Neurosis of a stressed passenger

2014-02-14 00:00

I’M a very bad passenger, which only started after my children were born. I could be some deep-seated maternal instinct to protect the little darlings from imminent danger, or maybe it’s a response to the epidemic of bad driving we face on our roads every day. Whatever it is, it’s very annoying, especially for my long-suffering husband, who has to endure the door-handle clutching, the co-braking, sharp intakes of breath and, yes, incessant back-seat driving.

I try not to, but I can’t help pointing out that there’s a car coming towards us when he’s overtaking. “Yes dear,” he replies through gritted teeth, “it’s 50 kilometres away.” I draw his attention every so often to his speed, which, in my defence, is often over the speed limit, saying something like: “You know, it’s much easier to stop suddenly at 120 km/h than at 140 km/h. Just saying.” His response is a stony silence, but no reduction in speed, leaving me anxiously watching for anything that might stray into our path and necessitate sudden braking. I also point out that he’s had more accidents than me; clear proof that perhaps his driving is a bit on the reckless side. “Excuse me!” he once responded. “You are not exactly Driving Miss Daisy yourself. You forget, I’ve driven with you, I’ve seen you drive and whose speed fines are currently cluttering my desk drawer?” Yes, well.

I like to think that I’m a reasonably calm person, taking things in my stride and generally having a c’est la vie attitude to things I can’t change, but none of those qualities is evident in a car. I used to be a very relaxed passenger, sometimes reading a book for the entire journey, but more often than not, falling asleep before we had even reached the outskirts of town, secure in the knowledge that whoever was driving would get us all to our destination in one piece. My husband used to complain that he used to have very boring car trips as he would have no one to talk to while I slumbered in the seat next to him. Now he begs me to go to sleep just so that he can get some respite from the nervous breakdown that’s going on next to him.

I’m also very sensitive to strange noises and burning smells, constantly asking him: “What’s that noise? Are you sure that’s normal?” or “I smell burning rubber, maybe you have a puncture? Oh my god, the car’s on fire!” This all eventually freaked him out so badly that he bought a new car. Let me explain. His previous car had done over 200 000 kilometres, had started leaking oil, the engine light was permanently on and had developed an array of ominous rattles and squeaks. When our local mechanic, in passing, suggested that perhaps the car was getting a little tired, I immediately started imagining all sorts of startling scenarios. Also, as we were about to embark on a long journey, I knew that I would certainly not cope with the possibility of breaking down in the middle of nowhere, coupled with the even more remote possibility that we would be involved in a horrendous accident. Our lovely new car has done nothing to alleviate the stress, even if it does alert you when you are about to reverse into something.

There are, of course, certain roads that send my anxiety radar into orbit. I dread trips along the R617 to Underberg, the N2 from Kokstad through the Transkei, but the worst is the N2 from Durban up the North Coast, especially once it becomes a single-lane highway. I don’t know what’s with those North Coasters, but it seems that they all have murderous intentions. On a recent trip to Cape Vidal, there were numerous incidents of people overtaking on blind rises, around corners, or overtaking a long line of cars even when they could clearly see someone coming in the opposite direction. At one point, the car in front of us had to pull onto the verge to let an overtaking car in, thereby avoiding a head-on collision. The head clutching and “I can’t look” gasps, had my husband warning me that if anyone was going to cause an accident, it would be me. When I turned the radio off, saying that I couldn’t concentrate, he yelled: “For heaven’s sake, go to sleep!”

The thing is, apart from some road rage, which I also take great pains to dissuade as I constantly tell him other drivers don’t care that he is trying to teach them some manners as he leans on his hooter for the fifth time in a 20-minute journey, my husband is a very good driver. He’s decisive and confident, and has never put us in any danger; the fact that he still gets into a car with me certainly attests to his strength of character. To preserve my sanity, his patience and our marriage, self-driven cars cannot come too soon. No tension, yelling or gritted teeth — just oodles of Chardonnay all the way to Cape Town.

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