Mr Smith (I forgot his real name) was driving a pickup truck with his wife beside him on a highway somewhere in USA. He saw a car being driven recklessly ahead of him. He could see two young men, both about thirty years old, laughing and having a good time; they were weaving their car through the traffic with little regard to other drivers who had to swerve or step on their brakes to avoid colliding with it. Smith, who was about 60 years old, was getting angry and agitated. To him, the two young men were behaving like bullies endangering the safety of other drivers. Past experiences with road bullies had left him bitter and more than a little willing to teach them a lesson or two. When the offending car cut abruptly into the lane of a woman driver, Smith drove his pickup alongside it. The young men were firemen on the way to their favourite fishing ground. They were big burly guys and not the kind of people one would expect a small middle-aged man with his wife seated next to him to confront.

Smith wound down his window, stuck up his middle finger, and shouted, “Hey, assholes, pick somebody your own size!” This incensed the firemen who yelled vulgarities back at the older man. The two vehicles began to go very fast and very close to each other on the highway. The situation was getting dangerous. Ironically, Smith realised he was putting his wife in danger and pulled up by the side of the highway. The firemen did the same just over a hundred metres ahead of it. They stepped out of their car and walked towards the older couple. Smith got out of his pickup and walked to the back. He picked up a crossbow lying in the back of the truck as the firemen approached. He loaded an arrow into the crossbow, aimed it at one of the two men. The firemen could see what it was but did not expect the old man to actually fire it. As they got closed enough Smith, without any warning, pulled the trigger. The arrow went through the chest of one of the firemen and killed him.

This story was related by Smith while he was in prison. I watched the TV program telling the story when I was in the USA almost 20 years ago. I don’t remember the exact details but what I’d described above tells the story reasonably accurately. Smith was convicted of manslaughter and was spending time in prison for a senseless act committed in the heat of the moment. He was asked in the interview if he regretted his action and, surprisingly, said he did not. I don’t know if it was simply bravado or he really thought he did the right thing. I pity his poor wife who must have been bewildered by the whole event. As for the dead man’s companion he said that after the incomprehensible and totally unnecessary  death of his friend, from then on, whenever he heard anyone shouting vulgarities at him or provoking him in any way, he would ignore them. In fact, he would not even turn to look in the direction where they came from. Whether he was in the right or wrong made absolutely no difference because the end result was simply not worth it. It was an experience he would never forget, and a lesson forever etched into his brain, for the rest of his life.

While I was watching the program on TV, I remembered a short course on leadership I took some twenty years before that at the Civil Service Training Institute (sitting at what is now part of the National University of Singapore). The lecturer (I think he was American) related a personal experience to illustrate a point he was making. He had stopped his car behind a parked car to go take a leak. He knew he had obstructed the car from coming out, but he was urgent and didn’t think anything was going to happen in the few minutes he needed to empty his bladder. As luck would have it, when he finished what he had to do, he saw that the owner of the car he obstructed was a big rough-neck looking fella with a pissed-off look on his face, and he looked like he was about to beat the shit out of the driver who had parked his car right behind his! The lecturer quickly put up his hand in apology, and said “I’m so sorry, it’s my fault. Please forgive me. I needed to go badly and I really didn’t think you would show up this quickly. Please allow me to get out of your way.” He said he could see the anger ebbed away from the man’s face even as he apologised. He saved himself from an ugly and potentially dangerous altercation through a simple gesture – admit you were at fault and do it sincerely. Most people, even the quick tempered ones, are reasonable and would accept your apology if you are sincere. But it could a lot worse than bad if you come across as phoney.

We all know how we should react or behave when we encounter similar situations. We have this cool reaction all planned out; however, it’s something we thought about in our minds while sitting on our sofa. But when the chemicals are racing to our brains the moment some jerk cuts abruptly into our paths, all the carefully thought out script go out the window, just when we needed to think straight. It takes an exceptionally calm and cool person to act correctly in a sudden provocation. For most of us, however, like the fireman who lost his friend, it needed a powerful personal experience to stop us from reacting on impulse under intense provocation. But can we at least learn from others and slow down the blood racing to our heads?

Not too long ago, I attended a wedding banquet in a hotel in Marina Bay. I drove my car into the car park and thought it was my good luck when I saw a car pulling out from a lot just as I got in. As he drove off, I positioned my car to take over the lot. Just as I did so, a white Mercedes driven by someone in his forties came screeching to a halt inches from hitting the side where my wife was seated. His wife or girlfriend was in his car (I don’t know if she regretted having such a person as her partner). Anyway, he came rushing out of his car, shouting …… I can’t remember what he was shouting about. By then, I knew he must have been waiting to park at the same lot and was furious that I’d moved in to take it from him. So, I would have backed off and given the parking lot to him if he had told me he had been waiting for it. But his action of threatening me by pretending to ram my car with my wife sitting right there, made me see red. As he came out of his car and walked towards me, I must confess that for a split second I was going to calmly get out of my car, move slowly and unthreateningly towards him, and then put my fist into his face with all my might. I knew I could do that and punch his face into a pulp because he would have been taken by surprise and could not have reacted. It’s scary. I actually ran through the process in my head. But my fantasy lasted only a split second. Thank goodness, in spite of the provocation, I could still think straight, and backed off. Perhaps I was just being myself and simply recoiled from the confrontation, having never really had a fight with anyone in my life. But still, I shiver to think that that jerk could have gone to a hospital and I could be telling this from a prison cell.

In another incident I surprised even myself for the way I reacted. I was at Changi Airport to send someone off. A car had stopped in the middle of the lane. I thought he was waiting for someone to come out of his lot so he could take the spot. But after what I thought was a little longer than usual, he was still there, motionless. I tapped my horn. Nothing happened, I sounded my horn a second time, a little longer this time. Still nothing. I was getting really impatient. What the hell was he doing? After what I thought was a long enough time to park several cars, I blasted my horn. This time, the parked car moved out – I read somewhere that on average a car takes a lot longer to move when someone is waiting for it, some psychological one-upmanship or something. The driver then parked his car and I was able to move ahead and parked at a nearby lot. As I got out, I could see him moving towards me with a face that said, “Why are you such an asshole? Can’t you see I was waiting for the other chap to move out?” It was a potentially ugly event. But I remembered then what that lecturer had told me some forty years ago. It’s uncanny, but I swear I remembered it then. Before he could speak, I put up my hand and said, “I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I really didn’t know you were waiting to park.” Then I added something that could have derailed the whole brilliant response. I added, “I thought you were asleep.” His temperature must have gone up a notch as his scowl returned for a second as he said, “I was waiting for him to move out!” I tried quickly to retrieve the situation and said, “I know, I apologise again.” That seemed to work. I supposed it was easier because I’d not reached the red zone when I acted to calm the situation. If I were slow and he had said something abusive before I acted, things could have turned out differently and there could have been the spectacle of two grown men arguing and shouting over some trivial stuff. I would have gone home angry but feeling rather stupid.

Should you be unfortunate to get into a road rage (or any kind of rage) situation give yourself some time to think before saying or doing anything you’d regret after. Don’t rush in like a fool.

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