City that's quick with trigger needs to slow down on roads


February 03, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

There is some good news about Baltimore's murder rate: I may make us better drivers.

I will explain:

When I was growing up, the two things you really needed if you were going to drive a car in the city were a loud horn and a middle finger.

True, people in Baltimore don't honk as much as people in some other cities do. Here, people prefer to broadside you in silence. This is known as the "stealth" method of driving.

But drivers in and around the city can often be seen swerving around you and raising their fingers as if to signal: "I'm No. 1!"

On any given day, social studies teachers, computer programmers and mild-mannered bank tellers will climb behind the wheels of their Honda Civics and become: "Road Warriors -- Masters of the Macadam!"

It is simple psychology. At work you are not allowed to take out your frustrations on those above you (they would fire you in a flash) or those below you (they would sue you in a flash), and so the only place you can assert yourself is on the highway.

Until recently, that is. You need only to glance at the slaying statistics for last year -- 305 killed in Baltimore, more than 23,000 killed nationwide -- to realize that we all must change our behavior.

Today, it is much safer to operate on the theory that everyone around you is armed and dangerous.

I have done this for years. People will sometimes approach me on the street to say hello only to find that I am handing them my wallet and screaming, "Don't shoot!"

I now drive the same way. I didn't always do this. I was a Darwinian driver. I figured that if I managed to cut somebody off on the road, it proved that he was a lower rung on the food chain.

I don't drive that way anymore. I have a friend who convinced me not to. He is a lawyer. He has a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, and he has never seen "Letterman" because he has never stayed up that late. He has always lead a comfortably dull life. Until recently.

"It was about 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I had to take the baby sitter home," he said. "I came to an intersection. I made a right turn and then immediately had to get into the left lane to make a left turn.

"I misjudged how quickly I could do that. Some guy was barreling down the street at a very excessive rate of speed behind me and saw me at least 500 yards away but continued to come at me and then jammed on his breaks."

In other words, you cut some dude off, right?

"Yes," he said, "I cut some dude off. Then I made my turn and stopped to drop off the baby sitter in front of her house. But the guy I had cut off zipped around me and then stopped, cutting off my exit. And then two guys jumped out of his car."

Can you describe them?

"I can say they were not Supreme Court justices on their way to work," he said.

Let's leave it at that then. Did you roll down your window to converse with these two gentlemen?

"I did not roll down my window to converse," he said.

What did they next do?

"They glared at me and spoke to me in a loud, aggressive manner."

Could you discern what they were saying?

"They were suggesting that certain members of my family engaged in certain unmentionable acts."

And what did you then do?

"I responded with two words they never heard before: 'I'm sorry.' "

I consider this extremely clever of my friend. He had thrown his adversaries off their game. Figure it out: You've pinned a guy to the curb, you are yelling at him, you are just getting ready to reach under your jacket for the weapon of your choice, when he completely screws up your head by apologizing.

"They continued to interrogate me and make known their position that my driving habits were somewhat lacking," my friend said. "So I responded with two more words they had never heard before: 'You're right.' I admitted that I had cut the man off. Though I should have said that I had no idea that he'd be doing 90."

But you didn't say that.

"Indeed not. And finally, after a few more comments, they got back in their car and drove off."

And what did your baby sitter make of all this?

"She was laughing," my friend said. "When it was all over she said: 'Welcome to the big city.' "

It may seem to you that my friend acted like a wimp, a wuss and a weenie. And perhaps he did.

On the other hand, however, he did live to tell me his story.

And I'd call that a fair trade.

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