I remember the exact moment I fell victim to road rage. It happened four years ago on, of all days, Christmas morning. I was driving on a freeway in Austin, TX. My two children, then 8 and 4, were in the backseat.
My driving record at that point was excellent. I had not had an accident since high school. My last speeding ticket was a dim memory. But that day, I was dangerously preoccupied. My mother had died of breast cancer just three months before. This was my first Christmas without her, and my grief was fresh. The kids and I were traveling to my aunt’s house in Houston. I remember hoping my aunt could give my children what I did not have the strength to: a merry Christmas.
Suddenly, a man driving a minivan cut in front of me and shot down the highway in a blue blur of speed. Before he was out of sight, I saw that his rear car,o area was filled with Christmas packages and that he was chatting happily with his wife. “How dare you do that to me!” I said to myself, before stomping the accelerator all the way to the floor.
“Mommy,” I heard Tyler, my 4-year-old. say from the backseat, “what are you doing””
I did not know. Emotion, not reason, was driving my car. All I knew was that I did not want the man in the blue van to get away with that random act of rudeness. I may not have been able to control all the other stresses in my life, but I sure did not want to eat that man’s dust. I felt something I had been too numb to feel throughout my mother’s long illness: the cleansing rush of pure, unfettered anger. It was thrilling.
Traveling at 70 miles per hour, then 80, then 90-with my two children in the backseat-was, of course, a crazy, irresponsible thing to do. The fact that I did not know the man is what made the conflict not only possible but also deeply satisfying. We were two strangers hurling down the freeway in separate 3,000-pound tanks. It was easy to be at war.
The war ended when I saw the red lights of a highway patrol car flashing in my rearview mirror. As I pulled over, I saw the blue van fade victoriously into the horizon. All I got for Christmas was a $200 speeding ticket, and the realization that I needed to find some safe release for my anger.
AGGRESSION ON THE ROAD IS ON THE RISE, according to Ricardo Martinez, M.D., administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator (NHTSA). For years, NHTSA focused on a long list of dangerous drivers-the drunk, the unbelted, the speeding. Now Dr. Martinez and others are focusing on the new and growing problem of road rage.
Roadway Rambos put themselves and others at risk. They are guilty of a wide variety of driving offenses: running stop signs and red lights, speeding, tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic, honking, flashing their high beams, passing on the right, cutting other cars off, yelling and making hostile hand gestures, and, in general, treating other drivers like the enemy.
More men are involved in fatal crashes than women. In 1995, for instance, 37,500 men were involved in accidents, compared to 13,000 women. However, Barbara Crystal, spokesperson for the American Automobile Association (AAA), in Heathrow, FL, says there are signs that the gender gap is narrowing. A 1996 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that women are just as likely to run red lights-one symptom of aggression-as men. “At least on the road, aggression is a learned behavior,” says Crystal. “More women are driving than ever before, and they are leaming to be just as aggressive as men.”
In a 1996 poll done by the Washington, DC, metro-area AAA, 42 percent of drivers rated aggressive drivers as the biggest threat on the road; drunk drivers came in second at 35 percent. There’s good reason for fear. During the first quarter of 1995, traffic fatalities in Maryland increased by more than 33 percent from the same period a year ago. State police concluded the deaths were triggered by ordinary incidents of aggression and recklessness. “Aggressive drivers operate with a total disregard for the safety of others,” says Captain Greg Shipley of the Maryland State Police.
METRO POLICE OFFICER WENDY STEWART, 38, patrols Interstate 10, one of Houston’s most congested roadways. Her job puts her face-to-face with foultempered drivers.
“There go a couple of jerks,” says Stewart, behind the wheel of her patrol car, pointing out two drivers darting in and out of traffic, each one determined not to allow the other to get ahead.
Stewart watches the man driving the small, black Toyota truck that has just swerved across three lanes and a half dozen other cars in order to catch up with the driver of a larger, red pickup who cut him off about 500 yards back. Racing ahead, he pulls up parallel with the driver of the red pickup. Raising one fist in the air and then slamming it on the dashboard, he shouts obscenities.
“Same old story,” fumes Stewart. “Dueling testosterone.”
She hits the lights on her patrol car. The siren screams. Re driver of the red pickup speeds out of sight, but the 29-year-old at the wheel of the Toyota sheepishly slows down and pulls over.
“That truck kept cutting me off!” he blurts, handing Stewart his license and registration. “He just wanted to get. ahead of me.”
“I guess you sure the heck showed him, didn’t you?” says Stewart, her voice growling with sarcasm as she writes him a ticket for making an unsafe lane change, which carries a $150 fine.
Stewart has a no-nonsense, no-excuses policy. She has seen what happens when drivers like this one take their anger out behind the wheel.” I have seen dead kids pulled out of cars,” says the mother of three boys, quietly. “I have seen people maimed for life. I have seen cars flipped like pancakes and people crushed inside. All because jerks like this one lose their temper.”
Aggressive driving is what caused the deaths last April 17 of three people in a harrowing crash on the George Washington Memorial Parkway outside Washington, DC. During that morning’s rush hour, Billy Canipe, Jr., 26, who was driving a Chevrolet Beretta on his way to work at his construction job on Capitol Hill, became enraged at another driver, Narkey Keval Terry, also 26, a computer technician in a red jeep. Canipe cut off Terry’s jeep in traffic. The two drivers chased each other for more than eight miles at 80 miles an hour, and finally hurtled over the median into oncoming traffic. Terry survived, but Canipe was killed — and so were two other drivers who had been on their way to work: Nancy McBrien, 41, a wife and mother of three children, and George Smyth, Jr., 49, married with two grown children.
