Road rage is nothing new to anyone who's spent time behind the wheel of a car, but is it as common as we're led to believe? A recent survey by The Affinion Group found that despicable road manners are still all the rage, but where those driving habits translate into violent driving behavior is a debatable topic.

In Affinion's survey, drivers rated New York as the nation's least courteous, angriest, and most aggressive. New York overtook Miami, the city with the ignominious distinction of holding the top spot for the last four years.

"We wanted to identify behaviors that that could lead to a serious incident of road rage," said Mike Bush, director of public relations for Affinion. "We think that it's good information that might help drivers avoid a situation that could become life threatening."

This goal helps explain why the survey points to perfectly legal behaviors, such as drinking a cup of coffee while driving, with ticketable offences such as running a red light or tailgating. For the purposes of the survey, legal and illegal activities were considered equally dangerous.

"The common thread that we found is this: In the cities with the worst rankings, drivers simply weren't paying attention to their driving, and this caused problems," said Bush.

Survey participants noted that this lack of attention--eating, texting, or shaving behind the wheel--was linked with poor driving behavior that made other drivers angry.

The survey showed that 43 percent of people reacted to bad driving by honking their horn. But, 36 percent resorted to cursing, 13 percent waved their fists or arms, and 10 percent made an obscene gesture. Seven percent were so angry they called the police. One percent admitted they had slammed into the car in front of them.

"In Washington, D.C., four percent of drivers admitted to slamming into another driver," said Bush. "They stand out in that one particular category."

According to a 2009 survey, the nation's least courteous drivers live in:

New York
Minneapolis/St. Paul
San Diego

The Cost of Road Rage

Reacting to the bad behavior of other drivers can cost you, according to Michael Domzalski, an insurance agency principal from Michigan.

"I have never dealt with a customer who was involved in a road rage incident because it's not that common," said Domzalski. "But, the insurance rates would be definitely affected if a driver received a ticket and was charged with an at-fault accident that came from a Road Rage incident."

To prove the point, Domzalski estimated the auto insurance premium for a 40-year old male driver with a clean driving record. Domzalski then calculated the cost of receiving a ticket for reckless driving (issued by the police for slamming into another driver) and being "at-fault" for that accident. The annual insurance premium increase could jump as much as $1,900, almost triple the base rate.

Other criminal charges might result from an incident such as this, so an increase in insurance premiums might be the least of a road rager's problems. Civil and criminal penalties for behavior that includes road rage differ from state to state, but depending on the severity of the charges, could lead to significant fines and time behind bars. And remember, good lawyers don't come cheaply.

The Official Police Response

When asked to recount the worst episode of road rage, First Lieutenant Thad Peterson, a veteran of the Michigan State Police said, "I can't recall a specific incident. As a matter of fact, in terms of the worst kind of road rage -- one that results in a homicide -- I can't even recall one ever happening in Michigan."

Peterson agreed with the premise that the media's sensationalistic reporting on road rage is totally disproportionate to the reality.

"Road rage makes for great headlines, and upon occasion results in terrible, catastrophic events," said Peterson. "But when we go looking for data about the frequency of road rage, there isn't much to support or encourage widespread panic."

Peterson is the chairman of a Michigan State Police committee on driver behavior, so he studies the issue closely.

Peterson finds a sharp contrast between his experience and the recent Affinion survey.

"We find that aggressive driving is not normally the result of distracted drivers," said Peterson. "It is usually the result of some environmental or engineering issue related to the physical roads where aggressive driving occurs."

Peterson stated and presented data to support that major contributors to aggressive driving include: speed limits that are too low for the road, traffic congestion, poorly timed traffic lights, and stop signs placed to lower speeds. These act as instigators to drivers speeding, changing lanes, and tailgating; all characteristics of "aggressive" driving.

Peterson explained that changes made to roadways where aggressive driving occurs reduce incidents of aggressive driving. As proof, Peterson pointed to changes made on a section of I-496 outside of Lansing, Michigan. At one point, this road accounted for 40-percent of reported incidents of aggressive driving within a particular county. When the speed limit was raised from 55 mph to 70 mph, incidents of aggressive driving dropped to zero.

"The low speed limit frustrated many drivers, so they drove over the speed limit," said Peterson. "This caused problems for other drivers who were driving at the speed limit. The speed differential caused the tailgating, passing, and speeding that were reported as 'aggressive' driving."

Data proved that accident rates also fell when the speed limit was raised on that section of highway. Surprisingly, the faster limit increased traffic volume, nearly eliminating all symptoms of rush hour traffic.

So, according to the Michigan State Police, different factors cause aggressive driving, and the scariest results of road rage are very rare. Road rage is not an epidemic, but that doesn't mean we all haven't witnessed some "heated" driving on the part of our fellow drivers. Everybody take a deep breath, even if you live in New York.

The nation's most courteous drivers live in:

Washington D.C.
Philadelphia (tie)
St. Louis (tie)

Tips For Defusing Road Rage

Lt. Peterson did not rule out the possibility of road rage, and he stressed this point.

"Drivers are ultimately responsible for their actions, and they need to remember that when they're behind the wheel, they're the same person as when they're not," said Peterson. "You can't let your emotions run away with you."

To deal with frustration on the road, Peterson recommends this acronym: FIDO. Forget It and Drive On.

"It is often best just to keep on driving," said Peterson.

If you've encountered an aggressive or obnoxious driver, don't "return the favor" of a one-fingered salute or some other gesture. Just keep driving and keep your cool. In the worst situations, a simple gesture that communicates, "I'm sorry," will diffuse a tense encounter.

Additionally, simply paying attention to the task of driving will prevent most negative encounters. Drivers from all 25 cities surveyed agreed that distracted drivers attract the most ire and cause the most problems.

What Do You See In Your City?

In the first few months of 2009, Affinion phoned 100 drivers in 25 metropolitan areas for a total of 2,518 interviews. The drivers were questioned about what they observed on the roads and what they admitted to doing themselves. According to this methodology, more than 25 percent reported seeing drivers putting on make-up, shaving, and reading while behind the wheel.

Detroit and San Francisco reportedly have the most text-happy drivers, while Miami won the distinction as the city where people were most likely to shave, read or put on make-up while driving.

"I think that drivers should be aware the prevailing attitudes in different cities, and the types of actions that anger other drivers so that they know what to avoid."

Read More About Road Rage:

- Road Rage and Aggressive Driving
- Road Rage Remedy: Comfy Cars
- Road Rage Disorder

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