It is a plague, a contagion and a poison. A hundred thousand tiny needles stab the pores and inject a toxic cocktail. The evil ingredients assault each sense--the endless sightline of brake lights, the shriek of horns, the stink of exhaust, the tremble of overheated engines, the sour-milk taste of despair.

It is traffic. It is Northern Virginia, a hopeless, sprawling Love Canal of steel, rubber, asphalt and carbon monoxide. Impossible to clean up, impossible to navigate, impossible to escape. Each year, more people wade into it. Soon, like those before them, they corrode emotionally.

Everyone listens to the traffic reports. Everyone knows which exit ramp will be closed and for how long. Everyone has commuting strategies that shave off a minute here, a quarter-hour there, precious bits of life to be savored like trophies won in battle.

Drivers are better girded for battle, to be sure, but the information does little to assuage the anger, the helplessness, the sheer emotional desperation of having to be somewhere in 15 damned minutes and I can't beLIEVE this traffic what are all you people DOING out here don't you have JOBS?!?

Take a moment. Breathe. Gather.

Pause.

Still stuck in traffic. Haven't moved a foot.

Hopeless.

Anger fades to resignation. Slight movement! Adrenaline bump! Stopped again. Yellow arrow? That wasn't there yesterday! Back to anger. Endless futility interrupted by spasms of fury, as the autos inchworm along. Can't be a healthy way to live.

Yet, in Northern Virginia, most people live this way: There are 6 million vehicle trips per day in the region. Everyone, it seems, is angry. Traffic is the hottest political issue in the region. Gov. James Gilmore III has been ganged up on by area legislators, whose constituents seem prepared to take up the flaming torches and wooden pitchforks. The top state transportation official was sacked. It might cost more than $1 billion to fix the mess. Drivers plow on because they must.

Elizabeth Kluger Cooper is one of them. In some places on Earth, people build houses on stilts to avoid floodwaters. Cooper, like many Northern Virginians, has also adapted to her environment: She has bent her life around traffic. The difference is, it wasn't supposed to be this way.

Automobiles were supposed to improve life, not worsen it. Over the decades, automakers sold amenable Americans a laundry list of promises about the car: It will make you feel Young, Powerful, Successful. Romantically, the auto let you hit the road and leave troubled times behind like a pair of skid marks.

But a bad thing happened in places like Cooper's Northern Virginia: "Cars" have become "traffic." Motion has become immobility. Individuals have become one of many. And the promises of the automobile have turned into a pack of lies.

Cooper plunks into the leather seat of a black Acura sedan outside her Great Falls home at 7:26 a.m. on a recent sunny Monday. Nobody in the house--not her husband or kids--is up yet. It's part of the bargain she makes: She trades off saying "good morning" to her children in exchange for beating traffic to work. More time with them in the evening, she rationalizes.

Cooper is a wiry dynamo, always in motion. Exactly the worst sort of person to deposit in a traffic jam. But traffic is part of her job. She is a lawyer for the Staubach Co., a commercial real estate consulting firm started by the ex-Dallas Cowboys quarterback that puts more tenants in office buildings than any other such company in the country. Used to be, Staubach's clients cared about location for reasons of visibility, signage and so on. Now they care about location for traffic reasons. Companies are losing prized recruits to competitors located in areas with less traffic.

Cooper drives east along the infamous Route 7 near Tysons Corner. Traffic is thick, but moving. ("Come back in September, after everyone's back from vacation," Cooper warns. "We won't be moving.") She points first to the left--north--then to the right--south.

"People looking for office space don't want to go north of Route 7," she says. "Traffic is too bad. South of Route 7, there are more routes around traffic."

She motors in the right lane, penned in by other cars. Drivers are moving in fits and starts, from zero to 30 mph. She grips the steering wheel and jerks her head left, looking for a gap in traffic. Suddenly, she punches the gas pedal and the Acura darts left, like a running back avoiding a closing linebacker. She is in the left-turn lane.

"Sorry," she apologizes to a passenger.

She zips left on Towers Crescent Drive and circles behind Tysons Corner Center, cleverly using mall roads to avoid main arteries. At 7:55 a.m., she pulls up to the gate at her parking garage and pushes the button, trying for a ticket. Nothing. Push push push.

"Broken," she correctly guesses.

She backs out and pulls up to the adjacent gate on the left. Push. Again, nothing. The tension level in the Acura is rising. She slams the gear shift into reverse. From behind: hooonk!

The Acura lurches to a stop. Cooper twists around in her seat: "It's broken!" she says to the driver who's snugged in behind her. He gestures: "What?" She mouths more dramatically: "Broken!" He relents and backs out. Cooper's day has just begun and, already, a car hassle.

Growth and Development

Cooper is in time for her 8 a.m. meeting at Staubach's Tysons Corner office. She and two other execs are searching for a new office site for a large client. Traffic, of course, is an issue.

Traffic is also an issue--even something of a morbid hobby--for the man sitting next to Cooper, James Underhill, chief operating officer for Staubach at Tysons. He has been driving from Maryland to this building since 1987. He has seen traffic go from merely bad to nearly immobile. But now, allow him to perform the terrible calculus of the future:

There are 2 million square feet of new office space under construction within sight of his building.

Now, follow some rules of thumb for traffic:

Typically, Underhill says, there are 3.5 cars for every 1,000 square feet of office space. That equals about 7,000 more cars in Tysons after the new office space is finished and occupied.

If a standard car is about 18 feet long, that's a total of 126,000 linear feet of new cars. Another way to put it: one lane of traffic, 22 miles long. That's what's in store for Tysons: Twenty-two more miles of frustration. Twenty-two more miles of anger. Twenty-two more miles of lies.

