WASHINGTON — You know the scenario: You're driving along, minding your own business, and you change lanes.
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.
Larson also believes that films from the early 1980s like "Mad Max" and "The Road Warrior" literally taught the public how to wage automotive duels. Other experts say the advent of air bags and other safety devices has led drivers to think, falsely, that they can take more chances behind the wheel.
Still, road rage is hardly new. In 1817, the hot-tempered English poet Lord Byron wrote in a letter: "Last week I had a row on the road ... with a fellow in a carriage, who was impudent to my horse. I gave him a swinging box on the ear."
But the marked increase in incidents - or at least in the reporting of incidents to police and in the news media - has caught the attention of public-safety advocates. The federal government is planning its first study on the issue. Many local jurisdictions encourage motorists with cellular phones to report crazy drivers.
Last October, a federal judge in Fairfax County, Va., sentenced an aggressive driver to more than 10 years in prison - more than three times the suggested federal guideline - for his role in a highly publicized crash that left three people dead. The judge said she hopes "to deter the general public."
But on Friday, another Virginia judge sentenced a man to only two months in jail for an incident of aggressive driving that left a toddler severely injured.
In his report for the AAA Foundation, researcher Lou Mizell found that many episodes begin with trivial traffic events that escalate because of stress in a driver's life, such as problems at home. Mr. Mizell found that only 4 percent of the drivers were female, though a separate study in Britain found that 55 percent of women drivers admit to having driven aggressively (versus 65 percent of men). The difference is apparently that men let incidents escalate to the point of violence.
Mizell also notes that the rise in aggressive driving isn't just an urban phenomenon, linked to growing congestion on commuter routes. He asserts: "This is happening everywhere, in rural areas, suburbs, and cities."
One Driver Changes Her Ways
Nadine, a writer with a soft voice and relaxed manner, would never strike anyone as Mad Max.
But she used to be an aggressive driver.
It all started when her office moved to the suburbs, and her six-block walk to work in the city became a drive that could take up to an hour. She had never spent so much time in her car.
"I just started cutting people off and getting angry at other people," says Nadine, who asks that her last name not be used. "It became a game. I just had to get ahead of the car in front of me. I lost perspective."
Then one day she was driving over the Key Bridge from Virginia into Washington, and she cut someone off. The traffic stopped for a light, and a moment later, Nadine heard someone knock on her car window. It was the woman she had cut off.
"She smiled at me and said, 'Do you know what you're doing?' " Nadine recounts. "This woman looked just like me. It was almost like some part of me was telling me to stop behaving like this.... I didn't say anything to her, but I don't drive like that anymore."