In 1991, the term road rage wasn’t widely used, but the man tailgating me through work traffic on Interstate 99 south of Sacramento, Calif., early that year could have been the prototype.

In thick traffic that left little room for weavers, we were close enough to exchange glances in my rearview mirror. I could see his reddened complexion, and he could read the smirk on my face as I gloated over my strategic position ahead of him.

When traffic finally allowed me to move into the right lane, I displayed an upturned palm that invited His Excellency to proceed. But appeasement was too little, too late.

He initiated aggressive movements, dropping back and speeding past and changing lanes. I answered his vulgar hand signals with moronic smiles and have-a-nice-day waves until he flashed a doubled fist, suggesting a roadside fight.

With evasive maneuvers exhausted, I finally led our rage parade onto the highway’s shoulder hoping to sucker him into exiting his pickup. With him afoot, my plan was to floor my Hyundai to escape velocity.

I knew this was a bad plan when I noticed he was searching for something behind his seat.

Being a smart aleck to a danger stranger is wrong, but my problem really began when I made the assumption that most of us make when randomly targeted by rage. I assumed this man’s anger really was about me.

You’ve probably made the assumption, too. It happens when the guy flips you off on the road or the woman screams at you for taking her parking space.

While it’s natural for you to go into a defensive mode claiming your righteous innocence, it’s best to remember that their rage isn’t really about you. In fact, it’s even a little self-centered to think it is about you.

The reality of these rages is that we merely are collateral damage for folks like these.

Occasionally, I’ll receive a caustic e-mail from someone with a minute grammar correction, or they’ll send me something Anne Lamott aptly calls, “Orwellian memos detailing my thought crimes.”

Most of the time I know that, like the freeway driver, their anger isn’t about me; they are fighting battles I’m not privileged to see.

Recently, I got an e-mail from a road rager careening down the information highway. When I replied from a defensive mode, he escalated our discussion by calling me every synonym of idiot. Recalling the road-rage incident, my second reply took a reconciling approach.

The reader sent a confessional apology adding details of his wife’s terminal illness and children who weren’t talking to him. Just like the interstate guy, this reader’s rage wasn’t about me.

It never ceases to amaze me that when I remember to squelch my defensiveness and respond in a caring manner, I often will get a sincere response. My smug attitude toward the driver only stirred his rage, but my soft answer to the reader turned away his wrath and made a friend.

Short of a soft answer on the freeway, I sped back into traffic, spitting gravel on the man’s truck. After another 10 minutes of cat and mouse, I took the freeway exit labeled, “Galt Police Station.” Amazingly, the man followed me into town, but finally broke off his chase when I entered the station’s driveway.

At the end of the day, the best answer to road rage on life’s highway may be contained in the sacred proverb that suggests, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh answer stirs up anger.”

After all, we are all on a journey, so maybe it’s time to share the road.