Living in the age of rage

Aggressive behavior is a factor in nearly 28,000 road deaths a year

September 17, 2000|By Matt Archbold, Kathryn Masterson and Robert Sanchez | Matt Archbold, Kathryn Masterson and Robert Sanchez,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- An SUV growls inches from the rear bumper, and brake lights and headlights surround you. The air conditioner pumps cool air. Still, the temperature rises.

You simmer. You steam. And more and more often, say law enforcement officials and authorities on driving habits, you boil over into road rage.

"It's the age of rage," said Leon James of the University of Hawaii, who has written several books on aggressive driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says aggressive behavior is a factor in nearly 28,000 road deaths a year.

In a recent survey of about 520 motorists by the Automobile Association of America, almost 90 percent said they had experienced road rage during the last 12 months.

Sixty percent admitted to such acts as tailgating aggressively, flashing headlights, gesturing obscenely, deliberating obstructing the road and verbally abusing fellow drivers. One percent said they had been physically assaulted by other motorists.

The issue highlighted recently with an arrest in the July 20 crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension that killed a 21-year-old Bethlehem, Pa., woman and injured her friend.

After a four-day search for the driver of the extended-cab Dodge Ram pickup that ran Jennifer Lynn Getz's Toyota Tercel off the road, Montgomery County, Pa., authorities and state police tracked Douglas W. Heavlow Sr. of Middletown Township, Delaware County, to his hunting cabin in Bradford County and charged him with third-degree murder.

100 calls

That the public was stirred by reports of the crash was apparent immediately, law enforcement officials said. They received more than 100 calls after a photo of the truck taken from tollbooth-video footage was publicized, and they said a tip led to Heavlow's arrest.

Involving the driving public in its own protection is a strategy New Jersey has used in fighting road rage. (A bill is pending in the state Assembly that would require jail time for repeat offenders.)

State Police Sgt. Al Della Fave said a hotline number, 888-723-7623, was open to take complaints about aggressive drivers. "Since we started that two years ago ... we've had over 45,000 phone calls," he said. "I found that the fact that the person is ... told that many people have noticed [his] driving behavior, that alone is a deterrent."

Ron Young of the state Department of Transportation said state and local police were cooperating on heavily traveled roads that have a high number of accidents, such as the Route 309 Expressway in Montgomery County. The effort has succeeded on Route 309, Young said, with accidents down from more than 130 per year to just under 70.

Video equipment

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is considering attaching video equipment to traffic signals in Chester County next year that would tape cars speeding through red lights and forward the information to local police.

Alejandra Soto of the Insurance Information Institute in New York said men ages 20 to 40 were most likely to drive aggressively. "We've found that men who are involved in a road rage incident are likely to repeat the offense if not caught," she said.

There are too many drivers on too few roads, said Elizabeth Baker of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Roadway congestion is considered the No. 1 factor which tends to exacerbate aggressive driving behaviors," she said.

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