We used to call it bad driving, but since the tabloids, and in turn, the UK documentary-makers took a leaf out of the Americans’ book and gave it the far more inflammatory term “road rage,” fear of other road users has escalated out of all proportion.
Most drivers would have expected, and laughed off, one or even two incidences of rudeness in a fellow driver on a long journey – including the odd swear word or an obscene gesture – but the current obsession with loutish behaviour on the road has turned us all into paranoiac jellies.
We used to believe that people who flagged us down, or attempted to knock on our windows, had run out of petrol or wanted change for the phone.
The accidental beep of the horn, the odd flash of a headlight, even the innocent hand signal from a driver schooled in the old-fashioned methods of driving has been turned into a grave threat to our safety at the roundabout, a sure prelude to grievous bodily harm at the next traffic light, even a shoot-out in the next cul-de-sac.
In these fear-filled days, when even the humble family car is a lethal weapon, we are told to wind up our windows at all times, keep looking ahead, avoid eye-contact with other drivers, stay in the car rather than sit on the verge, buy a car-phone for emergencies, keep driving whatever happens, and above all, never stop. At least, not unless we are told to by a person in uniform who can show a valid ID card and doesn’t appear to be threatening us with a gun.
And now, we are led to believe, this same threat to civilisation is happening in the supermarket, where “trolley rage” and “shopping stress” is breaking out in the aisles.
Born no doubt of the annual August silly season, but destined to last well into more serious news months, the term “trolley rage” was invented by an innovative sub-editor looking for a new way to describe what would have been a pretty everyday fracas if it had happened in a post office queue, but which made headlines because it took place among the jam-pots and loo-rolls.
The incident, which involved one Michael Tierney and the Dewsbury, West Yorkshire branch of Safeway, happened when Tierney was beaten to a checkout by a faster woman customer.
Anxious not to lose face, or to queue for any longer than he had to, the irascible Tierney attempted to barge his way past the woman to the head of the queue. When the woman protested, he rammed her with his trolley and slapped her across the face, causing her nose to bleed, magistrates were told.
And Tierney didn’t let the matter rest there.
Once out in the car park, he and his partner, both in their thirties, scuffled with a 50-year-old woman store detective who had witnessed the incident and was attempting to write down his registration number.
After pushing her over, and telling his partner to “smack her one”, the volatile Tierney attempted to make his escape, presumably having paid for his shopping.
The pair were not subdued until a group of six staff members intervened and wrestled them to the ground, where they stayed until the police arrived.
Now I’m not saying that fights in supermarkets are normal occurrences, although supermarket car parks have themselves, if you believe Crimewatch, become a not-unfamiliar backdrop for anything from armed robbery to drugs-dealing and assault.
But to say that Tierney, not surprisingly the subject of psychiatric reports, is anything more than a wayward and possibly deranged thug, is to elevate what he did to a new form of frightening social violence.
It could be true that the hot weather had an incendiary effect on his temper, causing him to turn from a normally mild-mannered, inoffensive train-spotter into a frenzied beast with an attitude problem, but I somehow doubt it.
And if that unseemly incident is perhaps more indicative of one man’s insecurity about being beaten to a checkout by a woman, than about raised levels of aggression in the shopping environment, can it really be termed something as all-encompassing as trolley rage?
It is true that supermarkets tend to inflame our passions rather than soothe them, despite all the soporific music and the coolly organised stacking arrangements. It is also true that one’s fellow shoppers can be more irritating than a massive pile of identically bruised apples.
But however much we dislike the habits of other shoppers – and who with hand on heart can say that they have never wanted to biff that bloke at the delicatessen counter who wants a quarter of everything, or that woman at the bread counter who meticulously squeezes every loaf – would we really wish, publicly, to give them a bloody nose? Or to scuffle with supermarket staff in the car-park?
No, we’d prefer to take the non-violent option of noiselessly insulting and threatening them through gritted teeth, perhaps reaching for the last pack of special-offer ground coffee just before they can get to it, or hogging the toothpaste display.
In our wildest fantasies, we might dream of bashing into annoying people with our trolleys, even drawing blood, but for most of us, lifelong social control means that we’d be unlikely to do such a thing to a total stranger.
And anyway, in all the shopping trips you’ve made throughout your life, how often have you seen two shoppers threaten to, or actually thump each other to a bloody pulp in front of the tomato purée?
The reports of the case fail to mention just how many checkouts were open at the time of the incident, but we gather that Tierney’s blood was raised at the prospect of being first in a brand-new queue – the queue to which his fellow shopper beat him into second place.
Now if this implies that Tierney – who was shopping for a family of four demanding children – had been waiting in another queue for some considerable time, then perhaps we can understand just a little of his frustration, even if we would have exercised rather more self-control.
It would be far better for Safeway, and other supermarket managements, to keep shopping stress at bay by instituting a policy of opening as many checkouts as possible at one time.
And it would be cheaper in the long run than all the damaging publicity over trolley rage.