As we hover around the fifty mile an hour mark in the right lane, the car ahead begins to wander again. First to the right, correcting sharply as they touch the rumble strip. Then to the left, as they overcorrect and wobble back across the center line. Suddenly, there’s a white flash to outside my driver’s door window. It’s some kind of late model Benz, burning up the passing lane Autobahn style. Not good.
The day started with plenty of optimism. Three weeks after the engorged disc in my lower back was finally cut down to size, I feel well enough to attempt the longest car ride I’ve taken in five months. It won’t be easy, but I have a friend along to help with the driving. We’ll be attending a conference about an hour and a half away from our homes, in a major Southeastern city. There will be a lot of sitting involved; my least favorite activity since my spine began to malfunction more than a year ago. However, the recent experiences of our dear EIC pro tempore give me strength. Surely I can handle a short drive if the man who pretty much broke everything a short time ago is already back to his jet-setting ways.
With my friend to distract me, the first drive is less onerous than I expected. The conference goes well, and I don’t regret the trip. All too soon it’s time to pack up and leave. After dosing up on ibuprofen, I slide into the driver’s seat for the return journey. We hit the freeway as darkness falls.
A little more than an hour in, we’re cruising at a little under seventy in the right lane. I’m pretty sore by now, but we’ll be home in a half hour or so. The freeway is fairly empty. I try to avoid sliding into the hypnotic state that so often accompanies long stretches of straight road. At least I have my friend to keep me alert. As well as the pair of flashing taillights that I’m fast converging on, dead ahead of me.
Damn. I don’t have to slam the brakes, but the deceleration is rapid. I want to pass him, but he’s literally taking up the whole road. He splits the two lanes, blocking me on both sides. I fall back. We’re doing a little bit above fifty, and he has his four ways on. What the hell is going on? Is he looking for someone on the side of the highway? Or perhaps for a mile marker, or an exit sign? Cars start to stack up behind us. He drifts back to the right, opening up the left lane. The cars behind us hustle past, and he speeds up a little. I could pass, but I don’t. Something doesn’t feel right.
I drop back and watch. It’s not long before he begins to weave again: left and right, back and forth. Both of us observe him, or possibly her- it’s too dark to see inside. We watch them in silence for a few minutes, wondering if maybe they’ll pull over. But nothing happens- the four ways keep going, the weaving stays about the same, and cars continue to blow by us on the left.
What should we do? I don’t know the number for the Highway Patrol. I’ve never dialed 911 before in my life, as strange as that sounds. Is this the kind of thing that 911 should even be used for? Does a guy who can’t drive straight really count as an “emergency?” It’s dark, we’re both tired, and the sawed-off disc in my lower back is increasingly making its unhappiness known. We’re rapidly converging on our destination, and I have no desire to get involved in what could rapidly become a long or even dangerous confrontation.
It’s at that point that the Mercedes appears. It’s a miss, but too close for comfort. It sends our subject wheeling back to the right, against the rumble strip, and then back left again on the same crazy cycle. Drunk. I don’t recall which of us said it first, but there is no disagreement. Even if we’re wrong, we’ve passed a tipping point that shouldn’t be ignored. We decide to make the call.
I hand my friend my phone. He gets the local 911 operator, who immediately begins pumping us for information. Where are you headed? What’s his license plate number? The make/model of car? And so on and so forth. Then the operator wants to know my phone number. My friend hands it back so I can tell her. At this point, we’re running out of her jurisdiction, so she abruptly transfers me to the Highway Patrol. A few buzzes, and I get their operator. He begins asking me the same set of questions- apparently nothing was communicated by the local operator.
After a few more minutes I finish up with the Highway Patrol operator. He tells me that there are no units in our area, but he’ll try to dispatch one to check out the situation. He advises me to turn around as soon as possible and go home. There’s only one problem: we have now missed all of our exits, and neither of us knows how much farther we must go before we can turn around. To make matters worse (or possibly better), I seem to have spooked our subject when I pulled in close to read his license plate. His four ways are still flashing, but the wandering has mostly stopped. His speed increases to tolerable level as he stays in the right lane. We drop back and follow at a distance as the minutes tick by. No sign of the cops.
Finally, an exit appears. It’s a rural area, but I see that I can turn around and go back in the opposite direction. I start to head for ramp, but then I see that our subject is doing the same thing. “No!” my passenger shouts. I dive back to the freeway at the last moment. My friend is right; I don’t want to be stopped on that ramp behind a driver who has undoubtedly realized we’ve been following him. I don’t need any bullet holes in my car, myself, or my friend. I watch our subject switch off his four ways as he heads up the ramp. For a moment, I panic and wonder if he might come down the opposite side and follow us. But we never see him again.
We drive a little farther before we come upon another exit, turn around, and head back home. We’ve tacked on an extra half-hour or so to our journey with little to show for it. I feel frustrated, but also relieved. Maybe the cops pinched him, or maybe he got away. It’s out of our hands now. Even so, I can’t help but feel that there was something else going on besides a garden-variety DUI; the endlessly flashing four ways are a bizarre coda on the entire story. What about you, B&B? Have you ever made the call?