A whole lot of honking going on

September 28, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

When the men with the straitjackets finally come for me, when Sheppard Pratt sets aside a room for me to spend my remaining days, drugged and muttering to myself, it will be because of this.

No, not the misery of yet another Orioles season ending with a whimper instead of a bang, although that's not helping.

What's truly, totally going to send me over the edge is the incessant beeping of my dear fellow drivers - more specifically, those who engage in what I've come to call Unjustified Gratuitous Honking, or simply, UGH.

What sets UGH apart from other forms of equally annoying beeping - such as HUH (Highly Unreasonable Honking, as in blasting your horn when the highway jams up, as if that's going to clear the way) - is the UGHsters' utter confidence in their victimhood and total sense of aggrievement, even as they're pinning, or honking, the blame on someone else.

I seem to have a particularly UGH-inducing road to work. It is paved not so much with good intentions but intermittent construction - to drive up Calvert Street through downtown these days is to navigate a series of barricades, blinking orange arrows and lane shifts.

This week, I had the most egregious UGH experience yet.

I had just driven past Harborplace, going north on Light Street where it turns into Calvert at Pratt. As you cross the next street, Lombard, you hit the first bit of construction - or rather, "progress," as the sign the city has put up calls it.

As you approach the intersection, there's a sign - yes, it applies to everyone, even you! - with an arrow that identifies the leftmost lane as a left-turn-only lane, onto Lombard. It's almost a mnemonic, or at least alliterative: leftmost lane must turn left on Lombard. The other two lanes to the right are through lanes, though they shift slightly to the left to accommodate that slow "progress" happening on the right side of Calvert.

You can see where this is going, literally: I don't know how many times drivers in the leftmost lane go straight, either missing or ignoring the left-turn-only sign. Yes, people are going to make mistakes every once in a while, and we must graciously forgive them - if only they don't compound it with an UGH.

So there I was in the middle lane, taking the straight and narrow path up Calvert, when the driver to the left nearly plows into me as she, too, heads straight, past the left-turn-only sign over her lane.

Bad enough, but then she starts honking at me - and keeps furiously honking as she tailgates me up Calvert.

It was sort of funny, actually, all this misplaced righteousness, until it started to get irritating. I decided to stop and get out and explain things to the honking idiot - I mean, misinformed motorist. This, I fear, is one of my unique job hazards- if you spend your working hours telling people things, it tends to extend into the rest of your life.

Of course, I should have been worried that she was armed or otherwise dangerous. But I made one of those instant calculations - hmm, expensive imported sedan, a woman driver, broad daylight, busy street, an affinity license plate that seemed to indicate the worst she might be packing was a riding crop - and was about to throw caution to the wind in my noble quest further this driver's education.

But then, I realized someone who ignores traffic signs would also ignore a fellow motorist on the sidewalk, trying to get her to roll down her window and listen to an entirely reasoned explanation of the error of her ways. And, indeed, she pulled around to the right lane, missing the gentle (well, "energetic") admonition (um, "enthusiastic conveyance of information") that I was giving her through my passenger side window as she sped by.

Another teaching moment, lost forever.

That's the problem with UGHs - there's not much you can do. How exactly do you convey to the UGHmeister several cars behind you that the reason you're not going, even though the light has turned green, is that you're trying to make a turn (yes, that's what the blinker means) but waiting for a pedestrian to cross the street?

It's probably hopeless: A survey by GMAC Insurance found shocking levels of driver ignorance - 20 percent had no clue that pedestrians have the right of way in a crosswalk, one in three said they don't usually stop for them and a third admitted to speeding up to make a yellow light even when pedestrians are in their path.

Nice, huh?

I often think we have some the worst drivers in the country here. Maybe it's that I grew up in the friendlier, more spread-out Midwest, and in a city, Chicago, that has the kind of great public transportation that helps keep a lot of cars - and aggravation - off the streets.

But I've never seen such angry drivers as those here - and I've driven in a lot of notoriously traffic-choked cities like Los Angeles, Houston and Boston.

I decided to find proof for this little prejudice of mine, and, as in the way of self-fulfilling prophecies, if you go looking for something, you generally can find it.

That GMAC survey, for example, found that drivers in the Northeast scored the worst in a 20-question test that they gave to more than 5,000 drivers across the country.

Maryland ranked a bottom-scraping 46th, with only New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington D.C. and Rhode Island scoring lower.

And lest you blame our score on Maryland's self-important Washington suburbs, with all those federal workers speeding and tailgating to get to their oh-so-vital jobs in D.C., consider this: Another insurance company annually ranks cities in what it calls the Allstate America's Best Drivers Report. Allstate calculates how often the average driver in a particular city will get into an accident, then ranks them from best to worst.

Baltimore came in 186th, out of 197 cities.

UGH.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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