Of course, the individual stories presented to us are compelling. Take the incident that occurred on I-95 in Virginia. There, one driver cruising along in the left (fast) lane was apparently slow to move out of the way when another driver came barreling up on him, flashing his lights. Riled up by the inconvenience, the impatient trailing driver fired two shots from a .45-caliber handgun into the slower vehicle, and one of the big slugs ended up in the slower driver's leg.
Even more tragic was an incident that occurred near Washington, D.C. One driver apparently became upset when cut off by a second driver's lane change, and the conflict grew into a high-speed argument that extended for several miles on George Washington Parkway until both cars catapulted across a divider and into oncoming traffic. One of the original combatants was killed as were two innocent drivers who just happened to be coming the other way.
In Colorado, a middle-aged driver miffed that another driver was tailgating him, signaled for the driver to pull over. When the two men left their cars, an argument soon escalated into a shooting, and the erstwhile tailgater ended up dead by the side of the road.
Of course, some of the confrontations attributed to road rage seem almost ludicrous. In Salt Lake City, an elderly driver became so upset that another driver had honked at him that he followed the honking driver, threw a prescription bottle at him and finally slammed into his legs with his car. In Maryland a fender-bender led to violence when a former state legislator swiped at a pregnant woman and knocked off her glasses when she confronted him about his role in the accident.
Incidents like these - ludicrous, macabre or just plain frightening - are reported day-after-day by the media. Shots are exchanged on Los Angeles freeways. Fights erupt between motorists after a crash in Illinois. Farmer on tractor fires b-bs at speeding drivers in Nebraska. Obviously, there are all the earmarks of a problem here. But revisionists are now asking the important question, is the problem real?
Certainly, many people think it is. According to a poll conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a substantial minority of the public (30 percent) thought drivers in their area were driving a lot or somewhat more aggressively today than a year ago. Further, the study found that some two-thirds of respondents said unsafe driving actions by other people are major threats to themselves and their families.
According to a study released in the late 90s by the American Automobile Association, the rate of "aggressive driving" incidents rose by 51 percent since the decade began. In this instance, "aggressive driving" was defined as events in which an angry or impatient driver tried to kill or injure another driver after a traffic dispute. Life-threatening incidents are certainly worthy of our attention, especially when 37 percent of the offenders used firearms against other drivers, an additional 28 percent used other weapons, and 35 percent used their cars.
With information like this floating around, it is natural to assume that aggressive driving or "road rage" is an important auto safety issue. In fact, the term "road rage" rolls off the tongue so easily that it has spawned related terms like "air rage" and "office rage." Soon, it appears, we will also be regaled with accounts of "supermarket rage," "bowling alley rage," and "public bathroom rage." But how real is road rage as a threat to you and your family?
Not very real at all, when you take a look at the facts and overlook the hype. Consider this: of the 300,000 or so Americans that were killed in traffic in the last decade, the AAA study found that fewer than 250 of those deaths were directly attributable to enraged drivers. Overseas, where the phenomenon of road rage has received serious publicity and serious study, it appears there is a similar relationship between overall traffic fatalities and those attributable to "road rage." In its paper on Driver Aggression, the Road Safety Unit of The (British) Automobile Association pointed out that "On the assumption that six cases of death resulting from road rage conflicts occurred in 1996, it can be postulated that, as members of the U.K. population, whilst we typically face a one in 15,686 chance of being killed in a road accident, the probability of dying as a result of road rage is closer to one in 9.5 million." Similar odds could be offered on being hit by a lightning bolt, winning the New Jersey lottery or finding a cab in Manhattan when it's raining.
Although "road rage" gets headlines, overall trends for car accidents and traffic deaths have been moving downward for several decades. Even if one considers all speed-related fatalities as a symptom of road rage (and that's a big stretch of logic at best), the statistics don't support the notion that road rage is a huge safety problem. Speed-related fatalities increased slightly from 12,509 in 1998 to 12,628 in 1999, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but that tiny increase is hardly enough to postulate that road rage is a giant issue. Further, most experts would shake their heads at the notion that in most instances traveling faster than the speed limit represents road rage in the first place.
