Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Do Not Go Gentle

Why America's drivers rage, rage, against the vehicle on the right

By Chris Wright

AUGUST 16, 1999:  It all started on Route 1A, in Ipswich. My wife and I were driving up to Salisbury, eagerly anticipating a night of Whack-A-Mole. Things began to go horribly wrong, however, when we found ourselves creeping along at a pace 10 miles below the speed limit, staring directly into the taillights of a slowpoke pick-up truck. The road was narrow, dark, and winding, and the hick in the pick-up -- we'll call him Jed -- was patently getting his jollies by delaying us: there was no way the fancy city folk with their fancy ways and their fancy car (actually, a dilapidated Volkswagen Golf) were gonna get by him. No sir.

Every time I tried to pass Jed, he'd speed up, edge over, and slow down again. By the time we came to a stoplight, 20 minutes into our game of cat-and-sloth, I was hissing mad. I pulled up beside the truck into the right-turn-only lane and locked eyes with its oily passenger. I nudged forward. The truck nudged forward. Son of a . . .

That's when I shot through the light, which was still red, and into the clutches of a waiting cop.

"It was rash," I admitted as the officer chided me and the pick-up zoomed by, a single finger extending from the passenger window. But it was more than that. According to psychiatrist John Larson, my behavior was a textbook case of the kind of aggressive driving that leads to road rage. And Larson should know: he wrote the textbook.

In Road Rage to Road-Wise (Forge Books), Larson and co-author Carol Rodriguez define aggressive driving as "speeding, competing, tailgating, cutting off, refusal to yield right of way, weaving, lane changing without signaling, running red lights, [and] making illegal turns." In my altercation with Jed, I committed at least five of these infractions, and a couple new ones of my own. John Larson loves people like me.

"Read the book carefully," he says, "and there is no way you can keep yourself from changing."


As its name suggests, Road Rage to Road-Wise is a self-help book. In it, Larson tacks together anecdotes, statistics, breathing exercises, and, um, poetry in an attempt to get us to change our wicked ways. The cornerstone of the book, though, is its assertion that you can't get rid of old habits without having new ones to replace them. And so the five deadly sins that lead to road rage are replaced with five kinder, gentler attitudes:

1) Make Good Time
2) Be Number One
3) Try and Make Me
4) They Shouldn't Be Allowed
5) Teach 'Em a Lesson

becomes

1) Make Time Good
2) Be a Number-One Being
3) Be My Guest
4) Live and Let Live
5) Leave Punishment to the Police

So far, so good. If you can ignore the sometimes gooey self-help terminology, this switcheroo seems like it could be effective. But then there's the poetry:

Make time good.
Live as though this day's your last.
Learn new facts, no need to fast.
Savor beverage, music, scenery, food.
Companions need time to be wooed,
so take the time to make time goo-o-o-d.
For me, the poem conjures up images of a driver with one hand on a cup of coffee and another cupped around his companion's breast, one eye on the road and one on a distant hillside, while he listens to NPR and hums ABBA's greatest hits. And, of course, squirms in embarrassment at the rhyming of "wooed" and "goo-o-o-d." It's enough to send the most cautious of drivers careering into the nearest pylon.

Some of the more practical advice, though, is relatively on target. The Try and Make Me attitude, writes Larson, "has a pernicious downside: its negative effect on your relationship with your passengers." Right. Remembering my wife's frosty reaction to my recent brush with the Ipswich PD, I can't argue here. In fact, having read Road Rage to Road-Wise, I have resolved to be a better driver.

But what about all the other assholes out there?

If any demographic is in need of a dose of road wisdom, it's the dreaded Bostonian. Your average Boston driver, his native pugnacity intensified by construction hassles and chronic overcrowding, would cause Jesus Christ to take his own name in vain. So, on a recent Wednesday afternoon -- rush hour, the Sox in town -- I invited Larson and Rodriguez out for a tour of Beantown's roiling roadways. At 5:30, the road-rage experts pulled up outside the Phoenix offices in their spanking green Volvo, and, for the first time in my life, I actually went out in search of horrible, horrible traffic.


