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Add fear and forbearance to the rules of the road

Published Oct. 9, 2005

As usual on a midday Saturday, U.S. 19 was packed with traffic, but, so far, I had managed to make almost every light while it was green. I was rolling south toward the Gulf View Square Mall intersection, one eye on the road, the other on the bright green light coming up when, suddenly and without warning, the driver in front of me stopped her car. I slammed on my brakes and listened as drivers behind me did the same.

With a slight twist to the left, the driver ahead of me indicated she had belatedly decided she wanted into the left turn lane so she could enter the shopping center opposite the mall. The problem was, the turn lane was full of cars and she couldn't break in.

Instead of going to the next intersection, making a U-turn and coming back, she had decided she would just sit in the middle of the road, wait through the green and red straight-ahead lights, then take her chances on getting into the left turn lane when its light turned green.

Never mind that traffic was barreling down on her _ and me _ from behind. Her mind was fixed on turning left into the shopping center. The heck with those of us behind her.

As I clenched the steering wheel, stomped my brake and braced for a possible rear-end crash, my passenger sprang into action. Leaning over, she pressed down on the horn. The turn-lane cars realized the imminent danger and began backing up to let the driver ahead of me into their lane. To the tune of the singing brakes on a large transport truck coming up behind us, the driver ahead squeezed in and I squeezed by her.

Disaster averted. But just barely.

I shook with fury. One selfish, heedless, idiot driver had endangered the lives of a dozen or more people. I wanted to go back, fling open her door, drag her into the street and pummel her in the face. I wanted to shake her by the shoulders, scream at her, kick her tires, say ugly things about her ancestors.

Of course, I didn't. I'm a super-civilized sort, and, perhaps more important, I'm not very big. I learned early on not to start fistfights.

But for a moment there, I understood how highway altercations escalate into violence. Someone of a different nature, or larger, or, scariest of all, someone with a weapon handy might have carried through on that burst of anger.

I had had a brush with it only minutes before when I pulled into a convenience store to pick up an item. I wasn't buying fuel, so, rather than block a fuel pump, I made a wide circle and parked about 6 feet or 8 feet behind a car parked behind another near the store entrance.

As I walked toward the door of the store, the driver in front of me began to honk-honk-honk. Thinking it might be a friend, I turned and smiled.

I was met with the angriest face I had seen in a long time. "Don't you see what you did, b----," the driver snarled. "You blocked me in. You didn't care where you parked. You didn't look," he said, his voice rising in anger.

I was totally taken aback. There were at least two small children in the car and a couple of other adults. His tone, his words, his red, twisted face were way out of proportion to what he perceived as my transgression. In truth, he had plenty of room to drive away, but still, for some reason, he was furious, and he was directing his anger at me.

I stood still, unsure of what to do. Would he make a move? Should I?

At that moment, the front driver drove away, and my verbal assailant spun his wheels as he left behind her, missing me by inches.

The two incidents, so close together, were a full day's lesson: There are a great many foolish people on the highways and a great number of angry people driving cars, and you can't predict when you are going to encounter one or the other.

If you want to survive, you not only have to remember your lessons in defensive driving, you have to learn some new ones about defensive living.

Barbara L. Fredricksen is editor of editorials for the Pasco edition of the Times.