Recent campaigns against "road rage" have suggested that drivers avoid, among other things, flipping off other motorists, mouthing obscenities at them, and fixing them with withering stares of disapproval. Such momentary satisfactions can quickly disappear in the face of escalating hostilities.
When it comes to road rage, the basics of avoidance are simple, so it may seem depressingly elementary to remind drivers that some hand gestures, no matter how well-intentioned or richly deserved they may be, can create ill will.
In the spirit of such cautions, here are a few more suggestions that may seem unnecessary—except that the behavior inspiring them has been observed time and again on the road.
Gas tank caps: Accept no substitutes
Although many gas tank caps are tethered to the car these days, people still manage to lose them. You might think that the law requiring cars have gas tank caps and that the caps be made of nonflammable material wouldn’t be necessary—but apparently it is. A rag stuffed into the filler pipe is a surprisingly popular substitute for missing caps. Though ineffective as a cap, that old rag can be effective as a wick, turning a car into a potential Molotov cocktail.
AAA Traffic Safety Consultant Kevin Kelly, who spent 25 years as a California Highway Patrol officer, notes: "a fair number of people think a rag is a good gas cap substitute; I used to stop two or three a month. In a collision, gasoline escaping from an open filler pipe can easily be ignited by sparks from grinding metal parts or hot engines and mufflers. It’s always dangerous."
Paint: Surface appearances count
Just as it’s illegal to impersonate a police officer, it’s illegal for your car to impersonate a police car. Resist any urge to repaint your car in imitation of a black-and-white. Don’t trick it out with police lights and a siren, either, no matter what its color scheme—that would be illegal, too.
Headphones: Say yes to life
Headphones seem much more effective than conventional car speakers at letting drivers shut out the world. As the limits of their own universe contract to the distance between their ears, some headphone users become oblivious to whatever may be going on around them. While this appears not to affect drivers in Nevada and Utah, where headphone use is legal, it evidently does affect them in California, where use is illegal.
Cell phones: Most irksome thing on the road since the "Baby on Board" sign
Although cell phone use while driving is still legal in the United States (nine countries have banned it), there is a strong suspicion in the minds of many that people drive less competently when their attention is divided between the road and a conference with their broker or idle chitchat with a significant other.
Safety suggestions for cell phone use include becoming thoroughly familiar with phone operation and using a "hands-free" device. The best idea—and a probably futile suggestion—is that drivers pull over to a safe place and make calls while parked.
Railroad crossings: There’s a reason they have gates
Railroad crossing gates almost never close unless there’s a train coming. Kevin Kelly admits that "waiting for a train to pass can be frustrating," but notes that "not waiting can easily result in a fatal injury crash—every car/train crash I investigated was a fatal injury crash for the motorist."
Avoid driving around a closed crossing gate. You’d think that anything as big and loud as a train would be easy for a driver to detect, even one who simultaneously wears headphones, activates an illegal siren, and babbles over a cell phone. However, 461 motorists were killed by "highway-rail incidents" in 1997, according to the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration.
This article was first published in July 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.