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Duel: Oliver Sacks And The Thrilling Fright Of Road Rage

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duel road rage


Ever experience Road Rage, the desire to hurt another road users, or at least scare them? Ever been the victim of a wilfully dangerous driver, the motorist who slows in front of you, tailgates or swerves into your path?

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote that the modern automobile has become “the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell of urban and suburban man.”

The above photograph is from Duel, Steven Spielberg’s 1971 made-for-TV thriller starring Dennis Weaver as wimpy David Mann, whose day takes a nasty turn when he overtakes a monstrous 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck in his Plymouth Valiant.



You can read our story on other evil vehicles in movie history, all twists on the idea of machines taking over and exposing our dark side. These films appeal because they could be any of us.


"In Greenwich Village, 1961, on [his] new BMW R60."(On The Move: A Life/Knopf)

In Greenwich Village, 1961, on his new BMW R60.

In On the Move: A Life (1963) the late Dr Oliver Sachs recalls his own feelings of road rage:

I was riding along Sunset Boulevard at a leisurely pace, enjoying the weather — it was a perfect spring day — and minding my own business. Seeing a car behind me in my driving mirror, I motioned the driver to overtake me. He accelerated, but when he was parallel with me, he suddenly veered towards me, making me swerve to avoid a collision. It didn’t occur to me that this was deliberate; I thought the driver was probably drunk or incompetent. Having overtaken me, the car then slowed down. I slowed, too, until he motioned me to pass him. As I did so, he swung into the middle of the road, and I avoided being sideswiped by the narrowest margin. This time there was no mistaking his intent.

I have never started a fight. I have never attacked anyone unless I have been attacked first. But this second, potentially murderous attack enraged me, and I resolved to retaliate. I kept a hundred yards or more behind the car, just out of his line of sight, but prepared to leap forward if he was forced to stop at a traffic light. This happened when we got to Westwood Boulevard. Noiselessly — my bike was virtually silent — I stole up on the driver’s side, intending to break a window or score the paintwork on his car as I drew level with him. But the window was open on the driver’s side, and seeing this, I thrust my fist through the open window, grabbed his nose, and twisted it with all my might; he let out a yell, and his face was all bloody when I let go. He was too shocked to do anything, and I rode on, feeling I had done no more than his attempt on my life had warranted.


"Lifting weights as a novice at the Maccabi club in London, 1956." (On The Move: A Life/Knopf)

“Lifting weights as a novice at the Maccabi club in London, 1956.”
(On The Move: A Life/Knopf)


It did not end there. Biking down a desolate road in San Francisco, a speeding driver got too close.

By a sort of miracle, I managed to hold the bike upright, throwing up a huge cloud of dust, and regained the road. My attacker was now a couple of hundred yards ahead. Rage more than fear was my chief reaction, and I snatched a monopod from the luggage rack (I was very keen on landscape photography at the time and always traveled with camera, tripod, monopod, etc., lashed to the bike). I waved it round and round my head, like the mad colonel astride the bomb in the final scene of Dr. Strangelove.

I must have looked crazy — and dangerous — for the car accelerated. I accelerated too, and pushing the engine as much as I could, I started to overtake it. The driver tried to throw me off by driving erratically, suddenly slowing, or switching from side to side of the empty road, and when that failed, he took a sudden side road in the small town of Coalinga — a mistake, because he got into a maze of smaller roads with me on his tail and finally got trapped in a cul-de-sac. I leapt off the bike (all 260 pounds of me) and rushed towards the trapped car, waving the monopod. Inside the car I saw two teenage couples, four terrified people, but when I saw their youth, their helplessness, their fear, my fist opened and the monopod fell out of my hand.

I shrugged my shoulders, picked up the monopod, walked back to the bike, and motioned them on. We had all, I think, had the fright of our lives, felt the nearness of death, in our foolish, potentially fatal duel.

It can happen to any of us.