When I read a recent survey that rated Baltimore and Washington among the nation's top five cities for road rage, I thought back to a driving incident about 10 years ago. While visiting D.C. from my home in Boston, I triggered the angst of an officer who pulled me over on New York Avenue.
"Did you know that you ran that yellow light back there?" the policewoman scolded while inspecting my Massachusetts driver's license.
I sat momentarily stunned, my mouth wide open.
Did she say yellow light?
"I'll have you know that in D.C., we slow down at yellow lights," she continued angrily.
These folks must be obsessed with safe driving, I thought to myself, because in every other place I've driven in this country, most everyone accelerates on the yellow to beat the red. I've even witnessed hostile responses from motorists driving behind someone who slows to a stop on yellow.
Since moving to the area nearly four years ago, I've come to realize that if I slowed down at every yellow light locally, I'd wear a permanent neck brace after being rear-ended from behind.
Nevertheless, I raised an eyebrow at the findings of AutoVantage Road Rage survey, which was released last week and ranked Baltimore fourth and D.C. fifth, behind Miami, Boston and New York City.
It marked the third consecutive year that the report has been conducted by AutoVantage, a Norwalk, Conn.-based auto membership club. It commissioned an independent firm, Prince Market Research, to conduct a national telephone study involving 2,512 respondents at least 21 years of age in 25 metropolitan areas. The respondents had to drive at least 10 minutes during rush hour for three or more days per week.
The cities with the most courteous drivers, are, in order, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., Seattle, Minneapolis and Cleveland.
Having driven in 43 of the 50 states, I'd say that while motorists in Baltimore and Washington can be quick-tempered and obnoxious, they are, for the most part, no worse than what I've seen in most other areas. And nothing compares to New York and Boston, where traffic often resembles the chariot race scene in Ben Hur.
Still, the survey offered some intriguing findings about driving habits in the Baltimore-Washington region and beyond.
Most road rage triggers, the survey says, can be found in any metropolitan area. They include talking on the cell phone (in recent years the most popular trigger), driving too fast, tailgating, eating and drinking, cutting in front of motorists without signaling, texting and slamming on brakes.
"Road rage is a reflection of our society," said AutoVantage spokesman Todd Smith. "We live in a fast-paced, gridlocked, multitasking world, and unfortunately that's manifested in highways and streets across America."
And it appears to be getting worse in Baltimore, which last year ranked 11th among the most courteous drivers.
This year, Charm City tied for first, with Tampa and New York, in the category of drivers witnessed eating and drinking while driving. It tied for fourth, with Atlanta, for drivers who use the cell phone.
D.C., meanwhile, led the nation in motorists who slam on their breaks at the last minute - though it was tied for last (with New York and Minneapolis) in texting and BlackBerry use.
Smith said that across the nation road rage triggers appear to be more widespread and dangerous. He said that AutoVantage has footage of drivers eating cereal with milk behind the wheel. Others have been spotted reading books and newspapers.
It's not surprising, therefore, that road rage behavior is also widespread. "In each of your annual surveys," Smith added, "we've seen 1 percent of drivers across the nation use their car as a weapon in road rage." The five most common road rage responses, in order: honking the horn, cursing, waving a fist, making an obscene gesture and calling police to report the driver.
Smith added that when Boston placed fifth in the inaugural survey three years ago, AutoVantage got a slew of queries from Bostonians, wondering why their city didn't place first.
After living in the area for 16 years, I can relate. Arguably the worst example of road rage I've ever seen involved two motorists in Boston - one driving a sedan in the center lane, the other a pickup in the right lane. They were fuming at each other while zooming side-by-side down the Southeast Expressway at about 70 mph.
The pickup motorist accelerated ahead and fishtailed his rear bumper into the front of the sedan, smashing its headlight. Both drivers then began bumping each other's front doors like carnival bumper cars. Just when it appeared the sedan was about to veer right and ram the pickup with a force that would cause a serious collision, the pickup driver slammed on brakes, and the sedan veered in front of him and off to the right shoulder, momentarily losing control before skidding onto an exit ramp.
With that, the pickup driver flashed half of the peace sign as he sped away.
I've never seen anything close to that kind of road rage in this area. And I hope I never will.