HERE'S a special kind of anger that grabs hold of me sometimes in the jungle traffic of modern times, where survival isn't guaranteed to the fittest anymore, only to the meanest. The feel of it is not hard and controlled, like in sports; it's not that awful helpless teary anger that used to come after I lost a fight and ow comes at the nub of a bad poker night. It's not the bitter, ripping-apart anger that follows a family war.
The feel of it is loose, messy and tinny, like the shrapnel from an exploding grenade. You could cut yourself very badly on it, but it wouldn't be a clean cut at all. There's a kind of diffuse violence. I guess it comes from the time I paid a dollar at a state fair, somebody put a sledgehammer into my hands and let me go to work on an old Buick.
I thought it would be fun. Actually it turned into a battle. The hammer glanced off the metal with a terrible sound and the jangling irregular shock waves traveled up the handle into my arms and finally into my head. I tried to be methodical. What I ended up doing was just randomly flailing at it as hard as I could until finally the handle broke, and I could stop before I really hurt myself.
I know that with me, at least, this feeling is worse if I'm driving an American car. Something about the smell of Naugahyde, the fake mahogany, the feel of the flimsy plastic steering wheel, the sight of the huge square sheetmetal football field of a hood stretching away in front of me with some little chrome-plated ornament stuck on the end... something about the sound of the engine, maybe a 455-cubic-inch Pontiac Trans Am: Heavy, diffuse, brutal, impersonal, gobbling up my savings at such a rate I know I'll never even come close to getting my money's worth unless I floor it at a traffic light and leave some Porsche choking on the wasted gas fumes. The poet Robert Lowell was way ahead of me here. He said all there was to say about American cars in this verse of "For the Union Dead":
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease .
I'll bet no foreign poet ever wrote that kind of stuff about his country's cars.
But there are times these days when the feeling grabs me even as I'm driving my Volkswagen bus. Like a lot of other people, I seem to be losing my sense of humor about being pushed around on the highways.
I'll just sit there now, pretending I'm daydreaming or something, if the car behind me honks awayxact moment the light changes green. I'll keep on sitting there, until he pulls alongside and opens his mouth. Then I'll grin.
I don't care if it's the Beltway or what, if someone comes up behind me on a dark night with his lights undipped. If, say, an 18-wheel Peterbilt with about 50 license plates on its chrome-plated snout cuts me off, I might even try to tailgate him for a while... make him nervous . I'm a lot less likely to let cars in ahead of me than I was. And, as I write this, a funny thing occurs to me. I think I've stopped looking at the drivers of other cars. If it's a Mustang beside me, I think of it as just that, a Mustang. Not as a man driving a Mustang.
So far, I've never actually jumped out of my car to mix it up. Some people I know have, though. They tell me that if I ever do, I should get to the other guy before he has a chance to get all the way out himself. If he rolls up his windows and just sits there, somebody said, you put your fists together and bring them down on the roof as hard as you can. That is supposed to make the air pressure shoot up inside and might even breaks his eardrums. Fat chance.
But I'm pretty sure I'll never do anything like that. Here's one reason:
On July 5 a few years ago, after watching the fireworks display on the Mall, Lt. Cdr. William F. Rolland, 41, and his 19-year-old son jumped out. It was in Annandale. A car had been following them closely... too closely, Rolland thought. The car suddenly swung out and passed them, then stopped at a traffic light. Rolland jumped out to have a talk with the driver. According to Mrs. Rolland, still in the car with the five children, a fight began. Her son Bud jumped out to help his father. Within seconds the man in the other car had shot both Rollands dead and driven away. Roger Whitney, an unemployed Marinc Corps veteran of Vietnam, pleaded innocent to the shooting five months later but was given two life sentences in the penitentiary, where he still is.
No matter what kind of a grip the frustration of driving in a hostile environment on the highways has, that story gives one pause. The other guy probably has the anger too. He might also have a gun, a knife, a club, a chain, or he might just be a black belt in karate.
Of course you might have a gun yourself. If you're both "cooking hard," as state police say, it can get to be like the Wild West. Take the case of H. Clay Earles, 64, president of the Martinsville, Va; Speedway, and Roy C. Carter, 45, a former guard at the Patrick Henry Correctional Field Unit in Horsepasture.
Those two men were driving south on Route 220 a little after 5 p.m. a year ago. They agree on that. Then, Carter said, Earles cut him off and started tailgating him. So he pulled along-side and asked: "What are you trying to do?"
It weemed to Earles, though, that Carter was either shaking his fist at him or giving him the bird, so he motioned Carter to pull off the road. Carter was only too glad to oblige.
When the cars stopped, Carter walked back to Earles, who by that time had taken a 32 caliber pearl-handled revolver out of the glove compartment and hidden it under his thigh. Earles said Carter called him a "grouchy old man." Carter said Earles cursed him and threatened to kill him. He went back to his camper and two men heard Earles tell him: "If you reach down there and get a gun, they're going to have to carry you to the hospital or the morgue."
