Md. police tag aggressive drivers Chief wants speeding, tailgating to be seen as 'socially irresponsible'

'Death and destruction'

Road congestion blamed for behavior that endangers many

September 01, 1996|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Trooper David Sharp spotted the Chevy truck ahead of him: speeding, darting across lanes, hanging a little close to the bumpers of fellow travelers on Interstate 95 in Howard County.

Classic aggressive driving.

Sharp followed in his unmarked black Caprice, clocking the truck's speed and trying to count the lane changes. Six miles later, he handed two tickets to the driver, snared as part of the Maryland State Police's year-old crackdown on aggressive drivers.

The driver said he was not aggressive, just late: "I was just trying to get to work as fast as I can."

Aggressive drivers, the newest scourge on America's roads, are starting to attract police and public attention the way drunken drivers did two decades ago. Faced with grueling commutes and congested roads, more drivers seem to be venting their frustration by speeding, tailgating, lane-jockeying and running red lights, say motorists and police.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon," said Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. David B. Mitchell. "It goes hand in hand with our increasing inability to deal with conflict in a constructive way."

Aggressive drivers are a major source of highway mayhem. They cause almost three times as many accidents as drunken motorists, although alcohol-related crashes are deadlier, according to data from the Maryland State Highway Administration.

On average, almost 33 percent of accidents and 40 percent of highway fatalities in Maryland involve aggressive driving.

The highway agency defines aggressive driving as speeding, traveling too fast for road conditions, failing to yield the right of way, ignoring traffic signals and stop signs, tailgating, or improper passing or lane changing.

Such behavior has convinced many motorists that aggressive drivers are their biggest road hazard. In a recent survey, Marylanders rated aggressive drivers as more dangerous than drunks behind the wheel, according to an American Automobile Association (AAA) poll conducted by Gallup. That may be because people witness "maniac motoring" daily, while drunken driving is less prevalent, thanks to police enforcement and public pressure, said Mahlon Anderson of the AAA's Potomac division.

Also, in a few well-publicized cases, aggressive driving has led to roadside fistfights, gunfire, and a modern game of chicken in which motorists deliberately cut in front of one another.

Since May 1995, state police have trained a sharper eye on aggressive drivers. Mitchell has credited the crackdown with lowering the number of fatalities on highways posted at 65 mph.

Last year the number of accidents involving aggressive drivers dropped more sharply than among drivers as a whole: 9 percent compared with 2 percent.

The typical culprit is a male aged 16 to 24.

But men over 25 and women need not gloat. Aggressive drivers do come in all ages, and almost two out of five are women.

Last year, 1,500 of the aggressive drivers who caused accidents were aged 70 or older, compared with 4,300 teen-agers, according to State Highway Administration data.

What about aggressive drivers who are lucky enough to avoid a crash? Sharp said, in his seven years of experience, they come in both genders and all ages.

He said he once stopped a woman for tailgating and driving 70 mph on U.S. 29 in Howard -- in a heavy rain. She was eight months pregnant, had a small child in the back seat and was apparently unfazed by the rain and the 55 mph limit.

Given the right combination of factors, many drivers could find themselves acting aggressively, said Steve Kohler, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, which launched an aggressive-driver campaign about five years ago.

"Almost anyone can become an aggressive driver depending on the circumstances: if they're running late and didn't have good morning with their spouse," Kohler said.

Drivers have varied explanations for their lead-footed behavior.

The driver of the Chevy truck stopped by Sharp said he isn't an aggressive driver. "I'm just late for work," said 19-year-old Steven Johnson of Baltimore.

Johnson said he wasn't aware of his speed (clocked at 80 mph in a 55 mph zone) while driving on I-95. Nor was he aware of any tailgating on his part. He did acknowledge changing lanes a few times without a signal.

Johnson was not alone in thinking his driving was not aggressive. Earlier that day, Sharp ticketed a Pennsylvania schoolteacher for speeding on I-95 after seeing the man make several lane changes.

"I was trying not to drive too aggressively," explained Eric M. Sabaroff, 37, who was heading home from a vacation. "People were just driving too slow, so I was just trying to get around them."

Although studies are few, some police and traffic experts have their own theories about the roots of aggressive driving.

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