John Larson looks to be in his 60s. Tall, angular, bespectacled, and pale to the point of translucence, he exudes serene authority -- like a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Caspar Weinberger. Carol Rodriguez is younger, early middle-aged, with glasses and blond hair. She too projects the calm confidence you'd expect from someone who writes self-help books.

As we set out along Brookline Avenue, through the mire of the Red Sox crowd, however, I am positive that by the time Boston is done with them, Larson and Rodriguez will be decidedly less tranquil. "Focus your energy on enjoying your time in the car," write the two in their insanely optimistic book. Let's see how much they enjoy their time negotiating the dementia of Mass Ave, Comm Ave, and (pause for effect) Storrow Drive.

Almost immediately, Larson states what he thinks is wrong with Boston drivers. "What one sees a lot in Boston is games of chicken, a lack of courtesy," he says, his voice hyper-calm and almost as thin as he is. "You see a lack of courtesy where right of way is determined in a merging situation, people who are determined to go ahead even though their car might get hit."

From the back seat, Rodriguez chimes in, "Nobody wants to let you in; you have to push your way in." She says this as we pull up to the intersection of Comm and Mass Aves. Usually, this stretch is a snarl of double-parkers, in-swingers, side-swipers, and back-slashers. Today, everybody wants to let us in -- we pass through the intersection like Ex-Lax on wheels.

"Strange," I say. "Usually . . . "

Here's where I get my first red flag. "One thing you'll notice about road rage," says Larson, "is that a lot of it is created by the driver. So you won't get as much driving with me as you would driving with someone who's very aggressive." With this, he takes a sluggardly right onto Mass Ave, me scowling in the seat beside him.

Some would say that you're unlikely to encounter a single incident of road rage no matter who's driving the car. The reason? There's no such thing. Road rage, say the skeptics, is a media myth, a snazzy new name for the intractable problems that have always accompanied traffic snarls. An article in the Atlantic Monthly last year summed up the road-rage skeptic's position with ruthless clarity, attributing the entire phenomenon to "lobbying groups, politicians, opportunistic therapists, publicity-seeking safety agencies, and the US Department of Transportation."

Naturally, this attitude (opportunistic therapists!) gets Larson a little hot under the collar -- or as hot under the collar as a cool customer such as Larson is likely to get. "I think it's silly," Larson says, his voice rippling a little. "Ask any of the 131 people who were shot in Los Angeles during 1987 if there's such a thing as road rage. Ask the people who were murdered. Ask the deacon," he says, referring to Donald Graham, the Rhode Island deacon who, following a 1994 highway altercation, shot and killed another motorist with a crossbow. "Did he shoot somebody or didn't he? If he did, then there's obviously road rage."


Even if road rage is the pandemic Larson insists it is, you wouldn't know it from our outing. Incredibly, Larson, Rodriguez, and I cruise through some of the worst intersections in the city with barely a blip. At Mass Ave and Tremont Street someone whips in front of us, but instead of slamming his foot on the brake and leaning on the horn as any normal person would do, Larson merely slows down, giving the guy plenty of space -- just like it says in his book: "Be My Guest." Ah, but wait till we get to Ground Zero: the junction of Mass Ave and Route 93. According to Mass Highway Department statistics, it's the hottest of Boston's traffic hot spots, having seen 140 "incidents" and 94 injuries between 1994 and '96.

At the rate Larson's going, though, we have time for a leisurely chat before we get there (that would be: "enjoy your companions"). As a shiny sport-utility vehicle barrels along beside us, I ask the doctor if he thinks SUV drivers are the pieces of shit . . . sorry, if he thinks they're the poor drivers that many non-SUV drivers tend to think they are.

