State troopers enlist public in a war on bad driving

In Washington State, people can report aggressive driving by e-mail - and the state patrol says it will follow up.

Road rage and aggressive drivers have been around since the first clattering Tin Lizzies roared up behind unsuspecting horses and spooked them out from under their riders. Harsh words, fists, and even firearms were then, as now, part of what made roadways unpredictable and dangerous.

But here, in the Land of Microsoft, victims of aggressive drivers can now fight back, not with four-letter comeuppances or handguns but with mouse clicks. Motorists can now go the website of the Washington State Patrol and report highway aggressors to law enforcement officers who will do more than simply add such information to a database.

"If it's an isolated incident, we'll send a letter to the vehicle's registered owner, telling them to cut it out," says Trooper Johnny Alexander, who patrols the highways and byways in and around this state's second-largest city. "If we're receiving multiple reports of the same vehicle, we might go and pay that person a visit."

Take that, road hog.

This new effort here seeks to address a problem that has been of growing concern nationwide in an era of lengthening commutes, multiple jobs, and hectic schedules. But despite rising concerns, state patrols have rarely found ways to be as aggressive in enforcement as the drivers they'd like to catch.

The e-mail reporting system here is controversial, and some worry it will be abused by people who make fraudulent reports. But it is merely the latest sign of resolve by the Washington State Patrol to quell aggressive driving. Six years ago the agency launched its Aggressive Driving Apprehension Team (ADAT) with one car. Today, a statewide fleet of 51 vehicles patrols the roads here looking specifically for aggressive behaviors: weaving in and out of traffic, cutting off other vehicles, dangerous passing moves and more.

These ADAT troopers are not easy to spot: They camouflage themselves in sports cars, SUVs, and luxury sedans that are equipped with computers, emergency flashers, sirens - plus video recording equipment that documents dangerous driving on tape.

"We can't catch all aggressive drivers," Mr. Alexander says. "There aren't enough troopers out there. So what better way to help us curb this growing problem than to get the public involved?"

Not everyone thinks enlisting citizen spies is necessarily the right way to fight aggressive drivers.

"My first reaction is that it's little weird," says Wendy Lippmann, a small-business owner who says she drives her new Volkswagen Jetta assertively, not aggressively. "In a way, it's asking citizens to be snitches. I guess there have been times when I've seen someone driving like an idiot and I've wanted to turn them in. But it's like having spy cameras everywhere."

Then there's the logistical problem of actually reading the culprit's license plate. "Have you ever tried to make out a license number in that situation?" asks Susan Balshor, a Seattle designer. "If you're going to successfully read an aggressive driver's license plate you're going to have to drive aggressively to do it. How safe is that?"

Ms. Lippmann, Ms. Balshor and others worry that the system could be used to unfairly harass one's enemies. That guy at the office who sucks up to the boss and treats everyone else like his personal servants? Just e-mail his license plate to the patrol half a dozen times and wait for Trooper Alexander to come calling.

Such concerns notwithstanding, the new system is straightforward enough. If you're cut off by a careening Ford Explorer, you memorize the car's description and license plate. Once at home or the office, you would go online - is the site here - and fill out an online report.

At State Patrol headquarters in Olympia, the report becomes part of the aggressive-driver database. The information goes to eight regional commanders, who pass it along to their sergeants, whose troopers go looking for locales where aggressive behaviors occur most - and, on occasion, for specific aggressors.

The concerns go beyond avoiding accidents on freeways. "A lot of these aggressive driving incidents wind up in weapons brandishing," says Alexander. "I stopped a surgeon once for pulling a gun on another aggressive driver because somebody cut somebody off. We [also] had a stabbing/shooting that took place not long ago on an off-ramp. The two guys got out and started fighting. One cut, one shot, and they both ended up in the hospital."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.