I’ve spent the last few months talking about our individual and collective narcissism in this country, about Whites and Blacks and people of color and women and academics who all demonstrate our national psychosis. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that nothing illustrates our American narcissism more than what takes place on our roads and highways, in our parking lots and intersections, more than what we do as drivers and pedestrians. We are petty, nervous, angry, unyielding, selfish, oblivious and unthinking assholes when it comes to what we do to get from point A to points B and beyond every single day.
It took me a while to get to this point. I’m a late-blooming driver. I didn’t get my license until a month after my twenty-second birthday, during the morning of a minor snowstorm that had left six inches of snow on the ground at the testing center on Washington Blvd. in Pittsburgh. After that, I drove sporadically, renting a Ford Escort in Yonkers to get to a conference at Lincoln University in the hinterlands of southeastern Pennsylvania in May ’92. House-sitting for professors with car access in August ’92. Renting a car in July ’95 and April ’96 to go places. Borrowing my eventual mother-in-law’s car for errands and job interviews in July ’97, November ’97, November ’99 and November ’01. And more rentals of cars and a moving truck in May, June, July and August ’03, and July ’04. We didn’t buy our Honda Element until the end of September ’04, our first car, and definitely my first car. I was almost thirty-five years old.
But I’ve learned a lot in the past six years and 50,000 miles of driving. I’ve learned that there are only two kinds of narcissistic drivers: neurotic ones and psychotic ones. The neurotic ones tend to drive as if they’re about to be ambushed by an armed gang with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher driving in front, behind and beside them. They often drive five or ten miles below the speed limit, slow down for no reason, and make sure that everyone behind them become neurotic for fear of bumping into them. Neurotic drivers describe about thirty percent of the narcissistic people I encounter on the road.
Why narcissistic? Because — and I can attest to this feeling during my on-and-off again driving experiences between ’92 and ’04 — they’re driving scared, as if out of the 220 million people on the road, someone’s out to get them. That we as drivers have no margin for error, even though people may be beeping on us to speed up, jumping in front of us because of the five-car-long gap in front of us. These drivers drive as if it were an early Sunday morning in rural Georgia, and they were on their way to Macon for some Krispy Kremes before heading to church. Mind you, it’s usually the height of rush hour when this occurs.
But psychotic drivers are even more narcissistic. While neurotic drivers do what they do out of a combination of a need for self-preservation and their belief that the way they drive is the only way anyone should drive, psychotic drivers tend not to care much at all. They run stop signs and red lights, cut you off from making a turn, drive past you when you’re already ten miles over the speed limit themselves, honking and giving you the finger all the while. They don’t use turn signals to let you know they’re turning or changing lanes. They refuse to turn their lights on at night, even when you’ve given them the signal that their lights are off. They will brush the clothes of any pedestrian in a crosswalk, because no matter what, they have the right-of-way. They make u-turns that turn into three- and five-point turns in the middle of traffic, with no hint of an apology of any kind. They act as if other drivers are clairvoyant, and get angry if you don’t know what their next unpredictable move is.
These are the same people we work with, or used to go to school with, every day of the week. They go to church, temple, mosque and synagogue, attend PTA meetings, see plays and go to music concerts and sporting events. They go to the gas stations and supermarkets and strip malls. They are unpredictable people, the kind that are constantly on the phone or texting while they drive, as if bluetooth earpieces and headsets and hands-free technology haven’t been invented yet. They are us, the seventy percent of us out on the roads these days.
In many respects, driving with the psychotic is like being in high school for me all over again. In my case, of course, Mount Vernon High School might as well have been four years of time between gen pop and my neurotic grade-obsessed, cool-obsessed classmates. But I digress, again. I remember being in line at the cafeteria for lunch on about a hundred occasions with guys constantly trying to cut in because they didn’t want to wait. When I’d say, “No!,” often loudly, I’d get called “m____f____” and the f-word. It’s the same thing in rush hour traffic. All of sudden, some dumb butt comes up beside you, practically sticking the front end of his or her car in the way to get into my lane. I usually refuse, especially if they didn’t have their turn signal on or look as if they really are psychotic. That refusal usually draws a middle finger and some cuss words, racial epithets and other idiotic statements. Just like high school.
Even in parking lots or other areas where drivers have to stop, pull to the side or at least slow down, you see the high school stuff. The other day, at a Metro Rail station parking and pickup area near Silver Spring, a guy in a white Isuzu SUV stopped in the driving lane to wait for his girl, I guess, to walk out of the tunnel, walk through half the parking area, and put her bag in the back of the car. The skinny stick-of a-woman then took her time buckling her seat belt before they slowly got out of our way so that we could pick up our loved ones. I’ve seen people block my car for no reason, or worse still, people get out of their car to talk and snack on the hood of my car, I guess because it was too clean for them.
Pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists aren’t immune from this psychotic, narcissistic behavior. All attempt to have their cake and eat it too. While the law protects pedestrians in crosswalks, it doesn’t mean you can cross the street whenever you feel like it. If the light is green, don’t cross the street. If the crosswalk signal is orange or red and not blinking, and the light directly in front of you is about to turn red, that’s a pretty good sign that the traffic you’re about to cross into is about to start moving, right? And if you are jaywalking, walking the slow version equivalent of crossing patterns in football, you may want to, say, hurry it up by walking faster or running, instead of acting as if my insurance will cover your hospital bill.
Bicyclists and motorcyclists, when on the road, act as if we should watch out for them as they weave in and out of traffic, run stop signs and stop lights, and ride two and three across a lane. A bicycle weighs at most thirty pounds. A motorcycle, maybe 800. A car weighs anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 pounds. It might be a good idea to make a note of this when you flip a psychotic driver the bird when you’ve cut them off from making a turn.
I think that there should be a change in law, one that requires a person to have an education at least the equivalent of two years of college, and at least 500 hours of training as a driver, before they can obtain a driver’s license. And, that license should cost at least $600 (as much as two iPods), and really, between $1,000 and $1,500, renewable every ten years after a brief test. That would take most of the high-school-esque, narcissistic and psychotic drivers on the road today off of it, possibly including me (because I didn’t have 500 hours of driving to my credit before ’04). Given the stress that comes with driving, though, I would welcome the break.