[APAK logo] Issue #68, October 10th, 1996

Think Fast, Dr. Fandom!
by Ted White

Earlier this year a terrible traffic accident occurred in northern Virginia.

Two cars raced north on the George Washington Parkway, and, at one point, the white sporty car cut into the left lane ahead of the Jeep Cherokee. The Cherokee hit it, nudging it across the median strip and into the path of two southbound cars, the Cherokee following it across the median. The single drivers in the two southbound cars were killed, as was the driver of the white sporty car. Indeed, the white sporty car was torn in half, front from rear, one half ending up many yards away from the other. Only the driver of the Cherokee survived, with relatively minor injuries.

Recently the driver of the Jeep Cherokee was found guilty of two counts of involuntary manslaughter.

What had happened was that the drivers of the Cherokee and the white car had pissed each other off, apparently starting with the Jeep (in the left lane) refusing to let the white car (behind it) pass. In the course of the next five to eight miles, the two had jockeyed for the lead, racing with each other at speeds estimated to be between 80 and 100 mph.

The G.W. Parkway was never intended for such speeds. It is a relatively narrow (two lanes, each direction), twisty parkway with few barriers, running along the length of the Potomac River, designed originally for sightseers and maintained by the U.S. Parks Dept., not the state highway agency. Speeds close to 80 mph are dangerous even for good cars with no traffic. In morning rush hour it is a wonder those two fools managed to attain such speeds.

The reason I mention this is because this accident has been widely publicized here as the product of "aggressive driving" I'm an aggressive driver, and I feel this incident gives aggressive driving a bad name.

I have always felt that there are, basically, two kinds of drivers: those who are aggressive and those who are not. Around here the latter heavily outnumber the former.

I first encountered "aggressive driving" the first time I took a taxi in New York City. My driver seemed to ignore lane markings, and to rush at unmoving traffic, but he maneuvered his cab adroitly through impossible openings without losing so much as one chip of paint, and got me where I wanted to go faster than I could have done it myself, had I been brave enough then to consider driving in Manhattan traffic.

New York City drivers intimidated me at first. I was used to drivers who hesitated, never taking the first opportunity to make their moves, and, when they did move, doing it slowly and ponderously. I was used to city traffic that moved like sludge.

But soon I realized that the drivers in NYC were my kind of drivers. (Oh, not all of them, to be sure -- there were always those who couldn't keep up with the timed lights on a one-way avenue -- but many more than I'd ever encountered before, and enough to dominate the traffic, most of them cabbies.) These drivers were alert and ready to act the instant it was possible to do so (if not just a little ahead of that possibility). Driving in traffic with them was far less frustrating than it had been in any other city; I didn't feel like everyone else was mired in molasses. These drivers gave "aggressive driving" a Good Name.

I learned to drive in northern Virginia, at a time when traffic was a tiny fraction of what it is today, and most local roads were country roads -- narrow, high-bowed roads often flanked by steep ditches. My friends and I, while we were teenagers, practiced skids on dirt roads and iced-over parking lots. We did a lot of foolish things, but we also learned survival instincts, and -- with cars far less able to handle sudden circumstances -- how to react in emergencies not of our own making.

The only accidents I have ever been in were caused by other drivers, in all but one case while I was stopped at a red light (and rear-ended). However, I've avoided several major accidents -- highway pileups involving dozens of other cars.

Rich brown remembers one occasion which happened on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was 1965, and I was driving a Chevy Greenbrier van, loaded with six Fanoclasts and heading from New York City for the Midwestcon in Cincinnati. We topped a hill and saw before us a dozen or more cars milling about, spinning around, hitting each other like bumper cars, and totally blocking our way.

I slammed on the brakes, but knew immediately we wouldn't stop in time.

Never stopping, just reacting as I went, I threaded the van through the maze of moving cars, and emerged unscathed on the far side of the accident scene. A mile or two further on was a service area, where we stopped and made a report to the state police, and then sat down to unwind in the restaurant. In the 20 minutes we were there we saw no other vehicles go past in our direction. The road had been blocked.

I won't brag. Ask rich whether he, or anyone else in that car, thinks he could have negotiated a way through that mayhem.

I'm an aggressive driver. That's because I love to drive and am not afraid of traffic -- even New York City traffic. To me driving is like a sport, and one at which I am pretty good. Most non-aggressive drivers are, I suspect, basically afraid to drive, or afraid of traffic, or afraid of speed. It may be true, for them, that "speed kills," although I've always thought that a stupid slogan.

Excessive speed kills, sure, but not just "speed." Hey, at one time it was thought that at a speed of 35 mph, people would explode!

And I've encountered my share of what I call roadassholes: drivers whose behavior is, in some respect, obnoxious. On several occasions (most of them when I was 20-odd years younger) I have actually chased and pulled over such drivers. (I would demand to see a driver's license, and on the one occasion it was tendered, I tore it up. Usually I just impressed the other driver with my fully-expressed rage, frightening the hell out of him, and leaving him relieved that I didn't physically attack him.) I don't do that any more. I'm older, and the roadassholes are crazier. Many of them pack guns now.

And the non-aggressive drivers, the ones who won't drive over 55, consider all us aggressive drivers roadassholes, dangerous, scary types who need to be gotten off the roads. The accident on the George Washington Parkway just reinforces their beliefs.

And so it goes.

It wasn't very ladylike of me to hit you with a broiled lobster.

[APAK logo] Issue #68, October 10th, 1996

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