With prosperity comes anger.

As with so many other road rage tales, ours begins in a parking lot, this one near the Galleria at the tail end of rush hour. Sarah, an attorney who asked that we not use her last name, was off to meet her boyfriend Cameron at the University of Texas Co-Op in Uptown Park. 

“FYI,” said Cameron, who got there first, “parking’s a nightmare right now. It’s dinner time and the NFL draft is on TV in the bars.”  

“You know how Uptown Park is not one big parking lot—it’s a bunch of little segments?” asked Sarah. We do. “So, yeah, I get there and he was right. It’s a shit-show, people walking everywhere, people driving everywhere, and a lot of the places have those signs that say things like ‘parking for X business only,’ so you’ll find a spot and get excited and then it’s like, no, you can’t park here.”

Sarah was in the vicinity of one such verboten space when all of a sudden an older man in a blue truck wheeled into it before seeing the sign. By the time he realized his mistake and tried to back out, Sarah’s car was blocking him. She herself was blocked by someone backing out in front of her, who in turn was blocked by some pedestrians. Then, Sarah saw the blue truck’s reverse lights flash on. The man was apparently as unaware that someone was behind him as he had been that the space was unavailable to him.   

“I freaked out a little bit and just did a little honk, like what you do in a parking lot when you want to say, ‘Hey, I am back here behind you, don’t crash into me,’” Sarah told us. “But he just keeps coming … so I throw it in reverse so I get out of the way really quickly. Now he’s in the middle of us and blocking the guy who was trying to back out and me. … So now I start honking a little bit more in a pissed off manner.” Eventually, the logjam ended, though not before the man in the blue truck pulled alongside Sarah and asked what her [expletive] problem was. 

She was astonished by the profanity-laced tirade. “‘My problem is you are not paying attention,’” she told the man, who was well-dressed and old enough to be her father. “‘This is a crowded parking lot and you almost hit me. You’re driving crazy. Just pay a little bit more attention.’ And he kinda looks to the side, thinks about it, and says, ‘Listen, lady. Go [same expletive as above] yourself. This is Houston, Texas.’”

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The man’s words proved prophetic. Mere days after the showdown, AutoVantage, a roadside assistance service, declared our city America’s road-rage capital. According to its study, we cut each other off with little remorse, slam on our brakes more, drive more rudely than anywhere else in the country, and all the while yakking away on cellphones. Another recent study found that almost half of all Texans fail to use turn signals—more than any other state. And a Chronicle analysis of Texas Department of Transportation data in 2012 identified more than 900 road rage crashes in Greater Houston between 2007 and 2012, five of which ended in death. 

“My psychologist friends tell me we are no longer a 24/7 world, but a 72/7 world,” Steve Albrecht told us. An expert on workplace violence who has also written about road rage, the San Diego–based Albrecht is also a frequent business traveler to Houston. “The speed and pace of life has gotten so attacking to everybody, there’s just a general lack of patience in the world. And the car gives you an anonymous way to be overly assertive and aggressive, cut off people and monopolize the territory around you. Some people think it’s a way to get a little bit of control back, when actually it’s negative.” 

As it happens, this is the second time AutoVantage has conducted a national road-rage study. Five years ago, when the national economy was in the doldrums, Houston came in eighth place. Has the ensuing local boom made us angrier and ruder? Our already jammed highways and backstreets seem to grow more sclerotic by the day, pinched by construction projects, clogged by lumbering dump trucks and befuddled newcomers.

“Having rented cars there and driven around over the years … there is something to everything you are saying,” Albrecht said. “And also just the tremendous distances you have to cover. And as for construction, I think a lot of people get really frustrated when they see cones and pylons but no work.”

Writing recently in Psychology Today, Albrecht counseled readers to ask themselves WWDLD? (As in, What Would the Dalai Lama Do?) “Go forth down the road and be yourself, with compassion towards others,” he wrote. “Stop caring about your ‘space.’ Tint your windows. Get a subscription to satellite radio and enjoy your music without commercials. Realize road rage is ridiculous, life-threatening, and not something you have to participate in, ever.” 

Back at Uptown Park, Sarah was driving out of the parking lot recounting her bizarre encounter to Cameron, who had by now rejoined her. To his enormous frustration, although the altercation had happened just minutes earlier, the man in the blue truck had already peeled out to parts unknown. Or so he thought.  

“Oh, hell no,” Cameron said suddenly, opening the door while the car was still moving. There he was again, the man in the blue truck, screaming obscenities at Sarah. 

“So Cameron jumps out of the car and is like, ‘Man, what’s your problem?’ And he was like, ‘My problem? Your girlfriend was honking at me and yelling at me!’ ‘Yeah, because you almost hit her.’” 

At this, the man devolved into full-on 12-year-old mode, Sarah recalled, yelling things like, “Hit me, man! You gonna hit me?’” She had never known Cameron to hit anyone, “but the last thing I wanted was for him to hit this guy and then I would have to go bail him out of jail. … So I said, ‘Cameron, get in the car.’ And as soon as the guy hears his name he’s all, ‘Yeah, Cameron! Princess Cameron, get in the car!’” 

By this point, the spectacle of a young woman and her boyfriend being yelled at by a bully twice their age, not to mention a grey-haired pillar-of-the-community type, had transfixed the entire parking lot. The same question was on everyone’s lips: What was the source of the man’s hysteria?

There was no obvious answer. For now, “This is Houston, Texas” would have to do. 

 
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