people are driving less courteously and more dangerously than they were five years ago.

And the enemy is us. Take a ride with "Anne," a 40-year-old mother of three who would rather we not use her real name, as she steers her 2 1/2-ton black Chevy Suburban out of her driveway on a leafy street in residential Washington. The clock on the dashboard reads 2:16. She has 14 minutes to make it to her daughter's game. Within a block of her house she has hit 37 m.p.h., taking stop signs as suggestions rather than law. She has a lot on her mind. "I'm not even thinking of other cars," Anne admits cheerfully as she lays on the horn. An oldster in an econo-box ahead of her has made the near fatal mistake of slowing at an intersection with no stop sign or traffic light. Anne swears and peels off around him.

Anne has a clean driving record with scarcely even a fender bender to her name. But when she takes to the highway, even her kids join the fun. "Make him move over!" they shout as she bears down on a 55-m.p.h. sluggard in the fast lane. She flashes her headlights. The kids cheer when the unlucky target gives in and moves aside. Back in town, Anne specializes in near misses. "Jeez, I almost hit that woman," she chirps, swinging the Suburban into the right lane to pass a car turning left at an intersection. She makes the game two minutes late. "I don't think I'm an aggressive driver," Anne says. "But there are a lot of bad drivers out there."

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