This is the Modem World: When tech can't save us from road rage

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|04.10.13

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This is the Modem World: When tech can't save us from road rage

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

So I'm driving home the other night after a decent day of work, looking forward to a little run, some dinner and maybe a movie. Taking my normal north-south route along Crescent Heights, I listen to Tame Impala to calm the nerves and enter another mental state.

I'm at one of those intersections in which two lanes become one because of a parked car in the right lane ahead. I, being in the right lane, gun it a bit at the start in order to get some distance from the guy on my left.

He's having none of this, apparently.

Turns out my car is faster, though, and I edge him out. I see him wave his arms frantically, shaking them and then applauding.

At the applause, I assume he's having fun with me, so I give him a thumbs up and turn my attention back to the Tame Impala, trying to remember if I recharged my Garmin running watch, wondering if my wife actually picked up dinner or if she was being sarcastic when she said, "I got it," during an afternoon phone call between meetings.

To those uninitiated in the art of Los Angeles rush-hour driving, making a go for it from the right lane into a single lane is both legal and normal practice. It's not something I do all the time, but if the left lane is looking crowded, I'll sometimes grab the right lane, especially if there aren't others using it to make right turns.

Turns out the guy is not having any fun. None at all. No, he's angry, and that evening I am the object of his ire. He passes me on the right at the next light, and I am all too happy to let him go on in anger, giving space with a couple cars between us as Swiss buffers. But half a block up, he pulls over, waiting for me. Sensing clear and present danger from a man bigger -- and more aggressive -- than me, I make a quick right and left over to the next block.

Halfway down this block, he reappears at the other end, coming deliberately toward me. This guy wants blood.

He crowds the center of the street, swerving into my lane, slowing down, opening his door.

"Get out," he commands. I'm still rolling.

I measure my space and creep by, avoiding eye contact. For a moment, our faces are inches apart. I expect him to bang on my window. He doesn't.

Free, I take off to the crowds of La Cienega and Wilshire. I try to gain some distance without being dangerous for other drivers. I'm safe. He's somewhere else.

And then on Burton, I see him. He pulls up behind me again. Close. Close enough to make me wonder if I should check my bumper when I get home. But I have my survival to worry about right now.

Then my inner nerd kicks into gear. I'm not about to try to beat this guy physically -- that's not in me -- but I consider grabbing my smartphone to take a picture of him, his car and his license plate.

My mind races with all the things I could do with the technology I have at hand. I pull up my GPS system to plot out alternate routes and look for police stations. Maybe I should post pictures of him, his license plate and his car to Twitter and publicly shame him, turning society against Mr. Angry and eradicating Los Angeles of this nuisance.

But holding up my phone to take a picture of him seems like a bad move, one that could possibly further ignite his rage. Or maybe I could just wave my phone around, letting him know that I was calling in reinforcements.

Phone in hand, I decide that calling 911 might be a priority move.

The nice woman from 911 confirms that some drivers are crazy, and asks if I'd like the police to come to us or if I'd like to be directed to the nearest station. As I'm considering this, Mr. Angry peels off to the left. He's either noticed that I'm calling for help or has decided that he's scared me enough for one day. I tell her I think I'm going to live and she bids adieu.

And then I consider all the possible outcomes of the evening. Perhaps he wrote down my license plate number and is heading home to use the 'net to find my home address to torture me for weeks while setting my cats free and eating all my food. Or maybe he has a friend on the force and is earmarking me as a future victim of unfair citations.

Finally home, I run to the computer to see what he could possibly do to track me down. Turns out it's not so easy to look up someone's home address based on his license plate number in California. There is a metric ton of sites that claim they can do this for you, along with background checks, but it comes at a cost and takes weeks. What's more, it requires that those being looked up be notified. Technology, it turns out, at least in this case, is on the side of road rage victims.

One site,, doesn't display results for my plate and just about every other one I consider. After a few attempts, the site times out. Another site,, sports a look from the '90s and appears to be more of a resource to check if you've ever been reported rather than a public clearing for victims to console one another and look out for particular drivers., though, is chock-full of reports and proves to be a much-needed salve to my tattered nerves.

At the end of it all, though, I realize that in some cases, technology can't save us. When we're panicking, stuck in emergency situations, we're tempted to reach for our crutches -- our smartphones -- but when confronted with our own mortality, we're left with instinct and skill. And maybe a hands-free call to 911. And a hug. And a glass of wine.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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