Aggressive driving and road rage

May 15th, 2016

In the news

In February of last year, Tammy Meyers of Las Vegas was giving her 15-year-old daughter a driving lesson. The teenager noticed that a nearby car was speeding, so she honked the horn, figuring that the speeding driver “needed to be corrected” — only the other driver wasn’t interested in the lesson. The other driver got out of the car and confronted them. Instead of leaving the incident there, Meyers returned home, and then she and her 22-year-old son went back out to look for the other driver. They gave up and returned home, but the other driver saw them and followed. Police report that when Meyers got out of her car, “there was a volley of rounds fired” from the other vehicle. Meyers was shot and later died of her wounds.

In April of this year, two drivers near Atlanta, Georgia, got involved in a test of wills. While driving on an expressway, one driver was so determined not to let the other pass him that he wouldn’t allow the other car to change lanes. A bus taking 55 students to a nearby elementary school got caught in the conflict. When the two cars collided, one of the drivers lost control and hit the bus. Eleven students were injured; thankfully none of the injuries were life-threatening.

Also in April, Will Smith, a former professional football player, was shot and killed in New Orleans. Police say Smith’s car was rear-ended by a Hummer H2. Smith and the other driver “exchanged words, at which time the driver of the Hummer produced a handgun and shot the male victim (Smith) multiple times and his 34-year-old wife twice in the right leg,” said Juan Barnes of the New Orleans Police Department.

Not alone

Aggressive driving is “the operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger persons or property,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “The [term] emerged during the 1990s as a label for a category of dangerous on-the-road behaviors,” the NHTSA reports. “The category comprises following too closely, driving at excessive speeds, weaving through traffic, and running stop lights and signs, among other acts. Aggressive driving occasionally escalates to gesturing in anger or yelling at another motorist, confrontation, physical assault and even murder.” The NHTSA explains that road rage “is the label that emerged to describe the angry and violent behaviors at the extreme of the aggressive driving continuum.” While aggressive driving is a traffic violation, acts of road rage are criminal offenses.

Aggressive driving and road rage are serious — and growing  problems. NHTSA data show that in 2004, police agencies reported 26 highway accident deaths in which road rage was a factor; by 2013, that number had jumped to 247. “As a barometer of highway rage these numbers are a drastic undercount; they include only fatal accidents, not non-fatal ones,” writes Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post. The numbers don’t include incidents like the death of Tammy Meyers in Las Vegas because her death was the result of a shooting, not directly from a car accident. Ingraham writes that the statistics also “don’t reflect the thousands of unkindnesses drivers inflict on each other daily that don’t end in violence.” “Experts have suggested many reasons for the apparent increases in aggressive driving and road rage,” the NHTSA reports. “Sociologists point to the fragmentation of society and the disintegration of shared values and sense of community as the cause of these and other acts of incivility. Many psychologists blame the intoxicating combination of power and anonymity provided by motor vehicles.” Among the contributing factors that can lead to aggressive driving are traffic delays (whether caused by accidents, construction or high-traffic volumes), people who are running late, and the sense that drivers are anonymous behind the wheel and thus feel more like detached observers than active participants in what’s happening on the road around them. Christine Wickens of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada investigated what angers drivers the most. The most common complaints were weaving between lanes, cutting people off, speeding, general hostility and tailgating. A study in the Washington, DC, area shows that younger drivers tend to be generally angrier than older drivers.

Too close for comfort

Two years ago, I had a run-in with an aggressive driver. I was driving on an expressway near Wilmington, Delaware, when I noticed in my rearview mirror that a driver behind me was driving fast and switching lanes to avoid cars moving slower than his luxury sports car. I thought to myself, He’s not being very safe. Moments later, as I was in the far right lane, that car clipped my car as the driver swerved into the right lane to get around a slower-moving car in the center lane. I pulled onto the shoulder and was surprised that the man who caused the accident stopped too. He admitted that he was at fault, said he was in a hurry, and confessed that it was no excuse. We exchanged insurance information, though he said he would rather pay for any repairs to my car out of his pocket so his insurance rates wouldn’t rise. I wondered to myself, Was his request an indication that this wasn’t the first such accident he had caused? I wished him well, encouraged him to be more careful, and was grateful that the damage to my car could be fixed and that neither of us was hurt.

That wasn’t the only brush I’ve had with an aggressive driver. When I was in high school, more than two dozen singers from my school near Wilmington carpooled to All-State Choir auditions in Dover. As we were headed home after the auditions, the driver of the car I was in made a mistake: He drifted into another lane, a mistake I’ve both observed others make and made myself over the years. The driver of the car in the other lane was furious at my friend’s mistake — so furious that he tormented us by glaring at us, pulling in front of us and then braking suddenly, slowing down to encourage us to pass, then speeding up again, driving beside us, threatening to run us off the road, and more, all while shouting and gesturing profanities. This continued for mile after mile. At that time, before cell phones were common, we felt there was no way to escape. Finally, after more than half an hour and numerous attempts to get away from the angry driver, we pulled into a police station. The driver drove away, but none of us in the car that day has ever forgotten the incident.

Making a difference

One of the key ways we can make a difference on the highway is to avoid becoming a perpetrator of road rage. Paige Bierma of the HealthDay website suggests that driving can become less stressful when you (1) give yourself plenty of time to arrive at your destination; (2) plan your travel to avoid congested areas; (3) don’t get behind the wheel if you’re angry; instead, take time to calm down first; (4) listen to music or a book on tape while you drive; and (5) try to relax when you’re stuck in traffic instead of tensing up over something that’s beyond your control.

I find it helpful to remember my faith as I drive. I try to forgive those drivers who make mistakes around me, remembering that I’m not a perfect driver either. I pray for drivers who seem troubled, which reminds me that they, too, are children of God. And I pray for myself that I may let go of any frustration I have with other drivers.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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