What makes us so angry behind the wheel? What makes us yell at a person who cuts us off? What makes us flip a finger if they yell back?
What makes us slam on the horn and scream through glass, as if the other driver insulted our family name? What makes us speed up, brake, weave in front -- any of the crazy acts that are now referred to as road rage?
What makes us so ... enraged?
What makes a 20-year-old man, driving behind another man who was hitting the brakes in an attempt to test them, get out of his car and confront that driver? What makes them argue?
And what makes that confronted driver pull out a gun and shoot the other guy?
This is reportedly what happened last week at a heavily trafficked intersection in Farmington Hills, Mich., surrounded by gas stations, convenience stores and small restaurants.
One guy didn't like the way the other guy was driving. He got out to argue. The other guy shot him.
One went to the hospital, the other to the police station.
What a storyline, huh?
Time -- and the courts -- will tell who was wrong in the Farmington Hills case. If you ask me, both were wrong. One was crazy enough to pull a trigger. The other was crazy enough to leave his car to argue over driving -- and wound up with a bullet in his arm. The debate over why the shooter had a gun in the first place -- legally allowed with our carrying concealed weapons law -- is for another day.
But as tragic as this event was, it is hardly isolated. Road rage is everywhere. A few months ago in Clinton Township, Mich., there was a similar shooting incident. In that case, one angry driver fired a gun, and the other driver, a father of three, was killed.
I want to know how we got this way. How did bad driving turn into something worth arguing, cursing or even shooting someone over?
Is it something about transport? I don't think so. You didn't hear about this kind of anger when we rode horses. You didn't hear about carriages trying to run each other off the road. You never saw train operators trying to destroy one another. Even bicyclists might honk a small horn, but they almost never stop to argue.
I think it's something about cars -- big hunks of steel that make us feel untouchable, like soldiers inside tanks. That cocoon sensation allows us to blow our tempers in ways we would never do if we were side by side. You don't see people get road-rage furious if someone steps ahead of them in a movie line. They might mumble a sarcastic, "Excuuuse me." But I don't think they're ready to fire a weapon.
Cars are different. We feel puffed up inside them, full of ourselves, we're in control, we own the wheel, the pedal, the speed, the steering -- and if we drive with our emotions, then there are obviously a lot of angry people out there. The highways are becoming a real-life version of bumper cars, every vehicle tinged with aggression.
And so when someone cuts you off, it's as if he's saying, "I'm more important than you." And instead of rolling our eyes and feeling sorry for such people, we somehow insist on not allowing them to get away with it. This is a bad reaction. But when we reach the point where we'll shoot somebody over it, we need to reexamine ourselves -- and maybe our laws.
Perhaps road rage ought to be its own crime. We don't let drunks drive cars. Maybe we should block people who can't control their temper. After all, no matter who started what on that intersection in Farmington Hills, do we really want either of those men behind the wheel again?
Contact Albom, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, at firstname.lastname@example.org.