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'Mad Max' Drivers Become A Major Road Hazard

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 1997


You know the scenario: You're driving along, minding your own business, and you change lanes.

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The guy behind you thinks you cut him off. He pulls up next to you and starts gesturing. If you're smart, you'll ignore him and he'll probably drive on. If you take the bait, you could be in for a wild ride - with possibly tragic consequences.

"Road rage" is on the rise, with reports of violent traffic incidents going up nearly 7 percent per year since 1990, according to a study prepared for the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. People weave through traffic, going well above the speed limit. They challenge other drivers to games of chicken. Sometimes they pull out guns just because someone looked at them funny.

"I think our society in general has an anger problem and an impulse-control problem," says Stephanie Faul of the AAA Foundation. "Traffic is where it's being shown."

And it's not just social deviants acting up. It's you and me, otherwise mild-mannered folks who have long, tedious commutes or who just never leave enough time to get places - and who let the inner Road Warrior take over when they get behind the wheel.

Around the country, police forces, AAA auto clubs, and private citizens are fighting back.

In the Washington area, where several high-profile accidents caused by aggressive driving have raised awareness, police are getting ready for an unprecedented effort to crack down.

New Jersey is planning to use $450,000 in federal funds for a six-month offensive, using teams of marked and unmarked police cars to haul in dangerous drivers. The money will go mostly to pay for police overtime.

States that have already cracked down, such as Delaware and Pennsylvania, report a reduction in accidents and injuries.

In Hartford, Conn., the area AAA club is planning experimental seminars with drivers to learn the best way to teach people how to control their worst automotive impulses.

And in an effort to crack down on general lawlessness among drivers, some towns in the US have installed cameras at intersections to photograph people running red lights. The drivers are then issued fines through the mail.

Here in Washington, child-welfare researcher Lisa Sheikh has formed Citizens Against Speeding and Aggressive Driving to combat the trend. The group will lobby police for stricter enforcement, raise money for a public-awareness campaign, and explore "traffic-calming techniques," such as speed bumps and median strips.

"I come into this as a child-safety advocate," says Ms. Sheikh, who doesn't even own a car. "Car accidents are the leading cause of death and injury for kids."

John Larson, a Norwalk, Conn., physician and expert on aggressive driving, says people bring a variety of belief systems to their automotive habits. Some view their way of driving as the only way, and become enraged when others violate the "rules." Others set deadlines, often arbitrary, for getting from point A to point B. Still others are just plain competitive.

"There's a lot more vigilante behavior nowadays - that's the big change," says Dr. Larson, author of the book "Steering Clear of Highway Madness." People feel anonymous in their cars and often don't recognize the humanity of other drivers, he says, leading them to think it's OK to "punish" the other guy. Larson believes that helping people understand their driving behavior could alter their practices.