I was driving out of my neighbourhood
one day recently and, as I pulled onto a main road, a car followed me. I didn’t recognize it, or the driver. He seemed to be in a hurry and was right on my tail.
The main road passes a school. Although school’s been out for three months, there are still yellow flashing lights and a sign saying the speed limit had dropped from 50 km/h to 40 and, as I always (usually) follow the rules, I didn’t go faster than 40. Although there was room to pass, the guy behind me didn’t but hung right on my back bumper.
We passed through several traffic lights and finally pulled onto a ramp leading to Highway 403. Every step of the way, he was right there. And I mean right there
. One false move and he’d have hit me. Even my wife noticed: “What’s his problem?” she wondered aloud.
Now, two paragraphs ago, I stated that I always follow the rules. I must admit that I sometimes take liberties. In this instance, while driving down the ramp to the 403, instead of accelerating slowly so that I’d be going the posted speed limit of 100 km/h when I reached the merge lane, I had the accelerator pedal down a little further so I was going — ahem — 120 when I pulled onto the highway.
And Mario Andretti behind me, obviously agitated that I hadn’t pulled completely off the road to let him past and was even closer than he’d been previously, just floored
it and rocketed past me and across two more lanes of highway till he reached the HOV lane and by then he was going at least 140 and still had the hammer down.
“That boy’s got problems,” I thought, as I eased back to 100-110, like the goody two-shoes I am every time I’m on the highway.
Now, we’ve all had bad thoughts about other drivers. “What a jerk,” we think, or worse. But this time I thought I’d get a learned opinion about what’s really going on in the heads of people who almost seem out of control, or close to it, when it comes to driving.
So I called an old chum, a guy I went to university with way back when, who retired recently as a senior mental health professional with one of the 10 provinces. He requested anonymity, as he’s no longer on the job and doesn’t need the aggravation that controversy can sometimes bring, like: “Why did you put my name in the paper? Have you seen Twitter?”
So I asked him: “What is with these people, anyway?” And this is what he said:
“Your personality is formed in one of two ways, some of which is learned and some of which is hard-wired. It goes back to how you came into the world and how you react to certain stimuli.
“For instance, you can look at some children — line them up in the nursery — and there will be a flash of light or a loud noise. Some will be cool; they won’t react. Others will hear the same noise and they’ll be startled. They’ll start crying because their nervous system gets overloaded more easily.
“So, if you’re hard-wired like that and you’re in an environment that is unpredictable, that could intensify anger. In some cases, you can’t tolerate a lot of tension, which shows itself in different ways: impatience, hostility and aggression, which make people more vulnerable to losing control. Most of us have this in us but we have the self-control to put a stop to it.
“Learned behaviour, on the other hand, is something you’ve seen very early in your life. You see your dad do something and it makes an impression. Those early kinds of experiences are the ones that, unless there’s some sort of positive change, can really get set in.
“We know that during this whole COVID thing, there’s been a lot of stress. People’s tolerances are worn down. The personality vulnerabilities start to come to the fore a bit more. I’m thinking of a former client who was telling me he had to really watch himself and gauge where his anxiety levels were in order to not get into trouble with other people on the road and getting really angry and doing something that would put his family in risk. He wasn’t a road rager but he was able to realize that this was not the better part of who he was.”
I told him I wished more drivers had such insight. In fact, every morning when I listen to the accident reports on 680 News or CP24, I become convinced that most of them are caused by people who don’t have complete control of their emotions, like the guy who tailgated me for blocks and then just missed hitting the back of my truck when he blasted past and onto the 403.
Being on a roll, I continued by saying that I thought it was ludicrous that people are given a licence to drive when they are in their mid-teens and then never have to take another driving examination in their whole life. In fact, I said, people should have to be retested every five years and something should be added: much like people over 80 have to take a dementia test, that every-five-years driver’s exam should include a psychological test and those found to be a ticking time bomb should lose their licence until they go through counselling.
My friend paused, then said that a test makes sense theoretically but he’s not sure if it’s practical. “But it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask,” he said. “It’s worth talking about and certainly would provoke a lot of thinking, a lot of discussion.”
So, let’s start.
Norris McDonald is a former Star editor who is a current freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @NorrisMcDonald2