Naturally, it was never clear who fired first. However, Earles got off more shots: five bullets to Carter's one, which missed. Earle missed with four, but hit the camper with one bullet which ricocheted into Carter's cheek.
"I'm the one that shot him," Earles announced to bystanders. Then both men swore out warrants charging the other with malicious wounding, attempted malicious wounding, assault and battery. After they'd calmed down both agreed to drop the charges. "I think both bentlemen regret that the incident occurred," Carter's lawyer said. "Nobody particularly wanted to go to court."
Practically everyone involved -- police, drivers, highway engineers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- say this and gentler forms of "traffic violence" are happening a lot more often these days than they did, say, five years ago, especially in places where the traffic flow has spiraled, such as the Beltway or I-95 heading south (where it rose 42.7 percent over the last five years). It's not easy to document, because incidents are rarely broken out as traffic related, or not recorded at all. However, hit-and-run incidents are thought to be one indicator of traffic violence, and they have increased in Virginia from 5,064 in 1967 to 7,513 last year. In Maryland, it is significant that Gov. Blair Lee appropriated $50,000 from state emergency funds last year for 800 bulletproof vests for state troopers after a fatal shooting occurred during a routine traffic stop. In California, something of a mecca for traffic violence, 413 highway patrolmen were attacked and injured in 1977 by people they had pulled over, up from 244 in 1973.
Shooting is extreme. Usually highway hostilities don't escalate that far -- perhaps a little gritting of the teeth, pounding of the steering wheel, a simple yell of rage or a rude gesture.But the way it starts can be even more ridiculous than the Earles episode. It seems to be taking less to set people off. For instance:
Citizen's bank radio, says Virginia state trooper Richard S. Keevill, has "definitely contributed to the increase" in highway violence. Ruch hour into Washington on I-95 can start these days at about 4.30 a.m. There you are, embeded in a congealing molasses flow of traffic, the dark wastes of suburban Virginia coming into view under the lowering clouds, the guy in the car next to you looking as if he had died in the night, just you and your CB, the only way you can let off steam.
"A couple of them got into a fight over the Redskins," Keevill remembers. "One guy started calling them the Deadskins. The next thing they were on the shoulder just duking it out. Or a guy will tell a truck to let him by and the truck driver will tell him to go ---- himself. I gave this one guy a ticket... see, it's an insult to get pulled over in front of the other drivers. You used to be able to give them a nice lecture and a warning, but now they don't want any nice lectures. They just want their ticket and get out of there... and then I heard him bragging on the CB, telling everybody he'd been going 90 and only been ticketed for 74. I pull up beside him -- he's looking right at me -- and tell him I'm going to advise the court.Then he tells me to kiss his ass. I didn't do anything, though. I didn't want to lower the standards of the department."
Virginia trooper Gerald Naquin got himself badly bitten writing a ticket to a Washington cab driver who turned out to be "just an average American, a pretty nice guy" after he had calmed down. "I set up a station, pulling people over for driving on the shoulder... they drive on the shoulder now like it was just another lane... I think he was the third car. I asked him for his driver's license. He threw it at me. Then he sanatched it out of my hand and threw another one right in my face. He was really starting to cook, saying, 'Everybody else was driving on the shoulder, why pick on me?"
"It was obvious I couldn't do anything more with him there, so I placed him under arrest. When I put my hand on him to take custody, all hell broke loose. He picked me up, threw me on the ground, we rolled into the slow lane, he was biting me on the chest a couple of times. Strong little devil... Four or five people had to drag him off -- a U.S. marshal who happened to be driving by and some military men. He was just an average guy, driving a cab at night, going to school during the day, wife and kids at home. It just happened to be the wrong morning, the wrong time. He drew blood, and I had to have a tetanus shot."
Maryland state police are still talking about the man who came in to swear out a warrant against a man he had seen laughing at him in his rear view mirror. A nudge or two on the rar bumper and then laughter. "The other man denied it when we talked to him," remembers Lt. Gordon T. Craig from the Greenbelt barracks. "So we sent the guy to the county commissioner, who told him that they didn't issue warrants for traffic violations in Prince George's County. He got frustrated and came back to us, so we went down with him again to the other guy's house. This time the guy finally admitted it. 'I was doing him a favor,' he says. 'I could see he had the devil in him, and I was trying to nudge it out.'"
Another driver in the Greenbelt area noticed the man in the car behind him moving his lips in what he took to be an insulting manner. Police ticketed both the lipreader and the lipreadee after they pulled over to the shoulder to settle it.
