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updated: 6/18/2012 11:06 AM

Road rage lesson for the ages: Be like Gandhi

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It was more than 20 years ago, but I remember the discussion well.

We were gathered in the boss' office planning the stories of the day. High on the agenda was a local case of road rage that had resulted in someone's injury or death.

As often is the case, we chimed in our own personal experiences or advice.

"I am Mahatma Gandhi," my then-boss said of his strategy for handling hostile motorists he encountered. "Keep my head down, eyes straight ahead."

Good advice, I thought. I'd have to admit I've been lousy about following it. I'll plead guilty to having been among the estimated 50 percent or more of drivers who respond in kind when confronted my another motorist with a hand gesture.

A couple weeks ago, I was in a parking lot of an expressway, narrowed to one southbound lane because of an accident. So I got in line for an off-ramp, which also was moving slowly. But that wasn't good enough for some clowns, who were trying to move up by driving on the shoulder. I did a slow burn and cursed them under my breath as they whizzed by. But their short cut was cut short by a car that had broken down on the shoulder.

At this point, I was approaching the disabled car, when a shoulder-driver, instead of slowing down or stopping, zipped in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and laid on the horn. The latter was unnecessary, but I wanted to register my irritation. He responded by flipping me off. I responded by flipping him off.

Then, we both sat in the stopped traffic.

I remember my anger then being tinged with some fear. If the motorist in front of me wanted to get out of the car and confront me with his fists or a weapon, I had nowhere to go. Instead, after 30 seconds or so, the driver grew impatient with sitting in traffic, got out of line, and drove up the ramp on the other shoulder.

The stupidity of my behavior was driven home this past week when we learned of yet another case of apparent road rage that ended with the death of a Lombard man.

Authorities charged Michael Moreno of Plainfield with aggravated DUI, aggravated reckless driving, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, obstructing police and marijuana possession. They say he got into a traffic altercation with another driver, a 16-year-old Naperville girl, and then began to chase her. As Moreno headed west on Ogden Avenue in Naperville, he made a left turn onto River Road, striking the motorcycle of 63-year-old Gerald Puglise, who was eastbound on Ogden with the right of way, police said. Puglise died at the scene.

I have no earthly idea of whether the 16-year-old motorist did anything to exacerbate the situation, but this latest case of apparent road rage shows how it can harm someone not even involved in the altercation. I really, really hope it's served as a lesson for me.

I did a little research on road rage, hoping to find something profound, and maybe an answer for those of us who just seethe at some of the awful behavior we encounter on the roads. But there's no silver bullet, just the common sense tips you've probably heard a hundred times. Still, if they make one of us think enough to avoid a life-threatening situation somewhere down the road, I'm happy to repeat them:

• Don't waste energy on anger toward someone you'll likely never see again.

• Be like Gandhi. Don't engage a hotheaded driver.

• Conversely, show some empathy if another driver screws up. Have you never made a mistake? Is it fun to get a hand gesture if you inadvertently cut someone off?

• Try a courteous approach first. If you need to get in another lane, don't just swerve into the lane. Make eye contact instead, and point. Most of the time you'll get a positive response.

Just a few days ago, I was in a turn lane. A woman alongside me was trying to get my attention. I rolled down the passenger window. "Could I turn left in front of you, please?" Sure, no problem, I said. Felt good about it, in fact.

Didn't even dawn on me until now that this insignificant encounter occurred on River Road in Naperville.

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