I have had a driving license for more than 40 years now. During that time I’ve only been in a couple of fender benders – the most recent in a parking lot where both of us were going approximately 5 mph (it’s a long story) – but none of these accidents were my fault. In the beginning I got a few tickets, but none in the last 20 years or so. I drive safe cars and my insurance is relatively low…and yet for all of this, until recently, I was a horrible driver. I was rude, obnoxious and impatient. I was convinced that I was the only one on the road that mattered. If you wanted into my lane, you could forget about it. I’d speed up just to keep you out. If you wanted to pass me I would slow down to the same speed as the car next to me and I would delight in the torment you were suffering behind me. I was a nightmare on wheels.
For me, part of the joy of driving was the subtle communication I shared with my fellow motorists. There are certain unpleasant hand gestures that we are all familiar with. In my household it was referred to as my “driving finger”. I used it liberally, but it is certainly nothing to brag about. I believe it shows a certain lack of character that an otherwise sane man could turn into a raving lunatic simply by sliding behind the wheel of a car. One day while coming home from work a guy passed me and then moved over into my lane actually requiring me to slow down ever so slightly. I was furious. He looked back in his mirror and I gave him the international gesture for self-love. We traveled a short distance and then we both took the same exit…and then we made the same turn…and then I followed him into MY neighborhood…and then we turned onto MY street…and then as we approached MY home he turned into the driveway of the house across the street that had recently sold. He was my new neighbor. Embarrassed, I flew right past MY house and drove around for a while until I was sure he had gone inside so he wouldn’t see where I lived. It was not my proudest moment as an adult.
Of course along with gestures there is also “language”. After my daughter was born I was careful not to do or say anything in front of her while we were driving – no matter how many jerks I encountered. But finally one day on the way home from the store I slipped up. I can’t remember specifically what the offending party did, but he must have irritated me to a significant degree because I muttered a slightly disparaging name under my breath – but not far enough under my breath. Unfortunately, my small daughter, who had acute hearing, as all women do, spoke up immediately proclaiming, “Daddy just said NUMB NUTS!”…There was a long pause and then my wife began to patiently explain how there are good words and bad words and that sometimes adults make a mistake and say — well, I’m sure you’ve heard this speech before. Anyway, I decided to cut my losses and remain silent for the rest of the trip. Of course once we got home there was anything but silence.
As the years rolled on, my wonderful wife continued to put up with my constant complaining about all the “idiots” and “morons” that, for some unknown reason, had been given the legal right to operate a vehicle. But finally the day came when she just couldn’t put up with my whining any more. My wife is a saint, but she’d heard enough. After one of my outbursts she calmly said, “Have you ever stopped to think about the other driver’s situation? Perhaps they are bringing home a loved one who just a chemo treatment for cancer. Maybe they are dealing with a sick little girl in the car or a little boy with special needs. Maybe they are driving to an assisted living center to make a heartbreaking visit to a parent who no longer recognizes them due to dementia. Every person you are yelling at is a human being carrying some kind of burden and your screaming and gestures are not making life better for you or them.” I sat in stunned silence. My wife was absolutely right…and I hate it when she is right because that means I was wrong, and besides she right way too often and it frankly gets annoying being wrong so much…However, in this case she really made me stop and think.
For years I had been taking risks just to shave off a minute or two of driving time, and for what? What important thing was I doing with the few minutes I was saving by driving like a possessed maniac? I’ll tell you what I was doing. Every evening, as soon as I got home, I used those precious minutes to explode in self-righteous fury about the imbeciles that I was forced to share the road with. It was a nightly ritual that I’m sure my wife looked forward to. What a waste of time. It was the perfect combination. I was being selfish and stupid…So, I decided to turn over a new leaf and become a more tolerant human being behind the wheel. I’m not saying that I don’t have lapses where I momentarily forget how foolish it is to let the driving habits of others elevate my blood pressure, however, I am very proud to say that I now drive “finger free”! But I do worry about how we will ever achieve world peace if we can’t even merge into traffic.