Yesterday morning, the driver in the lane to the right of me decided to turn left - and did. All I saw was a flash of turquoise as it cut first in front of me and then in front of the car in the lane to the left. But, hey, that's OK - what's a little heart-jolting fright among your fellow drivers, when you have this very important need to make that left turn, right this minute.
On Sunday afternoon, I was driving up I-95 and, this time, the flash was a beige one. Impatient with the seemingly brisk, 70-plus mph flow of traffic, Beige on Wheels weaved across the lanes, nosing into the smallest of openings that would propel him toward his destination, oh, maybe three minutes faster.
Here is the super power I most want to have: The ability to cast a net around such drivers and drag them to the side of the road until the rest of us can get far, far away.
What is it about cars and stupidity?
Is it the gas fumes?
What explains the carnage in southern Prince George's County last weekend, where eight spectators were killed during a drag race on a dark rural highway?
Of course speed kills - everyone knows that. But what was so bizarre and troubling about this particular incident was that it wasn't one of the drag racers who was killed. If one of them had skidded off the highway and into a tree, that would have been horrible, but predictable. No, the racers themselves sped off into the darkness, and, as of yesterday, police were saying they hadn't been located.
All weekend, it was all anyone could talk about, turning the details over and over as they emerged, searching for something that would make some kind of sense out of it all. It was spectators who were killed, not the drivers? And they were watching on the side of the highway, but then walked right onto it to get a better look? In the dark? At 3 in the morning? It was a third driver - not even involved in the race and perhaps blinded by the smoke and dust kicked up by the revving cars - that plowed into them from behind?
It wasn't teenagers? Ellen Peters asks me when I call her, in Oregon, to talk about the accident. Nope, apparently they were old enough to know better, men mostly in their 30s and older, one accompanied by his daughter and his granddaughter.
Peters is a research scientist who specializes in risk perception, a psychologist who works for a think tank called Decision Research that studies, basically, why people do what they do. I had called seeking wisdom on why someone - or many someones, as it turns out - would gather on a dark, desolate highway in the middle of the night and wander onto it to watch people drive like maniacs.
Peters had seen news reports of the crash, and was struck by the seemingly festive nature of the gathering, until it turned fatal, that is.
"Everyone's out there, it seems like it's good old-fashioned fun, it's a very party-like atmosphere," she said. "There's the familiarity of it - people had done this before, and it had never been a problem before."
Peters said it's that familiarity that makes even the obviously risky - walking onto a thoroughfare, after two fast and furious cars have screamed past you - seem like perfectly normal behavior.
In her field, it's quite commonly known that people's perceptions of risk are often out of sync with the reality of the risk. People worry about exotic and yet rare ailments like mad cow disease or anthrax poisoning - Peters has a relative whose particular fear is of avian flu - while giving barely a second thought to the common flu, which kills about 36,000 people in the U.S. every year.
And so it is with cars. We climb in and out of them every day, several times usually, mostly thinking about nothing more serious than what you need to pick up at the grocery store or whether you'll find a good parking space.
And yet, some 43,000 people a year are killed in traffic accidents in the U.S. And the number of murders during that time? About 17,000. But you know which looms more fearsome to most people.
Even after this weekend, you have to agree with the man quoted in The Sun's story yesterday, who expected perhaps a lull in the drag racing tradition in southern Maryland, but just a temporary one. "They're going to be back out here," he predicted.
Peters would agree. She points to what she calls the two competing sides of human behavior - the one guided by the more instinctive, "lizard" part of our brain, versus the one ruled by the more deliberative, rational part that has evolved over the years.
It would be nice, she said, if the latter would prevail, and protect us from the former. But, as this weekend proved, it doesn't.