I am a bit apprehensive about telling the following story, primarily for one reason: I look bad in it. But the more I think about it, that reason never has stopped me before. Also, some might find some value in this lesson. That's my hope, anyway. So let's consider this a cautionary tale about the dangers of messing with people who have nothing to lose. Or, alternate title: How a crazier man than I cured me of road rage.
First off, I am not an aggressive driver. Quite the opposite, really. I often can be found cruising with the flow of traffic in the slow or middle lanes, rarely going over 65 mph. To me, the highways and city streets are no proving ground for manhood. Simply, there is nothing to gain and everything to lose.
For example, when an idiot passing another car heads toward me in my lane doing 85 mph and swerves back into his lane at the last moment, I do not scream and yell. I do not even produce a finger or a fist. In fact, I do not even experience anger over almost being killed; sadly, I have come to expect it. After 20 years of driving, I have become conditioned to the reality that the stupidity of others constantly threatens to take me out of the game at any moment. I am simply trying to navigate the minefield to get where I am going. That's not to say I don't feel the sudden urge to chase them down and pelt their vehicle with rotten eggs, but I do not act upon this impulse.
While covering crime earlier in my career, I got a close-up view of the horrific things that happen when people drive recklessly. Wiping brain off your shoe at the end of a shift is the sort of thing that has a lasting effect on a person; it tends to slow one down. So does getting older. Anymore, I'm just usually not in a hurry, which explains why I'm late for everything.
Now, all that said, there is one bad driving habit I have formed over the years that I guess would have to be classified as road rage -- even though it developed over time as a response to what I consider true road rage. Whenever I find myself being overtly tailgated, I gradually slow down. If I'm cruising at 60 mph on a country road and there's a driver so close that I can't even see taillights in my rearview mirror, I drop down to, say, 45 or 50 mph. I do this for two reasons: to return the aggravation and to limit the danger being created behind me. Usually, the driver gets the message and goes around. And I prefer to keep the crazies in front of me, not behind.
Now, when the tailgater is continuously bearing down on me and slowing down doesn't solve the problem, I tap my brakes as my first driving instructor taught me long ago. Yes, I know, it's probably a stupid thing to do. Like I said, I look bad in this story.
So, folks, thanks for sticking with that elongated setup. As a reward for your patience, here's the action scene where I almost die.
It was early afternoon and I found myself in the middle lanes of Highway 99, heading north between Salida and Ripon. I was probably doing about 65 mph in light traffic when I glanced in my mirror. All I could see was the hood of an older, beat-up Buick. The driver, an unkempt man I'd guess was in his early 30s, couldn't have left more than 10 feet between our bumpers. This went on for at least a mile, even though he easily could have passed me in either outside lane.
Finally, I tapped my brakes and he dropped back momentarily. Then he veered hard into the slow lane and roared up alongside my car. He yelled something at me as he passed by. Then, once his back tire was roughly even with my front tire, he whipped the steering wheel to the left and cut off my path. I'm not exaggerating: It felt like he was trying to kill me.
Having sensed something bad was coming, I already was on the defensive. As he shot into my lane, I simultaneously veered left and slammed on my brakes. We couldn't have missed by more than a few inches at 60 mph. I still don't know how we didn't collide. And the car on my left must have seen it happening and swerved left as well, or we probably would have collided.
After the man cut me off, he sped away. The last image I have was him hanging his meaty left arm out the window, flipping me off, yelling at me in his rearview mirror as the woman in his passenger seat beat on his shoulder and yelled at him.
It was then I noticed my heart racing; I had to concentrate to breathe normally. Suddenly, even traveling 60 mph felt way too fast. I pulled off the highway at the next exit, parked and went for a long walk. The rest of the day felt incredibly light and easy, like borrowed time does. Hey, I was still alive.
I jokingly envisioned how the story would have read in the morning paper. I pictured a man sitting at his breakfast table, suddenly calling out to his wife: "Honey, did you see this? That idiot reporter fellow you like reading sometimes got killed. Says here he was involved in a road-rage incident. Damn atheist hippie probably got what he deserved."
Seriously, who would have known the truth about what happened? There most likely would have been conflicting accounts, and ultimately it would have been brushed off as road rage. Though I certainly wouldn't call myself the aggressor in this story, I wasn't entirely innocent, either. But the bottom line is this: Being right or wrong doesn't matter when you're dead.
So, I guess I owe that jerk my thanks. My slowdown days are over. My new driving motto is this: When you're being tailgated by insanity, it's probably best just to get the hell out of the way.
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Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 874-5716.