"Well, the vehicles are regarded as something of a tank," he says, "so you're apt to be more of a bully. I know a woman who drives one who's always rushing to get someplace. . . . "

"I do not drive that way any longer!" Rodriguez snaps back in mock anger. You get the feeling they've done this routine before.

At the junction of Mass Ave and 93, a caravan of cars runs a red light. Larson doesn't blink. Seconds later, a black car -- an Accord, I think -- cuts us off so closely that we have to slam on the brakes. Rodriguez uses the occasion to iterate one of the book's central themes. "That car right there," she says, "the one that cut in front of us. If John were the kind of person who says, 'Nobody cuts me off,' it could have caused something."

Of course, John isn't that kind of person, and the opportunity for "something" slips away.

"What would you have done?" Larson asks me.

At the least -- at the very least -- I would have pulled up alongside Mr. Accord and given him the Hairy Eyeball. Surely that doesn't constitute aggressive driving.

"You illustrate something," says Larson. "People generally aren't aware of how they provoke other drivers." According to Larson, I am "very irritable" (me?), and so I am liable to make other drivers irritable, too.


Frankly, Larson's diagnosis is becoming a self-fulfilling one. As we creep through the Expressway's peas-in-a-pod traffic, rather than take the time to make time goo-o-o-d, I take the time to disagree with something Larson and Rodriguez assert in their book: namely, that people don't get angry if they don't have somebody -- a person -- to get angry at. I use the example of my own ongoing battle with red lights, which often has me shaking my fist at the sky. Who am I angry with?

"You feel you're special in some way," Larson says, ignoring the question to address my behavior. "So when a red light happens, you feel insulted. It comes from a great feeling of entitlement." Ouch.

Just when I start to feel like a real jerk, we encounter a real jerk. As we approach the exit for Storrow Drive, a car zips across three lanes, no signals, caution thrown to the wind. The traffic is actually moving by this point, fast enough that someone could have been hurt. Mercifully, Larson turns his attention away from me. " 'Making time,' " he says.

"That doesn't make you mad?"

"I accept it as the way people drive," Larson replies. "I'm not going to get angry when I see it, because I know it's going to happen."


Larson hasn't always been so mild-mannered. Like many zealots, he's a convert. "I used to be a very aggressive driver," he admits. "I essentially did all of the five attitudes. I liked to be at the head of the pack. I took a great deal of pride in being able to get from one point to another at an efficient rate of time. I was very often involved in tailgating situations, and I would punish people who wouldn't let me get by." Did Larson ever give anyone the finger? "No," he says. "I did my aggressive driving before giving the finger was the rage."

But before he has a chance to explain exactly how he did punish people, we encounter our most spectacular -- okay, our only -- instance of bona fide road rage that day: at Leverett Circle, the third-most-dangerous intersection in the city, one SUV cuts off another SUV, resulting in much yelling, swearing, gesticulating, and, as Larson describes it, "bumper-car" driving.

"Ooh, he was screaming 'asshole,' " says Rodriguez. "I saw his lips moving. He's tight on that guy's butt, he's really tight. Look at that: he's tight, pretty tight."

It might sound as if Rodriguez is describing the sex act, but there's no love lost between these two guys. The cut-offee's face is stop-sign red; his mouth forms a perfect O ("Ass-hO-O-Ole," as opposed to "Make time goo-o-od").

Even if this spat doesn't cause injury, says Rodriguez, it will almost certainly result in illness. "Experiencing anger like that," she says, "is damaging to your health." (An entire chapter of Larson and Rodriguez's book is devoted to "Road Rage and Heart Attacks.")

As the two SUVs weave off into the sunset, a guy nudges his car into our path -- not so much cutting us off as insinuating himself in front of us.

"Oh, man!" I exclaim.

"It's okay," says Larson. "That's fine."

It's not particularly fine with me. "Jerk," I mutter, fighting the urge to lean across Larson and give the guy a good tooting.

