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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, November 10, 2000

Illustration by Kip Aoki, Star-Bulletin
Road raging

Increased traffic and a
competitive society has tempers
flaring on the highways

By Tim Ryan

A man driving a pickup truck in Ewa Beach follows four teen-agers in a pickup after a verbal exchange, then rear-ends the youths' vehicle several times causing it to veer off the road and roll over several times. A 75-year-old Salt Lake City man peeved that a 41-year-old man honked at him for blocking traffic followed the man until he pulled off the road, hurled his prescription bottle at him, and then smashed the driver's knees with his '92 Mercury. In Potomac, Md., an attorney and ex-state legislator knocked the glasses off a pregnant woman after she asked him why he bumped her Jeep with his.

Throughout the United States, aggressive driving -- or "road rage" -- seems to be taking over the nation's roadways.

According to the American Automobile Association, the rate of "aggressive driving" incidents -- events in which an angry or impatient driver tries to kill or injure another driver after a traffic dispute -- has risen 51 percent since 1990. In the cases studied, 37 percent of offenders used firearms against other drivers, 28 percent used other weapons, and 35 percent used their cars.

There are several reasons for increases in road rage, according to Leon James and Diane Nahl, who have co-written the book "Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare."

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Diane Nahl and Leon James are authors of Road Rage.

"Part of our cultural inheritance is rigged for road rage from an early age," said James, a University of Hawai'i professor of psychology. "We grow up watching how our parents drive and how driving is portrayed on television and in the movies.

"What we observe from that young age becomes our cultural norm: being aggressive."

America's competitive society, with its "zero-tolerance mentality," also enters the picture, James said.

"We see driving as competition. Another driver's gain, like cutting in front, is our loss. It becomes a football game where you're not supposed to give your opponent an edge."

Because drivers are already inclined to road rage, all we need is "some trigger stimulus" said Nahl.

People have convinced themselves that driving requires survival skills because "other drivers are out to get us," James said. Aggressive drivers are seen as "strong and tough;" "polite drivers are wimps," he said.

"So we train ourselves to be aggressive and retaliatory when another driver cuts us off, tailgates, gives us the finger, or waves a fist," James said.

But for every action there is a reaction, James said. Overt actions are drawing response such as deliberate and sudden braking or pulling close to the other car.

One Honolulu man who asked that his name not be used said he keeps his windshield-wiper-fluid tank full so when someone tailgates, he turns on the wipers, sending fluid over his roof onto the car behind him.

"It works better than hitting the brakes," he said, "and you can act totally innocent."

Another contributing factor is living in "a culture of disrespect," where bigger has become synonymous with power and authority, Nahl said. "It's easier to act out in a big car like a SUV because you feel more protected surrounded by tons of steel," she said.

"A small person can suddenly be a big person."

Increased road congestion adds to the misery.

"More people are driving while road building has not kept up," Nahl said.

Since 1987, miles of roads have increased just 1 percent while the miles driven have shot up by 35 percent. According to a Federal Highway Administration study of 50 metropolitan areas, almost 70 percent of urban freeways today -- as opposed to 55 percent in 1983 -- are clogged during rush hour.

Demographic changes also have helped put more drivers on the road, James said.

Until the 1970s, the percentage of women driving was relatively low so many families only had one car. Then women entered the work force and bought cars, something highway planners hadn't foreseen. From 1969 to 1990 the number of women licensed to drive increased 84 percent. Between 1970 and 1987, the number of cars on the road more than doubled. In the past decade, the number of cars grew faster -- 17 percent -- than the number of people -- 10 percent.

The peak moment for aggressive driving seems to come not during gridlock but just before, when traffic density is high but cars are still moving briskly, James said. That's when cutting someone off or forcing someone out of a lane can seem to make the difference between being on time and being late.

"People have this value in their minds to spend as little time as possible commuting," Nahl said. "It's like the less time we spend commuting the more points we give ourselves.

"But if we leave as late as possible we set ourselves up for frustration; then anyone who slows us down or gets in our way becomes the enemy."

According to both authors, young drivers are more aggressive in all driving behaviors than older drivers; senior drivers are the least aggressive; men are more aggressive than women when they drive sports cars and light trucks like the S-10, Ram, Ranger, F-150, Silverado and Dakota; women are more aggressive than men when they drive SUVs and luxury cars.

"Women are catching up as aggressive drivers though they're less overt," Nahl said. "If they flip someone off, they might do it under the dash, or they verbalize with the windows up so the driver in the other car can't hear. Women are more seethers."

But road rage also can be passive-aggressive.

A driver doing the exact speed limit in the fast lane with drivers stacked behind him is "the most hated people on the road," James said.

"We call these 'left-lane bandits'," James said. "They know how mad it makes the other drivers and that's why it's a hostile action."

There are ways to reduce road rage and driving stress through "cooperation and coordination," the authors said.

"Remember, we're all part of achieving the same goal," Nahl said. "Driving is a group activity."

Some suggestions:

Bullet Commuters should leave at least 15 minutes early to eliminate pressure.

Bullet Drive supportively; look out for other drivers' needs and try to accommodate them.

Bullet Come up swinging positive. If you make a mistake like cutting another driver off, act apologetically. And if someone cuts you off or makes an aggressive driving move don't personalize it.

"I love traffic because it's a community affair," James said. "We're all in it together."

Added Nahl: "Traffic problems will never be eliminated so we must develop skills to live with it as a community. Anything else is a waste of time."

Road stats

States with the highest aggressive-driving death rates (deaths per 100,000 people), according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project:

1. South Carolina, 15.1
2. Wyoming, 13.9
3. Alabama, 13.7
4. Kansas, 13.7
5. Oklahoma, 13.6
6. New Mexico, 12.9
7. North Carolina, 12.4
8. Arkansas, 12.4
9. Idaho, 11.9
10. Florida, 11.7

These 10 behaviors define the aggressive driver syndrome:

1. Feeling stress
2. Swearing often
3. Frequent hostile behavior
4. Speeding regularly
5. Yelling at other drivers
6. Honking at other drivers
7. Making insulting gestures
8. Tailgating often
9. Cutting off drivers often
10. Feeling competitive with other drivers

Cost of road rage

In 2000, at least 40,000 people will die on highways and more than 3 million will go the hospital with injuries; economic losses will reach more than $200 billion.

Last year, more than a dozen states passed laws against aggressive driving, and law enforcement agencies around the country have stepped up initiatives to curb aggressive drivers.

Here are the numbers involved:

Fatalities -- 425,000 a decade

Injuries -- 35 million a decade

Long-term health problems -- Increased daily stress; fear from threats on streets and highways; productivity when arriving at work mad and exhausted, learned cynicism stemming from disrespect for regulations; greater air pollution due to emotional use of the gas pedal (getting less gas per gallon); breeding the next generation of aggressive drivers.

Book signing

Bullet Place: Borders, Waikele Center
Bullet Date: 4 to 5 p.m. Sunday

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