Underhill even has a name for what's happened to traffic in Northern Virginia: "I call it a 3-D Evolutionary Nightmare."

He expounds:

"One, the area has stretched," Underhill begins. "You have to go farther to conduct your business. Two, there are more cars, more pressure points in the region. And three is speed. Speed is everything. If you were five minutes late to a meeting, you used to apologize. Now, the people you're meeting with have maybe 20 or 30 minutes for you, total."

To no one in particular, Cooper sighs and says: "God forbid I'm late."

What one notices about Underhill is his strange calm, the calm of a police negotiator trying to talk a jumper down from a ledge. He wasn't always like this. Up until a few years ago, traffic made him furious. He had to make a conscious effort to be calm. To gather. To maintain.

So he is calm when stuck in traffic. But is he Free? Individual? Powerful? After all, he drives a BMW 740--a symbol of success and power.

"Impotent," he answers.

"An impotent slave," Cooper adds.

Shifting Values

In Dearborn, Mich., there is a shrine to the automobile--the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village. This sprawling exhibit is as American as Gettysburg and the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and Levittown, Harlem and Hollywood. Gottlieb Daimler may have invented the internal combustion engine in Germany, but Americans created the automobile, and it created what they have become. It is memorialized in Dearborn. There are Jetsons-style cars of the future, re-created diners, beautiful silver Airstream trailers.

Came the interstates. Came drive-throughs. Came the family vacation in the Vista Cruiser. Stuckey's with blue peaked roofs. Maps that were impossible to refold.

Then came the '70s, when lots of things went bad. Oil crises. Gas lines. Now, cars no longer felt like fun; they began to feel more like an anchor. The sheer pleasure of happy motoring seeped away with every ding! of the gas pump. The Japanese sent over small, affordable, reliable gas-sippers. Detroit countered with . . . the Vega and the Chevette.

A decade later, the gas crisis was over. Horsepower reigned again. Chrysler turbocharged everything but the minivan. The newly rich snatched up muscle-bound Porches. Outamyway, scum!

But one thing was unchanged over all that time: Car sales--and population--continued a steady climb. More and more cars crowded onto roads that didn't expand fast enough. Traffic, once the concern of far-off, smoggy L.A., was now choking Denver, Miami, Dallas, Cleveland and Washington. Also, Orange County, Calif.; Fort Worth, Tex.; Tysons Corner, Va.

At the Ford museum in Michigan is an exhibit called "The Car as Symbol." In a perfect world--or in a museum--there is no traffic. Only splendid, shiny cars, each one envisioned as the only one on the road.

"Almost from the beginning," the exhibit reads, "the car has served as a powerful symbol of personal and social values in America." The display sets out several "values" and matches them to cars. If one runs down these values, they sound pretty good. But if one is stuck in traffic, steaming hot, irritated, late, hopeless, the values associated with the automobile begin to seem like something else. They begin to feel like "lies." Consider:

* Freedom: "The automobile allowed us to escape the confines of geography," the exhibit reads. If you're sitting in traffic in NoVa, you feel as free as a death row prisoner who has exhausted the appeals system.

* Power: "An automobile gives its driver the power to conquer time and space." The owner of a Ford Mustang may have 220 horsepower straining to escape from his bulging hood, but if he's sitting through a half-dozen traffic light changes on Greensboro Road in Tysons, he feels anything put powerful.

* Individuality: "The car can express the owner's identity." Thanks to aerodynamics, just about every car since 1985 has been designed to resemble a throat lozenge. Try to tell a Honda Accord from a Toyota Avalon from a Ford Taurus from an Audi A6 without looking at the grill symbol.

* Success: "Automobiles such as Cadillacs or Lincolns are well known for their image of wealth." Gridlock is the great leveler. When you're stopped on I-66 in your Mercedes, you are exactly as successful at forward motion as the guy sitting next to you in the '75 Monza held together with duct tape and Bondo.

* Youth: "The car has always captivated the young and the 'young at heart.' " This may be the biggest lie of all and the crux of Traffic Rage. The car dealer persuaded you that the BMW Z3 convertible would make you feel young again. Now, you're at a dead standstill in traffic. Not only will you be late to pick up your teen, you can feel the moments of your life ticking away. You didn't think about dying when you were 25. Now, you're 55 and it's amazing how often it crosses your mind. Tick tick tick. You're no longer strapped into a transmutational time machine. You're trapped inside a leather-and-vinyl coffin on wheels. With fake burled wood, if you've paid enough for the luxury trim package.

For years, automakers have marketed these values to Americans, manifested in Lincoln Town Cars and Pontiac Trans Ams and even Ford Edsels. These values became implicit promises: Buy this car and get these values. Now, traffic takes them all away. The promises turn into lies. And when people are lied to, they feel:

Rage.

The Great Equalizer

Cooper motors westward along an uncharacteristically smoothly flowing Georgetown Pike at 5:45 p.m., the end of her day.

Home. Husband Don Cooper is waiting. He is president of Donohoe Cos. construction. Builds big things. Believes in symbolism. Show him the list: Freedom. Power. Individuality. Success. Youth.

"All of them," he says, not missing a beat. "Absolutely."

Here's a story: He got a white Buick Roadmaster as a company car. Big as a blimp, smooth as a cloud. He liked driving it until he looked around and saw who else was driving Roadmasters.

"They were are 65, 70 years old," he says. "I felt self-conscious." The car as symbol. When he stepped inside the Buick, he lost 30 years off his life.

He looks at the list again.

"I think all those values, you feel them when you're moving," he says. "But when you're stopped in traffic, you're just a hot, sweaty person like everyone around you."

Stopped. Late. Fuming. Dying.

Betrayed.

CAPTION: Elizabeth Kluger Cooper fights traffic on her way home to Northern Virginia from her downtown office.