There is no one more vulnerable to the fall-out of highway frustration than toll collectors, particularly the ones at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge where the traffic flow is uneven. At the Harbor Tunnel, they say, a driver can at least expect a regular commuter backup and gets used to it. At the bridge the backup is usually caused by activities such as duck hunting and weekending. The better the weather for those things, the worse the backup.
All the drivers want to do is enjoy themselves and there they are stuck in a grim conglomeration of other people trying to do the same thing. The new span doesn't help their tempers at all: it cost a fortune in public funds, took years to build, and they're still waiting in a backup. Besides which there's usually only one toll gate open when the duck hunters come across at 3 or 4 in the morning.
"They don't usually get smart with the police," says Edith Lewis, 34, who has been collecting tolls on the bridge for 11 years. "But they know we're defenseless. If we talk back to them or behave in a hostile manner, they can report us, and it goes on our record. You can't ever retaliate by giving them a lot of small change. The rule is you have to use the highest denomination available. You find yourself taking it out on your fellow workers, or your family. I'll try to get as much ice into my voice as possible when I say thank you. Sometimes I'll wait till they drive away and then say everything I wanted to say. There's one woman here who lets off steam by screaming after they've gone. You can hear her all through the plaza. I'll tell you, working here makes you lose your trust in the public."
A few of the things "they" do:
Roll feces in dollar bills; embed change in bubblegum; urinate on bills; spit on change; heat change in cigarette lighters; throw change at collectors; try to sideswipe collectors walking in toll alleys; pass bills between toes; exhibit bare genitals or buttocks; shoot collectors with waterguns full of ink, ammonia or water; scratch collectors' hands with fingernails; racially insult collectors; gesture obscenely; pass 125 pennies; pass $100 bills; refuse to move away from the toll plaza.
There is an apocryphal tale about a medical student who obtained an arm off a cadaver, put money in the palm and fixed it so when the collector took the money, she got the whole thing. But nobody can remember that actually happening.
Eloise King, the toll supervisor, used to collect tolls herself five years ago. "I kind of enjoyed it then," she remembers. "At least it was better than working in an office... you were outside and you were dealing with a lot of different people. But all the girls tell me I'd hate it now, it's gotten so bad out htere."
Sometimes people will give a collector too much money, and if she's new she might try to stop the car and return it. After a while, thought, she learns it's probably not worth the insults.
Ask the police, the toll people, other drivers, exactly what type of person is most likely to lose control. There is no type. It's just as likely to be the middle-aged woman you met at the club the other night as it is to be the juvenile delinquent who stole your wallet on M Street.
"I find it hard to believe that my mailman, one of the gentlest of men, who goes out of his way to do me kindnesses, starts blowing his horn before he turns on his ignition, but I know it's true," writes Caskie Stinnett in The Atlantic Monthly. "One Sunday I saw him, in street clothes, cut across a grass-covered median strip on one of Boston's main arteries just because he was momentarily stalled in traffic."
Am I one of these people? The answer seems to be a qualified yes, but I'll tell you one thing: it's not so qualified now as it was. I'd originally put the whole thing down to getting older, losing my sense of humor, having to spend the day in a windowless office. But there seem to be other things at work here. I'm part of a trend .
"People are getting more and more socially disconnected in cars, especially out on the superhighways," says Dr. Morris Chafetz, a Washington psychiatrist. "You find that the cultural constraints are lessened, all the things we've built up over the years that separate us from the animals, and if we're frustrated out there or irritated, suddenly we're in a very primitive situation."
Chafetz goes on to describe the violent driver as one whose personality is so strongly interwoven with his vehicle that is becomes a personal assault when another driver cuts in front of him. Well, that's me. Me and my VW bus are just like that.
In fact, as I say, it's much worse when a car cuts in front of my car than when another person cuts in front of me , in a supermarket line or something. Lines at least have a certain society, culture and set of relationships. Traffic is just traffic. It would take a daring social psychologist to try to explain a backup in any other terms than "frustration," "boredom," "anger," "botch" or "technological arteriosclerosis."
Now you might have thought that eight lanes of solied traffic, crawling along at four miles an hour or just baking motionless in its own exhaust fumes on a 95-degree summer evening is about as bad as it is going to get... that if you can keep your sanity and your temper under those circumstances, you are home free. That's wrong.
The shape of things to come is out on the Capital Beltway in Virginia west of the I-395 interchange, where they're bracketing the road with huge concrete, metal and wood walls. They're called "sound walls," the latest thing, designed to keep the noise of increased Beltway traffic away from nearby residential areas.
You can't see over them. It's like driving along an enormous cattle chute, with absolutely nothing to look at except the tailpipe of the car in frong of you or maybe the scared, angry and bewildered face in the car beside you. No scenery, and the rising fumes tend to make the sky the same color, rain or shine. There's no breeze in there either, except that which comes from the passage of cars through the fumes. You might well ask yourself: "Is this really the way I want to get there?"