In fact, one has to ask, what constitutes "road rage" anyway? Is it horn-honking or an exchange of gunshots? It is flipping "the bird" or punches thrown? Is it following another vehicle too closely or is it trying to force another vehicle off the road?
While some experts might claim all these behaviors demonstrate road rage, others say a strong distinction should be drawn between motorists losing their temper and motorists who are likely to become murderous. According to a recent article by Barry J. Elliott, "In general, the consensus view from amongst road safety experts around the world is that the term "road rage" ought to be limited to intentional acts of violence and assault, and that the issue is a criminal matter, not a road safety concern." In short, a line should be drawn between the driver who is cut off and waves a single finger at the offending party and a driver who has the psychological makeup to do bodily harm.
As a source quoted by Elliott noted, "Many of the more minor incidents such as use of the car horn, come more from driver frustration than anything that comes close to a "rage," and it would be unimaginable for most of these drivers to take this frustration further and engage in more violent or intimidatory acts. Linking these two very different behaviors under one umbrella only promotes the idea that the frustration that many drivers feel could easily become more violent."
There is little doubt that many drivers feel more frustrated these days. After all, in most areas traffic is moving more slowly than ever, so time spent in vehicles getting nowhere is growing. In our fast-paced environment, simply being forced to stand still for a few minutes can make many individuals angry. That does not mean, however, that most or even a large minority of these individuals is likely to do anything more than sneer, shout, honk or gesture at another driver who engenders their ire. While being the recipient of such behavior isn't pleasant, it's a far cry from being a victim of bodily harm.
Fact is, most drivers who get angry behind the wheel are not going to haul out a bazooka and send a shell rocketing into your gas tank. Further, those who commit violent acts connected with the driving experience are relatively easy to profile. A survey conducted by NHTSA confirmed that age and gender are two important factors associated with of unsafe driving. Men are more likely than women to engage in "unsafe driving" or at least admit that they do, and age was an even greater differentiating factor. The study found proportion of drivers who engage in virtually all of the unsafe driving actions declined as age increased.
A New Zealand study quoted by Elliott was even more specific. Both victims and, even more particularly, perpetrators of "road rage" violence had been involved in other sorts of anti-social behavior including drunk driving, driving without a license, fighting, theft, burglary, assault with a weapon, assault, drug and firearm offenses. A study from the United Kingdom identified those who might engage in roadside violence as those who were affected by their moods to a much larger extent than drivers as a whole. So if you want the full profile, look out for moody young males who have a previous history of scrapes with the law. Of course, that's good advice in or out of your car.
So while most people who show disdain for your ability behind the wheel probably won't kill you, it does seem that boors travel amongst us every day. Perhaps, as Leon James, a University of Hawaii professor who testified before Congress on the subject, said "what's on the increase is the sheer amount of habitual road rage we see today. I define habitual road rage as a persistent state of hostility behind the wheel, demonstrated by acts of aggression on a continuum of violence, and justified by righteous indignation. Driving and habitual road rage have become virtually inseparable."
James claims that we are born to road rage, because as youngsters we see our parents vent their spleens inappropriately behind the wheel. As he testified before Congress, "Road rage is a habit acquired in childhood. Children are reared in a car culture that condones irate expressions as part of the normal wear and tear of driving. Once they enter a car, children notice that all of a sudden the rules have changed: It's okay to be mad, very upset, out of control, and use bad language that's ordinarily not allowed. By the time they get their driver's license, adolescents have assimilated years of road rage. The road rage habit can be unlearned, but it takes more than conventional Driver's Ed."
Perhaps so. Perhaps, in the broadest definition, road rage is just another symptom of the fact that, as Joseph Conrad pointed out in Heart of Darkness, civilization is a very thin veneer over a caldron of venal, selfish and wicked human impulses. And if we're truthful, each of us has to admit we share a few of those baser impulses ourselves. But that doesn't mean most of us are likely to force a busload of nuns off an embankment if the driver of their vehicle cuts us off.
-- Jack Nerad
The host of the syndicated radio show "America on the Road," Nerad has to admit that sometimes he wishes his car's horn button were actually connected to a "disintegrator ray."