Canipe, it turned out, had received 15 traffic violations over eight years; at the time of the accident, his license was suspended. Terry was convicted of two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of reckless driving. He was sentenced to ten and a half years in prison, more than twice what federal guidelines call for. The judge, Leonie M. Brinkema, said she intended the unusually stiff sentence to be a deterrent to others not to use roadways to vent anger.
Last November, in another rush-hour duel, two drivers, gesturing angrily after one cut the other off, raced along Virginia’s Interstate 95. Their cars collided. Thirty-seven-year-old Robert Finck’s Ford Explorer flipped over several times, injuring his wife and critically injuring his 3-year-old daughter, who were in the car with him. Both drivers were charged with reckless driving; they face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The girl’s neck was broken in three places; she is now in a long-term rehabilitation center.
A particularly deadly combination is an enraged driver with a gun. Last August in Wabash, IN, a 40-year-old man driving a truck that was hauling his boat became incensed when a motorcycle driver crashed into the boat. The truck driver pulled out a gun and shot to death the motorcyclist and two passersby. The trucker was charged with three counts of murder and had yet to be tried at press time. A few weeks later in Houston, another male driver, 41, was charged with murder after shooting an 18-year-old woman whom he had struck from behind in a minor car accident. He was sentenced to life in prison.
WHAT CAN EXPLAIN SUCH BEHAVIOR? One factor is too many people crowded onto too few miles of roadway. The number of vehicle miles driven each year is up 35 percent from ten years ago. But miles of roads increased only 1 percent, according to NHTSA.
Crystal believes the stress of having too much to do in too little time is what accounts for the rise in women’s aggression behind the wheel. Women have a tendency to drive in “trip chains,” which means they go to a number of destinations in a short period of time. Wending her way from the supermarket to pick up her children at day care and then to drop them off at sports activities can be frustrating, especially on a tight schedule. “This feeling that we are all racing against time is what causes aggression and accidents. If you have more places to go in less time, it’s naturally going to raise stress levels,” Crystal says.
Louis Mizell, president of Mizell and Company International Security, has recorded an average of 1,500 incidents per year in which someone is killed or seriously injured due to relatively minor disputes. His data, part of a long-term study conducted from 1990 to 1996 for the AAA, also puts the blame on the emotional states of drivers. “Normally we find these drivers just have had a bad day, climb into the car, and take it out on someone else,” he says. Accidents are triggered because the agressive driver has lost his job, is going through a divorce, or simply can’t find a convenient parking place.
“What’s clear from the data is we can’t underestimate the rage and the general rudeness out there,” says Mizell. “People now feel free to get into other people’s faces in a way that they didn’t twenty years ago. There is a tendency to let it all hang out everywhere: at the office, at home, in schools, and, not surprisingly. on the highway. Anyone who lifts their middle finger at another driver in today’s society is playing with fire.”
It may be easier to do this in a car than anywhere else. Having access to the speed and size of a car may make people feel more powerful than they do when they are simply fuming on a long line at the dry cleaner. What’s more, “a car is a highly territorialized space,” says Raymond Novaco, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied anger and aggression extensively. “We think of cars as extensions of the personality. And threats to that sense of self are responded to antagonistically.”
ALL OVER THE COUNTRY NEW PROGRAMS are being started to combat aggression. Maryland’s Operation Aggressive Driver was started in 1995. Anyone who has a cellular telephone and sees an incident of aggression on the road can dial #77 and report the driver’s license plate, a description of the car, and its direction of travel to state police. The information is given to the nearest trooper, who locates the car and pulls it over. Troopers can then issue tickets or make arrests, based on their own observations of the driver. The service is well used. On a typical day, up to 283 people call in to report aggressive drivers. Efforts are paying off. Traffic fatalities in 1996 were 13 percent below what they were in 1995.
Others are turning to technology for solutions. Allan Williams, Ph.D., senior vice president of the insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, VA, is pressing for the increased use of automated cameras to enforce traffic laws. The cameras are set up on highways in some urban areas now; they photograph the license plates of drivers who either speed or run red lights. Tickets are sent in the mail, which, Williams argues, makes more sense because it does away with the added danger of high-speed police chases on already crowded freeways.
IT’S NEAR THE 5:00 P.M. RUSH hour in-houston. Officer Stewart receives a call over the radio about a two-car accident. Within a matter of minutes, she is at the scene of the wreck. Two fire trucks and several ambulances are blocking eight lanes of piledup traffic, a familiar sight on America’s freeways. A 23-year-old woman, Maria Fuentes, and her two children are on stretchers in the middle of the highway. One of the children, a boy who looks to be about 8 years old, is screaming; his leg is broken. His mother lays helplessly nearby.
The scene does little to cool the tempers of the backed-up drivers. One of them rolls down his window and screams, “Get this out of the way! I’m in a hurry.”
Stewart says nothing, but shakes her head. Soon she learns what caused the accident. Another car cut in front of the young mother’s car. She slammed on her brakes, lost control and crashed into a wall; her car burst into flames. Fuentes managed to wrestle herself and one child free from the blaze. An undercover police officer, who happened to be driving behind her, pulled the other child to safety.
“They were lucky,” says Stewart, soothing the hair of one of the injured children. “Naturally, the guy who caused all this is long gone.” Standing in the middle of the freeway, surrounded by the twisted steel of the wreck, Stewart suddenly looks a little defeated. “Most of this could be avoided,” she offers, “if everyone just made up their minds to do everything a little bit slower and realized how deadly anger on the road can be.”