Driven To Distraction

May 01, 1994|By the Intrepid Commuter

The driver's lips curled like a bass clef.

The broad smile, oblivious to the world, left a lasting impression on Marc Guerrasio. Months have passed since that fateful evening and some details have faded from his mind, but the smile lingers on like some haunting old tune.

Mr. Guerrasio never heard a sound -- surrounded as he was by six lanes of highway traffic -- but that beaming grin was a veritable grand finale of some spirited performance by Perlman, Midori, Heifetz, or, or, or . . .

The violinist in the gray Honda Civic.

"Has anyone else seen this guy?" Mr. Guerrasio asks in a somewhat pleading tone. "He looked like he was good."

A Catonsville resident and a video editor by trade, Mr. Guerrasio was driving the Beltway's Inner Loop near Wilkens Avenue when his girlfriend, Kelli Lehr, first caught sight of the well-dressed young man playing the violin at full throttle.

Of course, the car was also at full throttle at the time, at least by Honda Civic (circa 1978-79) standards. With two hands on the instrument tucked under his chin, the driver/fiddler was steering with his knees and watching the road out of the corner of his eye.

"We looked over and he just smiled," Mr. Guerrasio recalls. "For all I know he was driving the entire Beltway on a concerto. What was weird about it was that he saw us and smiled and kept right on playing."

In the nearly two years of writing the Intrepid Commuter column for The Sun, we have lost count of the stories we have heard of people who felt they could safely juggle the chores of driving with some other task.

Problems with traffic lights come and go, dangerous intersections are eventually overhauled, winter's potholes are patched, but outrageous driver behavior never seems to go out of fashion.

We hear tales that range from the ordinary (people reading newspapers or yapping away on cellular phones) to the adventurous (polishing their nails or eating cereal from a bowl -- one hand on the bowl and one hand on the spoon at all times).

One of our favorites is women applying makeup, from lipstick and blush to eyeliner and shadow. Do these females have rock-steady hands or are hospital emergency rooms filling up with Maybelline-related eye injuries?

"It amazes me what people will do when they should be driving," says Robin Warren, a Randallstown day-care provider. "Times like that I wish a state trooper would see them and get them off the road." It's the coffee-cup-in-one-hand drivers who rattle Ms. Warren most, though she admits that her husband, Kevin, chiropractically "cracks" his neck while driving. John D. Hoerl of Catonsville was headed west on Interstate 70 last year when he observed a sedan slowing to 50 miles per hour at times and drifting to the left, then speeding up to 60 or 65. He could see the driver moving his arms.

Was he conducting a symphony? Practicing sign language? Scolding a child?

When Mr. Hoerl drew closer, he saw the cause of such erratic driving: The motorist was wrapping a Christmas gift.

"The driver had one corner [of the wrapping paper] tucked under his chin and was frantically folding over another corner with both hands, turning his steering duties over to the patron saint of stupid people," Mr. Hoerl writes.

"My guess is that the car's weaving and speed changes resulted from occasional bursts of folding and taping."

Food and phones also seem to come together inside the automobile. Marian Frieson of Laurel eats and drives all the time, but she was shocked to see a fellow motorist on Interstate 95 near Columbia with a phone in one hand and a big cup of coffee in the other.

"I couldn't understand what he was doing with the steering wheel because he wasn't driving erratically," says Ms. Frieson, manager of the Mount Clare Shopping Center in Baltimore. "I speeded up ahead of him just to be safe. I guess I wanted to get out of his way."

John Roemer IV recently saw a man driving with a hefty-sized book propped on top of the steering wheel. The motorist peered around the tome every once in a while to check out the traffic.

On his bumper was a sticker advertising Mensa Limited, an organization for the profoundly intelligent.

"I guess it's the stereotypical image of brainy people," says Mr. Roemer. "They have to cram in as much reading as possible."

Then there are those intimate moments when you get to observe matters of hygiene performed by total strangers. A woman is seen changing a baby's diaper with one hand still on the steering wheel. A man is conducting his morning ablutions, tidying up his whiskers with an electric shaver.

How about a little privacy, ladies and gentlemen? Something about being in a car clearly gives otherwise civilized people the impression that they are alone and can't be seen by their fellow drivers.

"I happened to look over to the right and this guy was driving

with his elbows and flossing with his hands," says Janice Plotczyk, a government statistician who commutes from Baltimore to Suitland. "I'm sure I laughed. I probably said, 'Holy cow!' "

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