It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world. And by that we don’t just mean angry -- we also mean crazy. You can see it on the road, daily.
We have a problem with aggressive driving, one that manifests itself in many disturbing and dangerous ways, from road rage to fatal traffic accidents. It’s gotten worse in recent years, as the population has increased -- leading to more cars on the road, leading to greater traffic congestion, leading to shorter tempers and more flat-out aggression.
The fact that we’re in the worst recession in 80 years doesn’t help, either. So many people are so stressed out these days about lost jobs, making ends meet, and general financial strain, that getting on the freeway can seem akin to gladiatorial combat.
“Aggressive driving has definitely become more of a problem,” says Saul Gomez, a public information officer for the California Highway Patrol who was previously a patrolman. “Part of that is because we spend more time in our vehicles, in stop-and-go traffic, and it takes longer to get to where we’re going.
“So, people get reckless. They get this notion that if they drive more aggressively, they will get to their destinations more quickly, but that’s obviously not true. You might save two seconds, but you’re just increasing your stress level, and often putting yourself and other drivers in dangerous situations.”
Russ Rader, vice president of communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, notes that speeding -- an obvious form of aggressive driving – accounts for about one-third of all of the fatal car crashes in America. And, running traffic signals -- another form of ‘aggro behavior – is one of the most common causes of accidents in metropolitan areas.
In these cases of aggressive driving that clearly qualify as traffic violations, Rader says that law enforcement has the tools to more effectively enforce these laws – like mounted or mobile cameras that can catch drivers in the act of speeding or running traffic lights. But “they are not deployed very efficiently, because government officials often let vocal minorities dictate traffic safety policy.”
The use of such cameras have reduced the rates of speeding red-light running in European nations and Australia, where they are widely used, says Rader.
Gomez just wishes motorists would have more respect for one another. “Selfish driving, selfish parking -- those kinds of behaviors are just going to create problems for everyone,” he says. “I think the daily driving experience would be a lot less stressful if everyone would just extend the same courtesy to others that you would want them to extend to you.”
While driving over the limit and blowing through a red light are both clearly against the law, what about examples of aggressive driving that, in the minds of many motorists, may fall into a gray area? While many drivers wouldn’t describe their behavior as “road rage,” we’re willing to bet that most have engaged in one of the three behaviors identified below.
For example, we’ve often seen macho types punch the pedal and explode away from a stoplight as though they were launching a rocket from a lift-off pad. If this particularly obnoxious maneuver does not cause them to exceed the speed limit, does that constitute a violation? And how dangerous is it?
“If that driver accelerates so quickly that the tires break traction with the road, that is definitely an example of driving at an unsafe speed, and is so reckless and aggressive, that he’s probably violating one law or another,” says Gomez. “He can be cited for reckless driving, or depending on road conditions or traffic congestion, that could get him a ticket for driving at an unsafe speed for those conditions.”
And, adds Rader, “any time you do something like that, whether out of anger or just showing off, that kind of sudden acceleration reduces your margin of error, if something you were not anticipating suddenly appears in front of you, like a bicyclist or pedestrian darting out in front of you, or the vehicle in front of you doing something you didn’t expect, [it] can lead to someone getting hit.”
Another frequent and obnoxious expression of behind-the-wheel aggression is speeding up on the highway so that another driver cannot change lanes in front of you. Or, worse, speeding up in a way that impedes other drivers from safely merging onto the freeway from an entrance ramp.
“That’s very common,” laments Gomez. “I’ve seen it in my own vehicle, and I’ve seen it while on patrol. In fact, that’s probably the most common example of aggressive driving I see -- refusing to let someone else get ahead of you.
“And by speeding up like that, you are not doing any service to yourself. Again, you might end up two seconds ahead, but you’re potentially causing a collision, because the driver trying to merge doesn’t have much room to work with, because the ramp is ending.
“And if, by speeding up like that, you end up following the car ahead of you too closely, that’s definitely a violation.”
Rader concurs: “When people behave like that, you’re just egging the other driver to anger. It’s happened to me, and it’s definitely a safety hazard.”
Blocking The Road
Sometimes, there is such a thing as “passive-aggressive driving.” Put another way, selfish driving that just plain violates common courtesy, among other things. In this instance, we’re talking about the clueless narcissist who stops his car in the middle of the road – typically a side street – and starts talking to a friend or acquaintance he’s spotted on the sidewalk, or emerging from a parked vehicle.
“You definitely don’t want to be stopped someplace where another driver could come up behind you and not be expecting a stopped vehicle,” asserts Rader. “We’ve found that this scenario is a factor in a lot of crashes in urban and metro areas.”
Gomez confirms that this is more than just evidence of self-absorption, it’s also unsafe, and it’s also a violation. “That is obstructing the flow of traffic, plain and simple,” states Gomez. “And if a police officer spots something like that, the driver is definitely going to end up in a conversation with the officer. Depending on the traffic conditions, and how nice the officer is, the driver may end up with a ticket, or just a verbal warning.”
What To Do?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests five things to do if you’re confronted by road rage or aggressive driving:
1. Get Out of the Way. First and foremost, make every attempt to get out of their way.
2. Put Your Pride Aside. Do not challenge them by speeding up or attempting to hold-your-own in your travel lane.
3. Avoid Eye Contact. Eye contact can sometimes enrage an aggressive driver.
4. Gestures. Ignore gestures and refuse to return them.
5. Report Serious Aggressive Driving. You or a passenger may call the police. But, if you use a cell phone, pull over to a safe location.