Highway driving has taken a turn in the past few years and not necessarily for the better. Way too many vehicles pack the interstates. Soon travelers will need time-related passes for driving on the big roads, much like the National Parks now issue entrance tickets. Laws are made to keep drivers safe. However, obeying those laws – even those as simple as using a turn signal to indicate a turn – doesn’t seem to be in vogue with lots of drivers anymore. It appears that some people believe they deserve to have the right of way all the time… and they take it, whether in town or on interstates.

Turns out, drivers are “acting out” all across this lovely country of ours, even on the “blue highways,” for heaven’s sakes. You know, those older, narrower, less-traveled, blue-hued routes in the dated atlas that author William Least Heat Moon followed for the 13,000 U.S. miles he wrote so fondly about. His classic 1982 book, Blue Highways, parked on the New York Times bestseller list for 10 weeks shy of a year.

Until recently, when I was on the victim’s end of a road rage incident, I naively assumed that aberrant conduct primarily happened on California freeways. On my part, probably from watching too many CHiPs episodes back in the late 1970’s. My apologies, California! In case you don’t know, road rage is, simply put, aggressive or anger-driven behavior in traffic. Scads of those above-mentioned thousands of drivers are caught up in today’s free-floating anger and fear, both of which ride along, ready to spring into action at the slightest provocation…or at none whatsoever. That’s the creepy part. Road rage incidents are not only increasing, but in some areas, are becoming the norm. Pack up your anger, get behind the wheel, and use your vehicle as a release. Yikes!

In many places, including our own Palmetto State, open carry is now arming lots of angry people. Anger + gun = violence, sometimes without forethought. Sadly, road rage is being honed into a cuss-em-out tool that allows folks with bones to pick to take out their general, misplaced annoyance at life on other drivers. That bad acting can include physical threats and/or dangerous driving that targets other drivers, pedestrians or cyclists in an effort to intimidate or release frustration. This rage can lead to altercations, damage to property, assaults, and collisions that can result in serious physical injuries or even death.

Some victims engage and bring retaliation upon themselves, while many are innocent and are targeted “out of the blue.”

On the March 2024 day I became the latter, Northbound I-77 traffic between Columbia and Charlotte was traveling bumper-to-bumper between 70 and 80 mph in both lanes on a weekday morning. I was in the “fast” lane. As one does, I was keeping a close eye on the specific cars in front of, behind, and beside me in my rearview and sideview mirrors. When I began passing a semi beside me in the right lane, the same vehicles were in front of and behind me. A few seconds later, I checked my rearview to find its entirety filled with a huge bumper grill that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and a scary-looking, black, jacked-up pickup truck seemed hell-bent on running over my little red Honda Fit. A sideways tire wouldn’t have fit in the space between us. I had a distinct feeling that if I’d slowed down one iota, he’d have crushed me into the car ahead. As soon as possible, I pulled quickly ahead of the semi into the right lane.

But the road rager wasn’t finished. After passing the semi, he headed into my lane, seemingly to push me off the road. When his tires crossed the center line, I moved quickly onto the right shoulder, which fortunately, was wide and paved. Traffic flow forced him back into the left lane, he sped off, and I resumed my place in the right, grateful to be alive. Had I not been paying close attention to that truck’s path even after I felt safe, chances are good I’d have been yet another statistic.

As a result, my fondness for the open highway is waning.

Road trips have always been the bomb for me. They speak to my adventure-seeking nature. All my life I’ve loved to hop in a car and drive, especially to new-to-me places. No decision-making about whether to mask or not, overweight luggage, pricey airport food, or late or cancelled flights. When behind the wheel, who only knows what might be over the next hill or around the next curve? Or whom you may meet in some out-of-the-way stop?

While chowing down on a juicy Reuben sandwich once in a New Jersey diner, I noticed a group of tall Black men filing in. Once seated, they proceeded to entertain the waitress and clientele till the entire establishment was laughing out loud. The Harlem Globetrotters, no less.

One never knows.

So what’s a driver seeking adventures on the road to do? The simple answer is to become a defensive driver. Whether you’re road-tripping or merely chugging around town, the practice will morph you into a better, safer driver. Distracted driving – while sleepy, under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, or simply not paying attention – is the number one cause of auto accidents in the nation. If the drivers had been awake and aware, those mishaps – many fatal – wouldn’t have happened.

The key to driving more defensively is to be present and aware of your surroundings, other vehicles, and road hazards, and to focus on the road ahead. When you drive frequently, it’s easy to get casual about it. Don’t get too relaxed. Don’t daydream or space out. Always sit up straight and keep both hands on the wheel, preferably at 10 and 4, as they appear on a clockface. Should a road hazard appear, seeing it ahead of time could be a lifesaver.

Look for possible risks when you’re driving – a truck with a load not tied down, a bicycle, motorcycle, or pedestrian – and safely distance yourself from them. Follow the three-second rule: based on your current speed, there should be at least three seconds of driving time between your vehicle and the one in front of yours. Leave even more space if you’re behind a large truck, in heavy traffic, bad road conditions, or bad weather conditions, or if a vehicle is tailgating you. For the latter, slow down or pull over to let them pass.

Stay at a safe speed, keep your distance from obviously bad drivers, take a break if you’re sleepy, and never engage with a road rager. AARP (aarp.org/auto/driver-safety/) and the National Safety Council (nsc.org/safety-training/defensive-driving) offer great safe driving classes. If you take one, you’ll learn a lot. Participation may even score you a discount on your auto insurance.