In the 1971 movie Duel, an early effort by Steven Spielberg, a mild-mannered commuter played by Dennis Weaver manages to rouse the ire of a trucker on the road. The trucker plays cat-and-mouse with the driver of the smaller vehicle, eventually pushing the game to the point where our protagonist realizes that he will have to either kill or be killed.
What may have seemed like an exaggerated horror story at the time has become a common conflict in reality. In the year 2000, giving another motorist the finger could easily result in your own death in retaliation.
Doubt it? A skim through Gary McKay's recently published book Road Rage: Commuter Combat in America may change your mind. Fed up with years of witnessing incidents of so-called road rage and their bloody aftermath, McKay set out to chronicle the phenomenon in all its varieties and assess its causes and potential remedies.
A key moment for McKay in deciding to write the book was the death of Jennifer Hywari. The sensational act of road rage that killed the 22-year-old in 1997 thoroughly disturbed one of McKay's co-workers, who was driving in proximity to the incident as it occurred. McKay himself passed the fresh wreckage as he drove to work that morning and could not ignore the particularly somber looks of drivers and onlookers near the scene.
The partially covered body of a young woman, obviously dead, lay not far from her battered car on Highway 40 just west of Chesterfield Mall. She had been thrown from her car, McKay soon learned, when she swerved to avoid a pickup whose driver had slammed on the brakes directly in front of her in retaliation for some perceived traffic offense. The subsequent crash claimed Hywari's life and landed the truck's driver in prison.
McKay, 42, a safety-oriented construction and operations manager at the Weldon Spring radioactive-waste-cleanup site, began researching road rage and speaking with police officers from around the country. He also had a wealth of personal experience to draw from, having logged 600,000 miles in 12 years of long commutes to and from work: "I sort of, after a while, got this vision about ... this really is worse than I thought it was as far as an aggregate if you start adding up all the little things and talking to these sheriffs." He would eventually find himself dedicating his book to Hywari and another victim of road rage.
Roughly the first half of the book is a compendium, similar to the book Dates from Hell in that it gathers a large group of anecdotes that make for some lurid reading. These chapters have titles like "Brake Slamming," "Forcing Other Drivers Off the Road and Vehicle Ramming," "Roadside Stabbings, Beatings and Assaults," "Shootings on the Highway," "Big-Rig Rage: Attacked by an 18-Wheeler," "Under Attack: Bicyclists," "Highway Workers Attacked" and "The Amish Under Attack," many of which sound like Fox TV specials or episodes of Cops.
The chapters contain hair-raising descriptions of road-rage-fueled accidents and assaults: A brake-slamming causes the death of a fetus. Half of the 46 senior citizens on a bus en route to a Mississippi casino perish when a driver cuts off the bus and it crashes. A driver-education teacher instructs his student driver to give chase to a car that cuts theirs off, after which the teacher leaps out and punches the offending driver in the nose. An enraged trucker drives over and literally flattens a pickup truck with three teens inside. Another trucker, agitated by jealousy and crystal meth, rolls over a tent with people sleeping inside and threatens to do the same to a tent sheltering a deaf family. A driver pulls a disabled driver from his car to beat him. A church deacon kills a motorist with a crossbow. An English driver rams a bicyclist.
The book, which was self-published, does suffer from an inadequate editing job and may provoke some unintentional laughter. In particular, the story of a pissed-off motorist who reaches through the open car window of a woman who angered him to grab her bichon frise lapdog and throw it into traffic is reminiscent of various slapstick movies.
Readers will be gratified to read that some police departments, including the Illinois State Police, have formed road-rage details to fight this disturbing trend. The troopers drive unmarked sporty cars like Monte Carlos and Mustangs, bearing standard license plates, and look for motorists who appear to be driving too aggressively over a stretch of several miles on the highway. When the cops locate a potential road-rager, they turn on the flashing lights hidden within the grill, put on their "Smokey Bear" hats, pull the driver over and ticket him or her. Illinois' proactive program has been lauded and imitated by other states.
McKay's analysis of the multiple causes of road-rage incidents includes discussion of increased traffic on the same old highways and roads that the government isn't repairing or expanding quickly enough. He also indicts a kind of isolation effect brought on by modern life, the plight of the routinely put-upon trucker and even the common elimination of high-school driver-education classes that show heavy-handed movies with titles like Blood Runs Red on the Highway.
But he says the one biggie is that "safety, whether you're on a construction job or a nuclear cleanup job or ... cutting your grass or driving a car, it's all the same thing -- it's a mental game, and what I have found in my experience is, attitude kills." Changing one's driving attitude is McKay's most urgently emphasized prescription for curtailing as many road-rage flare-ups as possible. Turn the other cheek, he writes in so many words, because a car can be a deadly weapon.
Author Gary McKay reads from and signs copies of Road Rage: Commuter Combat in America at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave. Call 314-367-6731 for more information.