Angry People Anonymous

The scariest part about last week's road rage incident on Route 422? I could totally identify with the shooter

Like everybody else who drives Route 422 into Philly every morning, I’ve followed with fascinated horror the news reports about John Yannarell, the guy accused of firing his gun into a fellow driver’s car in a road rage incident last Friday morning. I just kept thinking, “That could have been me!” I didn’t mean the victim, though—I meant the shooter. [SIGNUP]

Okay, I don’t own a gun. And I’m a mild-mannered middle-aged woman who under normal circumstances doesn’t say boo to a goose. I’m so non-confrontational, it’s a joke to my friends. I’m too shy to send bad food back in restaurants. I buy clothes from catalogs so I don’t have to deal with sales clerks. Put me behind the wheel of my car, though, and all that’s changed. Suddenly, I’m Dirty Harry: Go ahead, cut me off and make my day, you m@#$*&^! I make my way down 422 most mornings in a frothing, seething fury at tailgaters, cell-phone talkers, makeup appliers, Prius owners, little old ladies and anyone else who ticks me off — and there are plenty of you out there. I don’t shoot anybody. And I don’t drive unsafely, either. But I shoot lots of birds and dirty looks along my way.

I was thinking about this all weekend because of a phone call I got in the office last week. The call was to let me know that I’d gotten something wrong in a story. It was a pretty minor something, really, except to the woman who called me about it. She was the telephone equivalent of road rage in the message she left on my voicemail. My inadvertent error, she let me know, had upset her, her daughter, her mother who was recovering from cancer and really had enough on her plate to deal with without this, and a whole lot of other people too, and WHAT WAS I GOING TO DO ABOUT IT, HUH?

Whew. Being the no-nconfrontational sort I am, my first instinct was to hide under my desk. But the fact was, I had made a mistake, and I owed this woman something. So I took a deep breath, dialed the number she’d left me, and found myself talking to her voicemail, very timidly. I was two sentences into my stammered apology when I heard a click and then a woman’s voice: “Hello? Hello” She’d picked up on me. I repeated my abject apology and assured her I’d do what I could to correct my error. She explained, rather humorously, how it had affected her family, and before we knew it, we were chatting and laughing together about what had happened. And that was that.

Only it wasn’t, really, because I couldn’t stop pondering the difference in her demeanor in that voicemail and in person. I’ve done the same thing — left a wrath-filled message or pounded out a vicious e-mail when I was angry. Voicemail and e-mail have the power to turn even the meekest among us into raging bullies. We’re much braver electronically than face-to-face. That’s why the comments sections on the Internet are giving websites fits. From the safe, anonymous haven of their computers, commenters spew hate-filled racist, sexist, every-other-ist-there-is stuff about each other, free of any sort of civilizing influence. It’s like driving down the information superhighway while spraying bullets into the air.

Yannarell apparently liked to vent his wrath at a members-only website called Pitch Your Bitch Online. It’s impossible to say how the incivility he reveled in there might have contributed to what he allegedly did on Friday morning. We tend to think that “venting” is healthy for us — that it gives us a chance to get grudges off our chests, to literally clear the air. It could be, though, that the Internet’s anonymous shield is bleeding through into real life, and making us feel more invincible in our everyday interactions — resulting in a “calm, patient” middle-aged man who allegedly fires his gun at another driver during a weekday-morning commute.

The traffic patterns on 422 should be interesting to observe in the weeks to come. I know I’ll be keeping my hands on the wheel instead of shaking them in fists — or worse. At least, for a while.

SANDY HINGSTON is a Philly Mag senior editor. Read her latest “Loco Parentis” column here.