THERE’S AN intersection near my home where the always fragile order of traffic civility routinely breaks down. Some combination of factors - the slight curve of the cross street as it approaches Route 9, drivers obliged to decide exactly where in the extra-wide intersection to make a left turn, the conceptual jolt as local traffic encounters the flow of longer-range commuters - leads to hard braking, wrathful exclaiming, and the endless impotent futility of honking horns. It’s a dangerous intersection between the neighborhood and the metropolis.
I was passing through there recently, blinker on, waiting to make a left onto Route 9, when the driver behind me did the kind of crazy thing you see at this intersection - and all over the Boston area, with its many irregular junctions and short-tempered drivers. As the last oncoming car cleared and I began to turn, the driver behind me stomped on the gas and tried to squeeze past me on the inside. There wasn’t room, of course, especially for her wallowing SUV, and to avoid a crash I swerved wide, narrowly missing a car on the other side. She had taken the kind of insane, pointless risk with both of our cars and lives that briefly fills even a gentle woodland creature like myself with hot outrage.
In a moment like that, you run through your options for decisive response and then realize, already cooling off, that there’s nothing you can really do.
Lean on the horn? It has no useful purpose, and only makes the perp feel as if she accomplished something significant. In fact, honking to express outrage does harm to all because it makes the sound of a car horn harder to intepret, decreasing its effectiveness as a genuine warning. Pull up next to her and make a rude gesture and yell at her? Embarrassingly out-of-control and unchivalrous. Cut her off and get back in front? Just another stupid risk that yields nothing worth having. Smile and feel karmically superior? Uncomfortably smug, and in this case dishonest, since her selfishness had in fact angered me. Seek wildly disproportionate vengeance? In the near future we’ll all have a private drone shadowing our car in the skies above, ready to rain righteous GPS-guided destruction on our nemeses, but we have not quite yet achieved this utopian possibility.
I felt better about resisting these impulses when, after I’d driven a few blocks down Route 9 right behind her (since that’s what the crazy maneuver had bought her: about 10 feet and a fraction of a second), she pulled over in front of my kids’ school, which was also my destination. When she got out of her SUV, I saw that she was a parent I’d seen around at school events, someone whose kids played with mine - a neighbor, loosely defined.
I suppose the possibility that I knew her might have helped to stay my hand. Perhaps I’d subconsciously figured that she might be a fellow local parent late for a school pickup, that she might not be a stranger, that we were connected to each other by things we both cared about - kids, school, community - and that sometime soon I might well find myself having to deal with her again. It would be in my interest to show some neighborly regard, even if she hadn’t.
We didn’t acknowledge each other as we went into the school to pick up our kids. I couldn’t tell if she even knew that it was me she’d cut off. Probably my car had just been something in her way.
Down at the bottom of this trivial but intensely felt little encounter is the basic truth that traffic incivility, like Internet nastiness and other expressions of fearful contempt for one’s fellow humans, is hugely encouraged by anonymity. And anonymity is encouraged by technology, which - whether automotive or computer-related - is supposed to make the wide world smaller. But technology and the habits it enables can also function as a cocoon of pathological privacy, turning nearly everyone else into a stranger. I try to bear that in mind, even as I keep an eye out for fellow citizens tearing heedlessly through the intersections where, however fleetingly, our private worlds touch.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.