It happened again.

There I was zipping over the Roosevelt Bridge back into the Old Dominion when traffic came to a dead stop because someone was driving in the wrong lane. It seems that the woman was dead set on exiting onto the George Washington Parkway, even though she was in the far left-hand lane.

So what does she do? Just what all too many license-wielding Washingtonians would have done under the circumstances: she brakes and backs up 50 feet against four lanes of oncoming nighttime traffic.

Now we can all sympathize with anyone who gets caught in the one-way asphalt maze that is metropolitan Washington, where a simple overshot of one street usually cannot be corrected by merely circling around the block. But whatever happened to just plain being in the wrong lane and accepting the consequences? When it comes to sharing the road with thousands of other motorists, the me-too generation has all too quickly adopted a me-only attitude.

In its rush to get ahead, or just to get there at all during rush hour, Washington has driven itself off the road of common courtesy. It would be tempting to blame it on cabbies who either don't know any better or couldn't care less. But the fact is that they are certainly complemented by a generous host of others.

In the five years that I have been here, there has been a pronounced decline in the already minimal level of roadway etiquette. What constitutes a truly offensive move in my native Ohio is merely called "aggressive" driving inside the Beltway. It won't be long before the three-point turn across Connecticut Avenue at four in the afternoon is no longer just commonplace -- it will be expected.

The egregious lack of enforcement no doubt contributes substantially to the problem. And its not always because of a lack of police presence: illegal U-turns are executed in front of idle police cars while blatant double parking on M Street fails to even draw the attention of patroling traffic wardens. The scofflaw flagrantly weaves his way through congestion with impunity, and the self-proclaimed VIP assumes that the mere activation of flashing hazard lights entitles him to the full privileges of a presidential motorcade.

It is a sad fact that most people see the law as a deterrent rather than a public safeguard; the law is reluctantly obeyed because the penalty of getting caught far outweighs the advantages of arriving a few minutes earlier. Given the dearth of enforcement, it is no wonder that the otherwise law-abiding motorist soon opts to drive like everybody else.

No, the fact that something is impolite or just plain wrong carries no weight in a town that eats its dead at power breakfasts. Believe it or not, motorists heading in the opposite direction still wave politely to each other on the back roads of the American South. It's just their way of saying hello and acknowledging your right to be on the road. The gesture of choice in Washington connotes something slightly different and does anything but welcome you.

Don't get me wrong, there are still some people who will let you in when you get stuck behind a parked car or back up at a crowded intersection so that you can get out of a barricaded driveway. And they will do so in spite of the cacophony of horns from the less-compassionate motorists behind them.

But adherents of the old school of driver etiquette are well on the way to extinction, snuffed out by the egocentric new hybrids that refuse to merge when instructed to do so just so that they can force themselves in front of you who dutifully and responsibly moved left a half-mile ago.

Where it will all end, nobody knows. But don't be surprised to see demolition derby lanes on the Beltway someday. It will be just another sign of the times replacing the soon-to-be obsolete yellow triangle that reads: "Yield."

-- Marshall S. Berdan