William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.
On Sunday night, while driving home from a relaxing weekend away, I hatched a plot to murder someone.
It was a good plan, and it came to me almost instantly.
My mark was the driver of a white Honda Accord.
I had been in the middle lane of a three-lane parkway, exceeding the speed limit, when W.H.A. appeared on my bumper out of nowhere. I watched him yammering away into a cellphone through my rearview mirror when, quite unfairly and unexpectedly, he flipped me the bird -- for the first time. He did it again while passing me at around 90 mph a moment later.
Clearly he had to die.
When we got to a semi-isolated stretch of the Saw Mill River Parkway up ahead, the plan went, I would pull alongside him, and, with a sudden sharp turn of the wheel, force him off the road and into a tree. Kapow! The only problem was the campaign bumper sticker on my car. What if someone saw it? Would it make me easily traceable?
These were my actual thoughts at around 5:45 p.m. Sunday.
Road rage is a fascinating phenomena, especially when it happens to you. On still land, I'm an unqualified, turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy. But egregiously cut me off on the highway and I consider it a death wish. My wife is worse. When she was pregnant, she was demonic on the road. Actually demonic, not "ha-ha" demonic.
According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, road rage is on the increase in America, and it results in at least 1,500 people seriously injured or killed in traffic disputes every year. I can't believe it's not more. There are almost 7 million car accidents a year in this country; I'd have posited road skirmishes as the cause of 30 percent of them.
In England, The Guardian wrote this week, the road-rage phenomenon is being studied with interesting results: You know how the biggest jerks on the road always seem to be the ones in the Land Rovers or BMWs? Well, there's a reason for that.
"Decades of research," the Guardian writes, "shows that prolonged honking, tailgating, and other aggressive behaviors are more likely if the aggressor believes they are the more important driver. What's particularly interesting is that these judgements can be based simply on the vehicles involved, with no knowledge of the person behind the wheel: larger cars generally outrank smaller cars and newer cars trump older ones. Drivers of more expensive cars are also more likely to behave aggressively toward pedestrians."
In other words, my 2007 Ford Focus hatchback is practically begging to be picked on.
We drive more recklessly when we're alone, research shows, and most of us think we're far better drivers than we are, which is caused by something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Between 80 and 90 percent of us actually believe we are superior drivers.
When someone makes a mistake on the road, we tend to attribute a personality flaw to that driver -- "Is this guy drunk or just an idiot?" -- yet our mistakes are usually situational and beyond our control -- "I had to move up or that dope on the right would have hit me." Scientists call this phenomenon Fundamental Attribution Error.
Many of us suffer something called "the illusion of control" when we drive. We actually begin to believe that we can control the actions of other drivers around us, and we tend to dehumanize them, treating them in ways we never would in person. Scientists say it's akin to the cruelty people exhibit in anonymous Internet remarks.
We also -- and this is no surprise -- tend to believe that talking on a cellphone while driving is safe, when it's been empirically proven not to be. Got that, white Honda Accord?
I haven't run across research on this, but there has to be some type of vigilante instinct that kicks in on the road. It was what I felt Sunday night, an almost irresistible urge to rid the road of one unsafe driver, almost assuredly creating a second one in the process. I'd love to say that I didn't tail W.H.A. for three or four miles before letting him speed away, just to make him think twice the next time his middle digit felt macho. I really would.
Driverless cars are an excellent idea.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.