I HAVE DONE a number of dangerous things in my life. Surfed 15-foot waves on Oahu's North Shore. Rafted down raging rapids on Idaho's Salmon River. Chaperoned a seventh-grade mixer. But I have concluded that I put my life in greater jeopardy by driving to work every day.
I have been nursing this subconscious fear of driving for the past couple of years, but I no longer can keep it in the deep recesses of my mind. After almost getting broadsided last week, the dread has become a preoccupation.
My brush with disaster happened at the traffic light just south of the intersection of Ritchie Highway and Jumpers Hole Road. The signal allows southbound traffic to make a left turn into the Festival at Pasadena shopping center, where The Sun's Anne Arundel County bureau is located.
I have never given this turn much thought, but on this particular morning I saw something that I should have taken as a sign.
As I slowed to a stop, I noticed the car ahead of me was creeping into the intersection.
I naively thought the driver was looking at the lights that control the access to the south entrance of the shopping center. It was only when she darted out -- against the red light -- that I realized she was looking for a break in the traffic.
What a fool, I said to myself. Everyone knows running a red light could result in damage to your body, car, driving record or any combination of the three.
Even if the signal is stuck on red, I thought to myself, I am not about to cross this intersection. Just as I thought I would wait another minute, it changed. Looking at the green arrow, I started to cross the intersection.
At the same time, I heard that distinct screeching sound made when locked tires skid across dry asphalt. I turned to the right and saw a sight that still haunts me.
A Ford Escort was coming right at me.
I braced myself and gripped the steering wheel, waiting for the impact and the crunch of metal.
The shrill screech persisted. I continued to stare at the car grille that was getting closer and closer.
Just as it looked as though the car would hit the front door on my right side, it stopped -- about an arm's length from my car.
Although I was very angry, I decided the best course was to continue through the intersection. I looked back and saw the driver sheepishly back up out of the intersection.
Two men who had been standing outside an electronics store below our office looked toward me. One lightly patted his chest. "How's your heart?" he shouted.
"It's still ticking," I replied, "but I think it's running a little faster than usual."
Since that near calamity, I have been paying much more attention to cars approaching intersections. In eight days, I have witnessed a surprising number of drivers who race through red lights with little regard for anyone else on the road.
I am not talking about people who speed up at yellow lights and don't make it through the intersection when the signal turns red.
The drivers I am talking about are racing through lights that have been red for seconds. They not only endanger themselves but also innocent people who assume that a green light means it is safe to enter an intersection.
While on the subject of reckless and aggressive driving, permit me to rant about a few other dangerous driving practices.
Unconscionable speeding -- 80 or 90 miles an hour on roads where the posted limit is 55 mph -- tops the list. High-speed tailgating and changing lanes without signaling qualify as two more anti-social behaviors. There are other irresponsible practices -- from people who don't stop for pedestrians to drivers who refuse to yield when they are obligated to give way -- that scare me to death, but I won't dwell on them here.
Frankly, I could care less if these Richard Petty-wannabes plaster their cars or themselves onto bridge abutments, guardrails or trees. Unfortunately, they usually hit and injure others.
These tailgating, lane-jockeying, red-light running drivers are responsible for three times as many accidents as drunken drivers, according to the State Highway Administration. They cause at least 33 percent of the highway accidents and are responsible for 40 percent of the fatalities.
For the past year, the Maryland State Police have targeted these aggressive drivers. I hope they continue their campaign. Police can't possibly catch all these scofflaws. There are too many of them. However, we can help by observing the rules of the road and reporting those drivers who don't.
People with cellular phones who spot these aggressive drivers can dial the state police toll free by dialing #77, which connects them to the nearest barracks.
It is time to treat aggressive drivers with the same contempt we now reserve for drivers under the influence. They deserve it.
To the motorist who almost hit me: You were as lucky as I. I hope that is the last red light you run. If it isn't and you get caught, I hope some judge revokes your license. There would be one less aggressive driver to worry about.
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.
Pub Date: 9/29/96