Shortly after 2 a.m. on the morning of December 8, Duane Lomax called 911. He told a dispatcher he had been involved in a road-rage incident along the streets of Sacramento. A female passenger in the other car brandished a gun, he said. He followed the car to get a better description for police.
While he spoke, a third car pulled alongside Lomax. Shots were fired. Then the dispatcher heard silence.
Road rage, a term coined after a series of shootings on California's helter-skelter freeways in the late 1980s, and guns have proven to be a lethal mix. Road rage remains a big problem, so much so that several states have initiated public-service campaigns urging motorists to calm down. Now that new gun-control measures are being considered in Washington, driver safety is part of the conversation.
Every day, headlines detail incidents like the one that ultimately killed Lomax, so much so they blend into the background.
Pinpointing exactly how often guns are used to settle road-rage disputes, however, is a difficult proposition. The National Highway Traffic Safety Foundation does not keep road-rage-specific statistics in its database of fatal traffic accidents, and if it did, altercations like the one that killed Lomax would not be counted, as his death did not occur in a crash.
"They're hard to capture unless there's an actual crash that happens, and then it depends on what police have in their forms," said NHTSA spokesperson Jose Alberto Ucles.
Along with NHTSA, the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics does not keep track of road-rage incidents, gun or otherwise, nor does the Centers For Disease Control, which does track violent deaths.
In a study, the AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety analyzed police reports of more than 10,000 road-rage incidents committed over a seven-year period and found they resulted in at least 12,610 injury cases and 218 murders.
But the data is dated – it tracked incidents between 1990 and 1996 – and its public conclusions did not distinguish gun-related incidents from ones that involved other weapons.
In a more recent analysis, albeit an informal one, Canadian researchers analyzed 5,624 complaints on now-defunct website RoadRagers.com over an eight-year period. It said weaving in and out of lanes was the most common offense, with 25 percent of posts on the site related to that.
But "hostile displays," which could include displaying a gun, were the third-ranked road-rage offense, with 11.7 percent of posts containing that topic.
Road Rage + Guns = No. 1 Problem on Road
Although it may be hard to quantify, traffic experts and regular drivers alike agree that road rage is getting worse. American drivers ranked road rage as the No. 1 problem on U.S. roads in a survey conducted by the DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Forty percent of respondents ranked it as their top concern, ahead of distracted driving, drunk driving and highway congestion, among others.
Safety officials say even if they cannot measure road rage, they suspect is on the rise because the sources that often trigger tension are on the rise. Congestion is on the rise, as more cars share the same roads. Distracted driving has become a pervasive problem, says Dr. Bill Van Tassel, manager of AAA's driver training programs, which leads to more mistakes that anger other drivers.
Van Tassel is careful to distinguish between aggressive driving and road rage, although the first is often a precondition of the second.
Aggressive driving encompasses acts like speeding and tailgating or running a red light – acts that don't involve another driver. Road rage is predatory, intimidating another driver, throwing objects or using a vehicle or other weapon to threaten or hurt another driver.
AAA, the nation's largest motor club, takes no position on whether drivers should arm themselves to defend themselves against road-ragers.
"In most cases, we would not advocate drivers defend themselves with a handgun," Van Tassel said. "There are better options. But that's a tricky one. ... You might want to grab or deploy any weapon you might have. A bottle of soda you might heave at someone's car or, more likely, a handgun.
"People see a handgun brandished at them, and you don't know how they'll respond."
In Lomax's case, he thought he saw the passengers in the car ahead point a firearm at him, and he followed the car to get a better description for the 911 operator. The driver of the third car, Brian Jones, 24, was arrested on suspicion of murder and for parole violations.
Here's a sampling of other road-rage shootings just in the past month:
- Two drivers got into a fight while merging on a Salt Lake City highway on Tuesday, and troopers said the driver of a Toyota Camry fired multiple shots at the driver of a Chevy as it exited the highway. No injuries were reported. The assailant remains at large.
- Two men have been charged in the murder of 20-year-old man near Dallas, Texas. Police say a road-rage incident between two drivers started the incident, in which Miguel Moncada was shot through the window of his pickup truck.
- Veronica Soto, 30, was fatally shot in the head during a road-rage altercation in Houston, Texas, on Dec. 20, during which one of her assailants boxed her in her car. One of them entered a nearby home and returned with a rifle that he used to shoot Soto as she attempted to flee the scene.
- A man noticed a pickup truck pull up behind him and the driver began honking the horn and making angry gestures in a New Orleans suburb on Jan. 12. They pulled into a gas station parking lot where an argument ensued. They returned to their cars and drove away. But police say that Carl Mitchell, 48, of Gretna, La., caught up to the victim at a traffic light, exited his vehicle and began firing. The victim was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
"People tend to feel more anonymous when they're in their vehicles," Van Tassel said. "They might behave differently than they would at the work place, with people they don't have to deal with. You never see that motorist again for the rest of your life."
AOL Autos offers these tips to avoid being victimized by road rage.
- If someone is shaking their fist and making threatening gestures, the best move you can make is pull over and let them get away from you, or turn off of your route to get away from the other car. The best way to avoid a fight is to leave it before it starts. If you are late to your destination, so be it.
- If someone has left their vehicle and is confronting you on foot outside of your car, get your doors locked. Calm yourself and turn away. If you have your phone, dial 911 and let the responder know that the police are coming.
-Do not retaliate against a road-rage instigator. You have no idea whether the person has a weapon. Be smart. Try to leave the area of the instigator as quickly and safely as possible. Call 911 as fast as possible.