Larson responds as if I'm calling him a jerk. "You are a negative person," he says. "You are looking at things that I wouldn't pay attention to. I don't think you're a person who looks for good things." Then, warming to the subject, he adds: "The thing that would delight you, of course, would be bloodshed."

"A shooting would be nice," I say. "If you shot someone, it would be ideal."

"Yes, that would be great," Larson says. "Road-rage expert shoots other driver. Har har har."

And so, more or less in silence, we ease through Kenmore Square, cruise up Comm Ave, and drift onto a near-deserted Harvard Avenue, coming to a leisurely stop on North Harvard. Not a testosterone-riddled townie, dimwitted student, or discombobulated tourist in sight. It's not the traffic, says Larson, it's me. "You're noticing good things because I've been pointing them out to you," he says. "You're upset because you're seeing good things." What's good about them? What's a story about road rage without road rage?

"Boston drivers are good," Larson replies, clearly losing his patience. "I think that's your story." Right.


John Larson has a test he calls the Larson Driver Stress Profile. It asks 40 questions: how often do you "get angry at tailgaters" or "make obscene gestures"? By marking each question with a frequency rate of 0 (never) to 3 (almost every time you drive), you get to measure how big an asshole you are. The most you can score on the test is 120 points (considerably more aggressive than Mad Max). Larson scores a "10 or under" (slightly less aggressive than a Smurf).

In his book, Larson relates the case of a woman named Mary who scored a whopping 44 on the Larson Profile. Mary, who had already lost a brother to a road accident, said, "I know if I don't get some help the same thing's going to happen to me." Indeed, according to the Larson Profile final analysis, a high scorer (35 or above) is very much "at risk of accident-related injury or death."

My score is 62.

"That's up there," Larson says. But there's hope for me yet. For instance, driving through Kenmore Square, I was flabbergasted to note that a taxi -- a Boston taxi! -- had slowed to give us the right of way.

"Chris," Larson says, "you're already changing your driving habits. You're starting to see good things."

A good thing, at least comparatively: the most accident-prone intersection in Boston, the junction of the Expressway and Mass Ave, sees an average of about 46 crashes a year. But a recent article in USA Today identifies an intersection in Addison, Texas, as being the most dangerous in the country: 263 accidents took place there in 1998 alone.

Another good thing: a recent report by a Washington advocacy group, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, ranked Boston the safest of 37 urban areas across the country in terms of fatalities due to aggressive driving. Boston had 2.1 deaths per 100,000 residents; the most dangerous city, San Bernardino, California, had 13.4 deaths per 100,000.

Granted, this may mean that traffic in the city has deteriorated to the point where you simply can't drive fast enough to kill anyone. But Boston drivers' getting top marks under any circumstances is pretty startling news. "I know," says Barbara McCann, the study's co-author. "We were kind of surprised ourselves." McCann is quick to point out, though, that "this is a look at death; this is not a politeness index."

The USA Today article cited the report's finding that in 1997, 3000 people died as a result of cars running stop signals. The junction of the Expressway and Mass Ave -- an intersection where cars run red lights willy-nilly -- saw no fatalities at all in the period between 1994 and '96. Why? Well, perhaps because we are prepared: we expect cars to run red lights, and we make allowances accordingly.

So Boston drivers may be rude, aggressive, inconsiderate, and often downright witless, but, strangely, figures show that we are not particularly dangerous. It would seem that we in Boston have, for better or for worse, managed to reach a sort of furious détente. Larson agrees, pointing to a "permissiveness" among Boston drivers as one of the things that cuts down on local road rage.

"Boston is very accepting," he says. "You can make a U-turn in the middle of the street and drivers accept it. Everybody does it."

As Larson and Rodriguez pull away in their shiny new Volvo, I swear that I see a finger extending from the driver's-side window. Could Larson be flipping me the bird? No. More likely he's simply pointing at the sunset, which is burning a deep red directly above the tumult of Storrow Drive.


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