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Long Island

Road warrior still has driving ambition

Watch out! Close call.

Returning from a visit with friends in Connecticut, we hit heavy traffic on the Hutchinson River Parkway. Just over the city line, a guy in a brown sedan nearly sideswiped our old Subaru hatchback. I swerved, my wife, Wink, said, “Whoa,” and the transgressor slipped ahead without incident or apology. An aerobic moment, but no damage done.

Five minutes later, we were crawling toward the Throgs Neck Bridge and the same thing happened — only worse. This time a sporty, black two-door cut us off with so little room I wondered if maybe I should paint the Subaru chartreuse and get a pair of those neon license plate frames.

I jammed on the brakes, extra hard. The driver in back was likewise alert and managed not to cream our bumper. And the person in back of him must have been just as nimble. The disheartening sound — whomp! — of one car reconfiguring another went happily unheard.

Easily, this could have been a four-car wreck and instead of eating linguine with clam sauce at the local Italian joint a couple hours later, I would have been in somber conversation with State Farm, or maybe awaiting X-ray results in a Bronx emergency room. We had lucked out — twice. Hands tight on the steering wheel, I headed toward the Throgs Neck.

“You OK?” Wink asked.

“Think so,” I said.

Near misses are standard stuff for New York drivers. Cars are big, roads jammed, motorists eternally in search of their inner Evel Knievel.

A little while ago, the highway people built a couple of traffic circles near our house.

“Never work,” I told Wink. “Maybe in Toronto or Seattle or one of those polite places, but not here.”

I was right. You know how you’re supposed to yield to a car that’s already going round? Not a chance. Local custom demands alpha male behavior, women included. Forget the rules, give it the gas, make your move. The dare-you derby raises serious questions about peaceful coexistence.

But let’s get to the real issue here.

How long do you intend to keep driving?

Tempted to say, forever? That’s my first answer, too.

I’ve been grinding gears since that splendid day 60 years ago when Dad gave me the keys to his lizard-green ’51 Ford. Boy, did I bomb around Brooklyn — Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Felix’s on Fifth Avenue for pizza, downtown to Junior’s for the double cheeseburger plate.

Later, in college, Wink and I drove from Bay Ridge to Columbia, Missouri, and back, and when we had kids, across the country and up the California coast in a Volkswagen bus that burned a quart of oil with every other tank of gas. Road trips, a million memories guaranteed.

Giving up the wheel — hard to imagine. After all these years, the car feels as familiar as a body part — like an ear or toe — and tearing up the license would be tough. Independence, mobility, self-sufficiency — a lot on the line, for sure.

But the day will come. At some point, you’ll overhear the kids — all in AARP range themselves at this point — huddling after Christmas dinner, and saying, “You know, we should grab Dad’s car keys while he’s still sipping eggnog. Clipped the corner of the house, again. Guy shouldn’t be on the road.”

I hope I’m smart enough to beat them to it — sell the car, catch a bus. Statistics show that driving skills take a skid as we age. The Insurance Information Institute, a trade group, says that the only people with higher rates of fatal crashes than older drivers are young ones — not exactly reassuring.

Working in my favor is that I’ve loved public transportation since the days Mom and I took the Fourth Avenue Local to shop at Abraham & Straus department store in Downtown Brooklyn, and the Fifth Avenue bus to church on Prospect Avenue. I’m even a fan of the Long Island Rail Road — and I’d rather ride an alpaca than get shoved into the middle seat of an airplane these days.

But the lure of driving is powerful, all right. You’re at the controls, no one else. You plot the course, set cruising speed and decide when to stop at the diner for lunch. Behind the wheel and everywhere else, we all want to call the shots as long as possible.

For now, I’m feeling fit and able — on my game and ready to roll. Reflexes fine, according to the doc, eyesight good, nerves steady. Traffic doesn’t spook me. I’m happy to point the Subaru north anytime to visit our Connecticut friends again. Just in case, I checked online, and it’s good to know a train stops nearby, too.

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