I WAS DRIVING along the Beltway in my usual cautious manner -- eyes alertly scanning for traffic hazards, hands at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions on the steering wheel -- when this black BMW up ahead began drifting between lanes.
As it was 9 in the morning, I assumed the driver was not drunk or jabbing a syringe in one arm, although in this day and age that might be a charitable assumption.
Instead, I figured this driver was talking on a car phone, which has become the new death rattle of the '90s.
When car phones became popular, my thinking was: Great. This is just what we need, another diversion for motorists as they careen down the highway at 70 mph.
Apparently it wasn't enough to have them reading stupid bumper stickers that said "Don't Laugh -- It's Paid For," or staring at terrified Garfields plastered against rear windshields.
Now we were giving them car phones, ensuring that their concentration would wander even further and that highways would become even more littered with twisted hulks of charred metal.
In fact, with the advent of car phones, my first instinct was to compile a list of companies that manufactured body bags, so that I could invest heavily in their stock and become a wealthy man.
Now I keep waiting for the day when auto manufacturers install TV sets in the --boards so that drivers, while keeping an occasional eye on the road, can also keep up with Geraldo's latest freak show or what's happening on "Murphy Brown."
The next logical step would be Nintendo units located directly adjacent to the steering wheel, allowing truly ambitious drivers to gun down intergalactic space invaders while weaving between roaring 18-wheelers on the interstate.
God help us if that happens. Talk about carnage. They might as well just build the cemeteries alongside the highway. Certainly this would cut down on funeral expenses, as emergency crews could simply crowbar you out of the wreck and plant you a few feet away under a tasteful headstone noting: "Here lies Harry 'Joystick' McCoy. He was playing Super Mario Brothers."
Anyway, I watched this black BMW drift between lanes for about two miles when a voice in my head cried: Enough! Let's investigate the cause of this nonsense.
So I stomped on the accelerator. This did very little at first, because I drive an old Toyota with a four-cylinder engine that produces about the same horsepower as a child's Big Wheels.
But finally I caught up to the Beemer. Sure enough, behind the wheel was some jerk talking on a car phone.
Taking pains to stay well out of his way, I observed an amazing phenomenon. As other drivers swerved to avoid him, they would shoot him dirty looks.
But the man did not notice the dirty looks. Because he was paying absolutely no attention to what was going on around him.
Instead, he was engaged in a spirited conversation that included a lot of angry shouting and hand-waving and fists crashing against the --board.
Mercifully, the BMW got off at the next exit, apparently managing not to slam into the bridge abutment, judging by the lack of a fresh obituary in the newspaper.
Now, I understand that car phones are here to stay. The toothpaste is out of the tube, so to speak. This is not another tired harangue on that score.
Let me just ask a few simple favors of you car phone users:
No. 1: I would appreciate if you'd occasionally glance up at the road, particularly when you see a brown 1980 Toyota Corolla with a prominent dent in the right quarter panel and a very tired-looking man behind the wheel.
No. 2: If the conversation is getting fairly heated, perhaps you could hang up for a while and resume the discussion later from the comfort of your own driveway, where you would not be a threat to plow into the rear of my car and ignite a towering inferno visible for many miles.
No. 3: If we happen to be driving near each other during a driving rainstorm or blizzard, perhaps you could hold off calling your wife to see what's for dinner until traffic conditions improve.
Besides, it's probably left-overs.