Road rage redux

My husband says this will be my epitaph: Here lies Debbie. She had the right of way.

It's funny, but it's also painfully true that, over the years, I've become a sort of self-appointed rules enforcer on the road. It doesn't matter if I'm walking or driving. When I see a car racing through a stop sign, refusing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, or lane-weaving at high speeds down the highway, my blood boils.I want to set them straight.

So I developed - and, up until very recently, maintained - the habit of challenging these rule-breakers. If I were walking, I'd blithely step out in front of a car that was supposed to stop at a stop sign, even if the driver was gunning it along at 50 mph and seemed to be poised for only a light tap on the brakes.

If I were in the car, and a tail-gating lane-weaver roared up behind me, I'd gradually slow down to the speed limit. In downtown Washington, the epicenter of incivility, if I had a walk sign, I'd walk. Just the other day, a guy grabbed my arm just as I was about to step in front of a car that had run through the red light. I thought I had looked for cars, but it's just as likely that my mind was on getting across in the 25 seconds that particular intersection allowed.

I've finally come to realize, though, that something's got to give. I don't want to be right if it means I'm not going to be here to see my children grow up to be fantastic adults and if I don't get one more trip to Positano, Italy. That's beyond foolish.

And while I don't condone road rage or the people who race around town pushing everyone and everything else aside, I can understand how it's encouraged in our hurry-up culture. For instance, intersections used to have two messages to pedestrians: walk or don't walk. Now, though, at many intersections we are told just how many seconds we have to cross the street. I don't care if I see I have 50 seconds or 17 seconds, watching that rapidly descending number always, without fail, causes me to pick up the pace and roar down the sidewalk as if everything depended on my getting through that intersection.

On TV, interviewers frequently say to the people they're interviewing: "OK, we've only got 30 seconds. Can you tell our viewers just why we should care today about the Ottoman Empire?" I feel sorry for the experts who must somehow boil down thousands of years of thought and labor into a sound bite.

I know none of this is new. We've been picking up the pace for a long time now. But I'm generally seeing more anger and even fury on the road, and a lot of it has to do with our hurry. Almost every day, I hear drivers screaming obscenities at each other from their cars, or I hear the angry, long honk of a car whose driver feels someone has wronged him. So often this has to do with not wanting to wait. A blocked alley, a car making a left turn, a pedestrian who takes too long to cross the street - all of these things can elicit anger and hostility.

What's odd about this is that I just know that these same people would be perfectly charming at a neighborhood barbecue or sitting in the next cubicle at the office. We've somehow become dehumanized by the anonymity of life in cities and by the sense that our life is measured in seconds and sound bites.

"I have measured out my life with coffee spoons," wrote T.S. Eliot in his 1919 poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."Eliot, ironically, was bemoaning the antispiritual modern society, but today, that line seems quaint. It speaks of loss, but it speaks of it in a way that somehow seems paced and thoughtful and so much more civilized than what we have now.

I'm going to try to change things, at least for myself. My imagining that I can set others straight by being a little bit obnoxious and self-righteous is only going to get me in trouble.

I think I'll try, instead, to march at my pace, to my own drummer. Sometimes that still might be fast and frenzied, but I hope that sometimes, I'll slow down just a little bit.

Debra Bruno is special reports editor at Legal Times in Washington, D.C.

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