‘My empathy tank hath run dry’

Why would tailgaters risk trading body parts for two seconds? What do they do with all that extra time?

GUILFORD — About 2,000 tailgaters ago, I wrote a commentary about tailgating. I was open to thinking that tailgaters' ideas about tailgating could be something altogether different from mine. After all, they're looking at my rear end while I'm looking for their front end.

I likened tailgaters to flocks of birds dancing in three-dimensional high-speed harmony and warned that all it takes is one tailgater - bird or human, with a sprained wing or cardiac arrest - to throw an entire system of highway flyers or drivers out of whack.

And although I've never observed an undulating flock of birds spin out of control, I had seen tailgaters do so.

I used tailgating as a vehicle to caution readers that our incredible rate of unsustainable consumption will rear-end us over the edge of the very systems we depend on.

I was a bumper away from forgiving tailgaters. After all, not seeing the hood of the car behind me while going 70 mph had to be my fault, particularly when there were plenty of opportunities to pass.


After another "You've got to be kidding me" drive on the Merritt Parkway, Hutchinson River Parkway, and the Long Island Expressway in Connecticut and New York respectively, I say unapologetically: I do not forgive tailgaters!

Proceed with caution, tailgaters. My empathy tank hath run dry. I am about to spin around and direct my brights into your inexcusable behavior. If you're worried my rant will crash into your core, buckle up and exit here.

* * *

I had been traveling 5 mph above the speed limit when I started seeing my tailgaters' lips in my rear-view, close enough to read them. This is not easy, safe, or recommended. I swear under oath that one of them was yelling:

"WTF does that Vermonter think they're doing going the friggin' speed limit on my road!? Faster! I don't want to be two seconds late for my second cousin's nephew's kid's fourth birthday party's magic show opening act. Out of my way, safety freak!"

A few tailgaters later, I lip read, "Who do you think you are going no more than 5 mph over the speed limit? You can't control me! You can't make me obey the law. That's my choice. I'm so mad I'm not going to pass you even though I can. Get out of my way!"

And then, bam! I am blindsided out of nowhere by a realization: Most tailgaters are likely not thinking about me at all.

Go figure. I base this on tailgaters 27 and 42, who were singing along to love songs like "Too Close" and "Don't Leave Me Behind."

* * *

What I haven't figured out is what tailgaters think about their tailgaters. Do they see a reflection of themselves: good-looking, self-assured, worry-free? Do they feel the excitement of maneuvering in synchronicity with a fellow member of their flock? Do they think they're at risk of being smashed into 4,000 pounds of metal?

I am asking all tailgaters to stay four Mississippis (or more) behind. Follow this real close: the difference between my request and the two seconds of many tailgaters is two seconds.

Which raises the question: Why would tailgaters risk trading body parts for two seconds? Did their boss threaten to fire them the next time they're two seconds late? Would their fiancee call off the wedding when they showed up two seconds late?

What do they do with all that extra time?

Tailgaters, consider this basic principle: you will always take longer to stop than the car ahead of you. Imagine tailgating me and I slam on my brakes to avoid a deer. If I am going 65 mph, it's going to take about 200 feet (two-thirds of a football field) to stop. But it's going to take you longer because there's a lag time between when you notice my brake lights and when you decide to brake but haven't yet!

At 65 mph, you'll have gone about 140 feet before you even begin to touch your brake. There's only one possible outcome: a system out of control.


Before exiting this car-thartic rant, I have one small request: count one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi.

You did it.

That's all I'm asking. Good "carma" doesn't have to be an accident.

Jimmy Karlan is professor emeritus at Antioch University in Keene, N.H. For 25 years he commuted from Guilford to Keene, never closer than four seconds behind.

This Voices Essay was submitted to The Commons.

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