I parked near the perpetrator in the black Mercedes SUV and ran different scripts through my mind. I had daydreamed about this moment for years.
As I got out of my car, I reminded myself about the oath I had taken years earlier: to combat recklessly indifferent drivers who endangered others. I walked over to the driver in the Mercedes who had given me the finger because I beeped at him for swerving across three lanes to make a sudden turn. For years I had been blowing out vocal cords over such brazen displays of unaccountability. This time, I was taking my quest to a new level.
I took a deep breath and knocked on the black-tinted window. The driver lowered it, and I saw someone I didn’t expect: a man with rheumy blue eyes with age spots on his bald head. He was surely in his mid- to late-70s, a member of the Silent Generation, known for its stand-up commitment to civic virtue. He glowered at me.
For a moment I was knocked off kilter. I was relieved by his age but also unnerved by it. I thought that motorists of this generation were above the turbo-charged narcissism that endangers most roadways these days. I stood before this man who had 25-plus years on me and felt feeble. Had I taken my quest too far?
In some ways, every action I’d taken behind the wheel since my brief stint with a heavy-lidded psychologist 14 years earlier had led to this moment. After hearing me vent about rude drivers, she, too, cut me off. “If you’d stop taking other people’s reckless driving so personally, then –voila– you’d feel much better,” she said. And she did get that right. Sort of.
I was taking strangers’ reckless driving too personally, but not only for myself. As I saw it, I was taking it on for everyone else, too.
It so galls me to watch innocent motorists on the bullying end of treacherous cutoffs that I sometimes tailgate the perps. I’m not above following them into shopping center parking lots and leaving handwritten notes on their windshields. Some of my scolds: “Drive as if you’re aware that other humans are on the road” and “As a matter of fact, you don’t own the road!”
Two years ago my son, Macallah, ran around the house chanting, “Roood man! Rood man!” When I asked his babysitter what this was about, she said they had just come from the gas station. She had asked the motorist at the pump in front of her if he wouldn’t mind pulling up a little. “F–- you!” he yelled.
Such moments leave me worried to the brink of existential crisis. How can I– how can any of us? – tacitly accept that our roads are a free-for-all where contempt reigns? Will the roads for our children be paved with a Mad Max anarchy where we replace headlights with howitzers?
Passengers and friends often ask, “Do you really think you’re making a difference with this small-time vigilantism?” My wife, Liz, recently observed, “Aren’t you really as bad as the people you claim to seek justice against?” But I never felt any shred of guilt over my crusade. Until recently. I was driving with our son Macallah, now 4, when someone cut in front of me with deadly speed and proximity.
“Are you kidding me?” I screamed and laid on my horn.
I want to hurt that bad driver! I want to crash his car!
Macallah, age 4
From his child seat, Macallah yelled, “I want to hurt that bad driver! I want to crash his car!”
“What?!” I yelled. “We don’t want to hurt bad drivers.”
“Why not?” Macallah asked.
“Because … because … we don’t hurt people just because they do dangerous things.”
“Why not?” Macallah asked. “They might hurt us.”
It was a fair observation that got me wondering: Beyond getting worked up about reckless drivers, what exactly did I want from this lonely, mostly futile campaign?
Despite my lack of clarity, I’d had some success with errant motorists, using my horn as a sonic knuckle rapping. Sometimes I’d see drivers quickly correct their trespass farther down the road. Still, this momentary shift in civility was fleeting. And I sensed where I’d eventually end up.
‘Whadda you want?” the older man in the black Mercedes SUV barked as I stood there stunned. I still couldn’t believe that this man was driving like some text-addled teenager.
Finally I spoke. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m the –”
“I know who you are. You’re the guy I cut off. Whadda you want?” Ugh. I couldn’t shake that question.
His brazen negligence stoked my courage. “You could kill people driving that way. Please be more careful.”
“Who the hell do you think you are, telling me how to drive?” he bellowed, jumping out of the car and ramming his door into my knees. “What the hell do you want?”
Finally, I had an answer:
“Please be more accountable,” I blurted, protecting my knees. “Drive as if you’re aware that other people are on the road.”
“F–- you - and everyone else!” he yelled and raised an open hand.
I looked around for validation from bystanders that this dystopian moment was really happening, but everyone walked by seemingly oblivious. The man drove off.
For weeks after that encounter, when I leaned on my horn, it emitted the nasal hesitation of the outcast.
A month or so later, I was sitting at a traffic light when a car pulled alongside me. The driver lowered the passenger window. He looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s, with tightly cropped hair that bristled like tiny weeds. “It’s not very neighborly of you to take up a lane where other folks might want to turn,” he said, smiling, his eyes steeled in a familiar cast.
I was incredulous. This was a lane that allowed for either going straight or turning. My mind raced with ways to respond to this pedantic upstart when I was overcome by an entirely different impulse.
“Thank you,” I said. “It must be hard to say something like that to a stranger.”
“You have no idea,” he said. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m the only one on the road who cares about such things.”
Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University near Baltimore, Maryland. This was written for the Washington Post