Back-to-Basics Effort To Curb Bad Driving

Group joins with troopers to control road rage, as light summer commutes near end.

The comfort and safety of an 11th-grade drivers' ed class seem far removed from the chaos of the Washington Beltway. Indeed, no driver's manual suggests methods for retaliation when a motorist cuts you off in traffic or dodges between two-ton trucks like a skittish cat.

But aggressive driving and retaliation - also called road rage - are exactly what more and more people are doing. Road rage has become a serious concern on the nation's roads. By some accounts, nearly two-thirds of last year's 40,000 highway deaths can be linked to it.

With the approach of Labor Day weekend - one of the busiest traffic weekends of the year - a coalition of traffic-safety officials is urging drivers nationwide to go back to basics and make sure road rage doesn't take its toll.

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is teaming up with state troopers to distribute to motorists driver's-license-size cards with 10 driving rules everyone should know.

"I think it's an excellent start," says Ken Orski, who heads Urban Mobility, a transportation consulting firm. "The way to put an end to this behavior is through greater awareness and driver education, just as we have done in drunken driving."

It took a persistent effort by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to build enough public awareness about the problem to produce a drop in drunken-driving accidents. Road rage, experts say, is a similarly treatable negative behavior.

"It took MADD years to gin up this kind of critical mass ... but people are now very aware of the problem," says Tiffany Faul of the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. Ms. Faul, who has been the victim of road rage, says the free-for-all feeling on America's roads still brings out Mad Max in even the most taciturn people.

Separate from the effort to hand out the safety cards, the law-enforcement community is increasing its resolve to enforce the law to its letter, targeting aggressive behavior.

"Law-enforcement officers across the United States are prepared to strictly enforce dangerous driving behavior," says Terrance Gainer, director of the Illinois State Police. "People, when they get into the car, take on some kind of demonic behavior," he says, faulting drivers for an "I-can-get-away-with-it attitude" on the road.

Many people believe "unless the cop is out there watching me, it's OK to go faster," he says. "Unless there is a cop watching, it's OK to change lanes without signaling.... Why [do we do] that if we are all sophisticated adults?"

This is where the safety card may be of some help. Stephen Brobeck, chairman of the CFA, says everyone can use a refresher course in road etiquette.

"No one sees themselves as an aggressive driver," he says. "Tens of millions of drivers, including myself, drive discourteously, and therefore, unsafely."

The suggestions are basic, but fewer and fewer Americans are following them. Among the card's pointers:

The left lane is for passing only. Stay in the middle or righthand lane otherwise.

Keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead.

Signal several hundred feet before turning.

Still, transportation experts say a high-profile endorsement is necessary to get the program rolling. "Certainly the support of the administration would be a very powerful signal that our government stands behind this kind of initiative," says Mr. Orski. "Again, it brings the moral power of the government to bear that this kind of behavior is wrong."

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