Mr. Eco and Road Rage, Seattle-Style

I’ve never liked to drive.

Even though I’ve been driving for over 20 years, I’ve never been a comfortable driver. To clarify, I don’t hate cars and I have no problem riding as a passenger. I just don’t like to shoulder the responsibility of driving. I hate how our interactions as drivers reduces our level of human contact to a crude, limited, non-verbal body language communicated via our massive two ton vehicles.

And there’s no getting round the fact that cars are dangerous. We kill and maim each other daily in our cars.

In my experience, there is an inverse relationship between the pleasure derived from driving and urban density. Driving in large cities and on complex highways stresses me out and brings out the worst in my personality. And I’m pretty sure this holds true for most people on the road.

Much of the headache associated with driving is closely related to being stuck in endless traffic or finding non-existent parking, both of which are negative byproducts of automobile ownership. And while I admit that the actual driving part can sometimes be mildly enjoyable, the pleasure that I personally derive from driving in Seattle is far outweighed by the headache I get from being stuck in traffic.

I also morph into a completely different person when I drive. I’m not myself when I am behind the wheel. I get stressed and aggressive. I don’t like myself.

I’m generally a patient, low-key, secure sort of person—well, up until a point. On the road, I’m your designated “sucka” who leaves ample space between my own car and the car in front of me for folks to merge or switch lanes. But when I encounter drivers who don’t reciprocate this courtesy and who cut me off or who refuse to let me into their lanes, I get frustrated and annoyed. When this happens, I find myself talking to other cars in four-letter words, either aloud, or in my head. In my defense, I’m sure these other cars are talking back to me in the same four-letter language.

Passive-aggressive, I know.

On highways, I don’t like to drive behind or next to gargantuan 18-wheel semi-trucks, and will exercise my option to “pass on the left” whenever possible. Often when I’m trying to pass, I get stuck behind a really slow driver hogging the left lane. I know it does no good, but I still glare at the back head of the clueless driver moseying along in the left-hand lane who should be further to the right (pull over dammit, keep right unless to pass!) Sometimes the glare works.

Now I’m absolutely certain that I’m not the only person who’s experienced this Jekyll and Hyde transformation as soon as I step behind the wheel. And because I know I’m not the only one out there, I get kind of freaked out.

Seattle is a city that generally has nicer drivers who usually let you into lanes relative to other more “driver-aggressive” cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Boston. Most of us Seattle drivers, we usually give way and wave “thank you” to the kind folks who let us into their lanes. Sometimes we also go overboard with being polite, which often leads to interesting and inefficient traffic patterns, particularly at four-way stops.

And when things get really jammed up, we also tend to react in typical Seattle passive-aggressive fashion. Which brings me to my story about the quintessentially Seattle moment that I experienced this past weekend with “Mr. Eco.”

It was a horrific traffic weekend in Seattle. Cross-town traffic was particularly bad. I was heading home on Saturday afternoon and all the usual east-west routes were totally jammed. And so I inched my way along a main arterial—just like everyone else—biding my time until I could reach a lesser-known shortcut.

As I was waiting to get to my shortcut, I couldn’t help but notice that the driver behind me was having a hissy fit. He was clearly agitated and I could literally feel him riding on my rear. But what mainly caught my attention was the interesting looking car he was driving. I had never seen one like it on the road before. From my rear view mirror, it looked like a glorified egg on wheels with a large sloping front windshield.

It was my first sighting of the 2012 Mitsubishi I-MiEV.

The vanity plate read: “MR ECO” and the egg on wheels’ white and baby blue trim matched the color of our Washington State plates perfectly. Despite Mr. Eco’s love of the environment and color coordination, his glorified golf cart was tailgating me hard.

I was amused but not really threatened.

When I finally reached the turnoff to my shortcut, I signaled and moved into the left turn lane. I noticed that Mr. Eco had also moved into the turn lane behind me, accelerating and trying to cut me off, even though I had clearly signaled and was in front of him. Nice try Mr. Eco, but no can do. He had my attention now.

