Vehicle traffic into this town was heavy as always. The drivers, as usual, were grumpy and rude. Empirically, it was difficult to determine whether anyone was upset over last week's 19-cents-a-gallon jump in the price of regular unleaded gasoline. How do you measure an increase in anger in permanently angry people?
To some, that may seem an overstatement. To me, it isn't. On average, I drive 35,000 miles annually. The road is my office. I'm constantly there -- watching, listening, talking with other motorists. The way I figure it, people have been in a bad mood for a long time.
Quite literally, there are signs of distemper posted all along Interstate 95 and the New Jersey Turnpike. In Maryland, for example, there are warnings that police are on the lookout for "aggressive drivers," and all along the New Jersey Turnpike there are admonitions that you will be in trouble if you are caught speeding above the posted 65-mph limit. The fines and trouble increase if you are caught speeding through lower-speed-limit construction zones.
I thought there would be more compliance with speed and other highway laws in an era of rapidly rising gasoline prices. My logic went like this: Fast, aggressive driving consumes energy. The faster and more aggressively you drive, the more energy you use. That means you spend more money at gasoline pumps just for being nasty.
That price can be high.
Last week, on the New Jersey Turnpike, regular unleaded gasoline was going for $2.46 a gallon. I paid more -- $2.87 a gallon -- because I was driving the 2006 BMW 325i sedan, which requires premium unleaded gasoline. Nationally, according to AAA, U.S. motorists were paying $2.601 a gallon for regular unleaded gasoline, 35 percent more than they were paying for that grade of fuel last year.
Spending $2.60 a gallon for petrol would be a gift in Europe, where gasoline topped $3 a gallon 15 years ago, according to market data research by Bloomberg.com. On recent journeys through France and Italy, I was paying the U.S. equivalent of nearly $6 a gallon. But the Europeans are accustomed to those prices. We aren't.
Here, I figured that people might cool their hot-tempered highway habits, if only to save money on fuel. I must have been inhaling gasoline fumes to think something so silly. My drive here late last week is a case in point.
I figured I'd take it easy and spend most of the 285-mile drive here from my home in Northern Virginia in the low-speed right lane. Ha! I was blown away! I even had people in little Honda Civic and Chevrolet Aveo cars tailgating me. I caused so many speeding 18-wheelers to swerve around me, I finally decided to pick up the pace and abandon the right lane altogether.
I tried to use a middle lane -- but to no avail. The middle lane is akin to a motorized demilitarized zone in which truces routinely are broken. There, other motorists roar past you right and left. They smack their gas pedals and zoom! If they know they are wasting fuel in those maneuvers, they clearly don't care.
Lately, there have been many media reports about people getting out of their big sport-utility vehicles and abandoning their high-horsepower cars to reduce their personal fuel costs. I am convinced that the media are fabricating those stories, because I see little evidence of it on the road.
What I see are legions of speeding SUVs of all sizes; hundreds of zooming minivans, pickup trucks and station wagons; and woe unto the obstructionist who dares to obey the posted speed and get in their way. That driver will be harassed.
For that matter, you'd be mistaken to believe that the person following you in the hybrid car is a peaceful innocent. If you get in his or her way, that driver is likely to ride your tail and zip around you, too.
That happened to me on the way here; and it didn't matter that I was driving a BMW. I was driving too slowly for the guy following me in the Toyota Prius sedan. He gave me the Universal Symbol of Disrespect and zoomed ahead.
Maybe it's good that there isn't more visible anger over high gasoline prices. We don't need it. Things are ugly enough.