It was an ugly stretch of highway. Rain tumbled from an angry sky. Pools of water settled on the bitumen. Wind gusts howled across empty paddocks.
Enter the idiot.
You could see him emerging from the gloom in the rear-view mirror, a shadowy figure perched high in the cabin of a huge semi-trailer.
It was hurtling down the road toward us, its 18 wheels spraying enormous waves.
When it drew alongside our car the truck began swerving. One giant wheel came within millimetres of our side mirror. I slowed down and sounded the horn a couple of times.
Wake up, mate, I was saying. Stay in your lane.
He was awake, all right.
Our horn seemed to ignite further madness. Suddenly it felt like we were characters in the 1970s movie Duel, where a crazed truck driver stalks a car driven by a frightened Dennis Weaver through Californian canyons and highways.
But this was all too real.
He began fishtailing his truck – swerving it left and right – an insane move in the conditions. If I slowed, he slowed. When I put the foot down, so did he.
This game of cat and mouse continued for several kilometres until we reached the outer limits of a small town. He kept going at speed. We pulled over and let him go.
And you’re thinking: “So, what’s new?”
Everyone has a story like this.
One national survey a few years back found almost 90 per cent of drivers had been on the receiving end of a road rage incident.
A couple of years ago a truck driver who had almost wiped me out followed me until we stopped at the lights.
He climbed out of his cabin and threatened to punch me because I’d had the temerity to sound my horn to warn him of my presence as he repeatedly swerved and crossed into my lane.
But this isn’t a diatribe about crazed truck drivers. It’s about all of us. I’m almost ready to hand in my keys.
My love affair with driving is over.
Sure, I’m getting older.
I’m probably the sort of person who perfectly understands the observation of American comedian George Carlin: “Have you noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”
Grumpiness and growing impatience might have something to do with it. But don’t try telling me that our driving standards have not slipped, or that rudeness is not on the rise.
Studies on selfish driving and its close cousin, road rage, are notoriously difficult to carry out because of the imprecise nature of life on our streets.
But when things around you begin to deteriorate, you sense it intuitively. It’s why you don’t watch a reality TV show produced by the Ten network. You just know in your bones it won’t be good for you.
Most journeys behind the wheel these days are a white-knuckle, take-your-life-in-your-own-hands experience.
Our roads are filled with Carlin’s idiots and maniacs who no longer understand how to use an indicator. Who drive slowly in the right-hand lane of a freeway. Who tailgate those in front of them to add to the pressure.
Years ago the most offensive act in our streets was a driver picking their nose while waiting at the lights. Now they’re too busy extending their finger at you.
The deterioration in standards has paralleled a massive growth in our car population.
The number of registered passenger vehicles in Australia has increased by 43 per cent since the turn of this century – evidence, as if we needed it, that greater congestion leads to a lowering of patience levels and judgement.
And while there are moves to reduce the numbers of cars in our cities – following the lead of several European cities like Madrid and even London – such restrictions are only going to increase congestion in our suburbs, where so many instances of poor and maniacal driving can be found.
There seems to be only one way around this problem. God knows we already have enough rules and cameras on our roads. And the world surely does not require another graphic “road awareness” campaign.
So what if we began testing drivers more frequently?
The average car is a weapon weighing anywhere up to two tonnes. We place it in the hands of a teenager and for the next six or seven decades, they get to use it with few checks on their ability to handle it.
I’d be prepared to undergo a licence examination every 10 years.
I’ve been behind a wheel for almost 40 of them.
I know I’m not as careful as I used to be, or could be. In fact, much of the lousy driving I’ve encountered has been committed not by the predictable group of young louts but by people who look as if they have been on the road for as long as I have.
A licence “refresher” would at least make us think more often about how we conduct ourselves on the road and how we treat others.
New ideas, please.
Until we reach the point where automated cars have taken over, something drastic is required to take the sting out of our increasingly nasty and vicious driving culture.