DRIVE DEFENSIVELY. In simpler times, that was a phrase that meant leaving ample braking distance between vehicles, approaching crossroads cautiously, moving over for faster cars and generally assuming that the other guy might do something stupid.
But in today's stress-filled society, driving defensively has taken on new meanings. An example is a recent experience of a young Chicago woman named Mary. She doesn't want her full name used because she's in the phone book and doesn't want to hear from goofs.
Mary and a friend were on an expressway, heading toward the downtown area, where they both live, after a trip to the western suburbs.
As they passed the city limits, traffic was stop-and-go. Mary was in the slow lane. She was driving defensively, trying to leave a bit of space between herself and the car ahead of her.
Suddenly a car came whipping up on her right. It was driven by a shoulder rider, a specimen of urban wildlife that is become more and more common. In heavy traffic, they roar along the highway's shoulder, saving 30 or 40 seconds in their urgent journeys.
There are a few general truths about shoulder riders. They are never white-haired ladies or middle-age men peering through bifocals. They are usually younger men who breathe through their mouths, lack a front tooth or two, have eyes that meet near the nose and are driving on a suspended license with about 28 cents of insurance coverage.
They seldom drive station wagons, Volvos or late-model Lincolns. Their vehicle of choice is usually something at least five or six years old that belches smoke and has a piece of plastic where a window should be.
The two young men who pulled up next to Mary fit this general description, although she isn't sure about their teeth.
They decided to return to the highway by cutting in front of Mary. That's one of the penalties one pays for driving defensively. If you leave one car-length open, some goof will feel compelled to fill it.
Irritated, Mary honked her horn. So the driver gunned the engine and swerved in front of two cars ahead of her.
But by beeping her horn, Mary had ignored the modern rules of defensive driving. Never do anything to offend a goof.
"As traffic got a little lighter and we started moving," Mary says, "I saw him jumping from one lane to another. He was really driving recklessly. But he wasn't really getting anywhere faster because when he'd switch into a lane, it would slow down."
As traffic thinned out, Mary began moving and found herself ahead of the shoulder hopper.
"I noticed him in my mirror and he was still whipping from one lane to another.
"Then I heard this loud popping sound and my rear window came crashing in. I ducked my head
instinctively and slowed down.
"I couldn't believe it. I told my friend: 'My God, they shot our car.'"
And that's exactly what had happened. Mary pulled off at the next exit. She looked in the back seat and found a slug. "I don't know much about guns," she says, "but I don't think it was big enough to be a .38. I think it must have been a .22.
"I was going to find a phone and call the police, but it looked like a rough neighborhood, so I got back on the expressway and came downtown. It was a rental car, so I took it back to the car agency and told them what happened. They said I should call the police and make a report.
"I called the Chicago police, but they said the expressways are the state police jurisdiction. So I called them, but they didn't seem interested. The man I talked to said: 'Nobody was hurt? Well, there's nothing we can do now.' I asked him if he wasn't interested in getting a description. He said there wasn't much point in filing a report unless I needed it for insurance purposes. I just hung up. I couldn't believe it. Somebody shooting at me in broad daylight on a city highway, and he wasn't interested."
That's understandable. In the time it would take to come over and make out a report on a car-shooting, a state trooper could probably apprehend three or four absent-minded souls who BTC forgot to display new license stickers. Four tickets in the hand are easily worth one maniac in the bush.
So Mary now has a souvenir: the little lead slug. I suggest she drill a hole through it and string it up on the rear-view mirror as a reminder of what defensive driving really means. Never blow your horn at anyone whose eyes meet at the nose.