The most compelling of the many messages in response to last week's column about road rage came without a name or return e-mail address. The unknown writer said she visited University of Hawaii psychologist Leon James' Web site, as recommended in the column. She said she "saw [herself] in some of the people described there."
"Quite scary," she wrote. A particular description struck home: "In a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde effect, perfectly ordinary, friendly, good-hearted people tend to become extremely intolerant and anti-social as soon as they get behind the wheel. Behind the wheel, their personality undergoes a rapid transformation, from polite and tolerant to inconsiderate, intolerant and emotionally unintelligent.'"
"Along with mean looks, at times I've blared my horn at drivers who don't use their turning signal and even gesture and point at and use my turning signal in fast motions so that they can 'get the message.' Never fails that afterwards I feel so foolish. I'm an impatient driver who may take things too personally while on the road. Lately, in an effort to overcome this problem, I try to 'treat' other drivers the same way I would want my husband or teenage child to be treated while they are driving.
"My husband is one who barely uses his turning signal and I wouldn't want him to find another me on the road. I mentally fight with other drivers - the ones constantly braking even though there's plenty of room between them and the car in front of them; the lane switchers; tailgaters, and the list goes on. I know I'm being ridiculous, so every day I make an effort to not think or be this way.
"Reading your article, visiting that Web site and most important, reading about the consequences of road rage, should and will help me realize that it's not worth it and that these people don't know me from Adam so I should not take whatever they do or don't do so personally. In turn, I hope that they won't take what I do or don't do personally. Sometimes I, too, can be oblivious while driving."
This writer has taken the biggest steps toward curbing this dangerous behavior - recognizing she has a problem and declining to blame others. At James' Web site, she would have seen a vivid description of how one real-life case of road rage escalated in a way that shattered lives.
(One quote: "She flipped her the bird, and ended up losing her baby." Curious? Check it out at www.drdriving.org/articles/testimony.htm.)
Her husband could use some self-help, too. If you don't use signals, you're a dangerous driver. End of story. But it would be distracting to nag or confront him while he's driving. It's the kind of subject worthy of a serious marital conversation - at home. Maybe this couple could double-date at a driver refresher course.
Another woman, "Susan," offered this confession:
"I used to be quick to get mad if someone cut me off or got in front of me on the road and drove slow. One day I was riding on a highway and I got mad about someone in front of me going slow so I tailgated him. He kept tapping his brakes to get me to back off. So I got in front of him and tapped my brakes. This went on a few times until he got in front of me and stopped.
"It was then that I said to myself, 'What are you doing? This guy could pull a gun on you or something!' So I drove off. I have never done anything even remotely like that again.
"I have a tendency to drive too close to the person in front of me without even thinking about it. So if a driver in front of me taps his brakes because I am driving too closely to his vehicle, I back off. I don't take it as a challenge."
This writer seems be getting her anger issues under control but still needs to work on this tailgating thing. For one thing, "tapping" is a risky response to being tailgated. Perhaps you irritate an already touchy tailgater. Perhaps you prompt that driver to brake suddenly and skid into your bumper. Or maybe you just convey a message to ignore your brake lights. Instead, make it easy for the tailgater to pass, whether by slowing or pulling over as soon as it's safe. Where you want that tailgater is in front of you and way down the road.
Another key phrase here is "without even thinking about it." Good driving is not something you can do on autopilot.
A modest suggestion: Turn off the radio and all electronic devices. Set a moderate pace in the middle or right lane. Study the interplay of vehicles surrounding you. Look for the little signs of what other drivers will do next (like the way tailgaters so often make abrupt, unsignaled lane changes). Soon you'll be able to predict bonehead moves. It's fun, even habit-forming, but impossible to do when you're riding someone's bumper.
Jeff King, a police officer from Eldersburg, offered some wise words for people who tend to get steamed at other drivers.
"Jumping to conclusions puts you on the road to rage," he wrote.
"When you bump into someone in the grocery store you have the opportunity to apologize and both of you go on your way. Not so with traffic contacts. There is minimal opportunity to convey 'I'm sorry.' If everyone would just pause for a moment and think, 'Was that move intentionally directed at me?' we'd all be ensured of getting there a little bit safer."
Amen to that.