The fatal shooting of a driver in Prince George's County this week has heightened a growing fear along Maryland's roadways -- the person you cut off one second may be one who kills you the next.
"It's shocking that something like that would happen," said Lt. Michael Davey, a state police officer who supervises traffic enforcement around the Baltimore Beltway. "But I don't think anyone in law enforcement was surprised."
Davey and those who study angry driving -- a phenomenon known as "road rage" -- fear the shooting will discourage drivers from assisting other motorists who genuinely need their help.
The shooting took place Wednesday in Langley Park after a driver apparently bumped a bicyclist and the two began arguing. The cyclist pulled out a gun and shot the driver in the head, Prince George's police say.
Alejandro Jose Grant, 26, of the 10700 block of Lockridge Drive in Silver Spring has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of 19-year-old Joy Estrella Mariano Enriquez of Oxon Hill, said Cpl. Mike Montgomery, a Prince George's police spokesman. Grant is being held without bail in the Prince George's County Detention Center.
"We have no evidence the pair knew each other, and as far as our investigation is concerned, the shooting was a completely random act," Montgomery said.
Grant also faces trial on a charge of felonious aggravated assault in a Sept. 16, 1996, incident in Washington. According to court documents, Grant was to appear in court April 4 to face the charges, but did not show up.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Wendell Gardner reset the trial date for Jan. 9 after it was discovered that Grant was being held in a Montgomery County jail on similar charges on April 4, a court spokeswoman said. She did not elaborate on details of the case.
Grant has been arrested numerous times in Maryland on misdemeanor charges, including resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and assault, according to court records. It is not clear how or whether the charges were resolved.
Incidents of road rage elsewhere in the nation have led to drivers shooting each other or driving each other into fatal accidents. Those who study such behavior say drivers feel anonymous while in their cars and engage in threatening behavior that they would never consider while, say, riding an elevator.
In Massachusetts three years ago, two dueling motorists got out of their cars and began to argue after engaging in headlight-flashing and lane-crossing. One, a 54-year-old church deacon and retired autoworker, went back to his car, pulled out a crossbow and fatally shot an emergency medical technician in the chest. He was found guilty of first-degree murder.
Officials cautioned yesterday that such cases of extreme violence -- similar to what police say happened in Prince George's County -- probably have more to do with overall deviant behavior than bad traffic manners.
Still, Maryland drivers have taken notice of the shooting.
"It's terrible what happened to that woman, being killed for something that trivial," said Larry Wall as he stopped to fill his tank at a Columbia gas station yesterday. "That's why I've learned to try to ignore some of the things that happen out there on the road. You just never know who's going to be in the next car."
Wall, a 36-year-old father of two young sons, said he decided when his first child was born never to antagonize another driver. Before, he said, his behavior behind the wheel was different. He sometimes sparred with other motorists, riding their bumpers or cutting them off, if their behavior angered him.
"The older you get," he said, "the more your parents start to make sense."
Said Larry Jones, 42, who commutes from Olney to Columbia year-round on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle: "What's really scary is that you just don't know if someone in the car beside you has a gun."
More and more drivers are worried about how anxious the guy is one lane over. In a Gallup Poll conducted last year, aggressive drivers were rated more dangerous than drunken drivers.
Concern over angry drivers has spawned an increase in academics and psychologists who study them. John Palmer of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota said the drivers act like gunfighters from the old West. They don't obey laws; their cars are their weapons.
"It's high noon at the OK Corral," Palmer said.
Nationwide, there are few statistics on how many drivers turn on each other, but anecdotal evidence suggests that drivers are becoming more aggressive, said Julie Rochman, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a trade group based in Arlington, Va.
"It used to be, drivers would say, 'The other day I saw the craziest thing out there,' " Rochman said. "Now it's, 'In the last five minutes I've seen the three craziest things out there.' "
Interstate 695 increasingly is a site of more aggressive driving, said Davey, who supervises the Beltway for the state police. He said one or two fender-benders a month end up in fistfights.