As soon as we both turned off the arterial onto another less congested multi-lane road, I sped up and moved into the right hand lane. He turned into the left lane behind me and sped up to pass me. I was shocked his electric golf cart had that much zip, so I let him overtake me in the left hand lane. (I learned later that reviewers appreciate the I-MiEV’s “crisp acceleration.”)

Undeterred and even more curious, I stayed on his tail in my right hand lane. I was now approaching 45 mph in a winding 30 mph zone, so both of us were going pretty fast. I saw up ahead that there was a car waiting to turn left from the left hand lane. Mr. Eco would either have to aggressively cut me off again in the right hand lane, or suddenly stop. What would he do?

Of course, Mr. Eco braked suddenly, swerved to the right, cut me off, and sped off.

Now I was really pissed because: 1) I got cut off AGAIN, and 2) Adding insult to injury, a low-end electric golf cart cut me off! (Consumer research seems to favor the slightly more expensive Nissan Leaf over the I-MiEV, which establishes the price floor for electric vehicles.)

I followed Mr. Eco over the next few miles, tailgating him and giving him a taste of his own medicine in combination with my “back of head glare” to no avail. But I was soon forced to come to my senses. I had to stop tailing Mr. Eco because it was getting ridiculous.

I also needed to pull over because I was literally running on empty.

I was forced to laugh at the irony of it all as I pulled into the gas station. I had to come to terms with being dusted by an electric golf cart. But it was ok. In typical Seattle fashion, Mr. Eco was probably just in a rush to get to his electric car charger before his car died, and getting stuck in traffic stressed him out.

It stressed me out too.

One of the things I appreciated most about living in Hong Kong was that I didn’t need a car. I could find a cab anywhere, anytime. And the taxicabs are quite affordable. You never have to worry about parking or directions or anything. You just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The cab drivers on Hong Kong Island are some of the best drivers out there. Seriously. Those guys have some serious driving skills. The roads are narrow, hilly, and winding. There are plenty of one-way streets, but the traffic always seems to move. And I appreciate the drivers who are the fastest and most efficient.

But even the highly skilled Hong Kong cab drivers have their share of road rage. It’s a high stress job, and you can tell your cabbie is raging when your butt involuntarily slides around the back seat from the semi-violent turns they make, forcing you to cling to the grab bar above your head. (In Hong Kong, passengers aren’t required to wear a seat belt unless you are in the front seat.)

I’m reminded of my last visit to Hong Kong where DH and I were headed back to our apartment. A younger cab driver with his Bluetooth headset was expertly and rapidly weaving his way back to our destination. He was making record time. There was a fair amount of involuntary butt sliding and grab bar clutching, but we were almost home.

But as we rounded the last few corners, our cab driver suddenly slammed on the brakes, stopped by a giant double-parked truck. He couldn’t get round the truck, and then he lost it.

Now I don’t speak a lot of Cantonese, but I actually understood some of what the cab driver was screaming at the truck driver (something along the lines of: “Eff your mother! Move your effing truck, etc!”) Both DH and I were mesmerized at the volume and the rapidity of the swear words coming out of our cab driver’s mouth. I feared that the vein in our cabbie’s neck was going to pop. But fortunately the truck driver slowly moved his truck out of the way, and we were back on our merry way. We made it back safely, and our cabbie got a big tip for not killing us.

Since moving back to Seattle, I’ve gotten used to driving again, but I confess that I’m still not immune to that sleeping aggression pervasive among drivers the world over: Road Rage. It’s universal. I just have the Seattle passive-aggressive strain.

So I learned two lessons this weekend. First: I need to chill and just let folks cut in front of me, no big deal. Second: Electric cars (even low-end models) can have a good amount of zip and acceleration.

I’m curious to see what the future for cars will look like, and just maybe in five or ten years I’ll find myself sitting in an electric one. If it’s good enough for the HK police, it’s probably good enough for me.

Drive safe!