Traffic tantrums

| July 30, 2006

Bumper-to-bumper backups play a major role in stressing motorists to the point of reckless driving and angry outbursts.

Sitting in traffic for hours is enough to make even the most saintly motorist utter four-letter epithets under his breath. It’s frustrating, nerve-wracking and expensive, but that’s as far as it goes – for most of us. Then there are those like the one truck driver Ronald Smith of Denison, Texas, recently encountered. Racing to cut him off during a construction merge, the driver forced Smith onto the shoulder, “then he threatened me when I called the police because he received a ticket for aggressive driving,” Smith recalls. “He pulled a gun on me later at a truck stop.” The driver ended up in jail for assault and use of a weapon.

As highways become increasingly congested – whether from construction, accidents or simply from too many vehicles – tempers can flare and lead to aggressive driving and even road rage, two terms often misused interchangeably. Aggressive driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is operating a motor vehicle in a way that endangers persons or property. Following too closely, driving at excessive speeds, weaving through traffic and running stoplights – behaviors often used to cope with congestion – are all examples of aggressive driving. Road rage, on the other hand, is aggressive driving plus other behavior: angry gestures, yelling, confrontations, physical assault and even murder. Aggressive driving is a traffic violation; road rage, beyond the yelling and gesticulating, is a criminal offense.

But do congested roadways really cause such bad behavior? Truckers, who witness more bad driving than other motorists, certainly think so. Two-thirds of respondents to a June 2006 Overdrive survey say congestion is a major contributing factor in road rage.

While congestion worsens, capacity fails to keep pace. There have been only negligible increases in available highways over the last two decades, while traffic has almost doubled, according to Federal Highway Administration data. With more vehicles than there are roadways to accommodate them in many areas, motorists can quickly lose their cool.

Too many people “have little or no coping skills in regards to stalled traffic/congested roads,” wrote Linda Gould of Eugene, Ore., in response to the Overdrive survey. There is a “lot of misplaced anger directed to people who are not at fault for traffic delays. I’ve seen too many people get out of their vehicles screaming and shouting at each other. Some have actually gotten into fistfights along the highway.”

Most motorists consider aggressive driving a serious highway hazard. Two-thirds of respondents to a NHTSA study said that others’ unsafe driving is a major threat to their safety. A separate NHTSA study identified the top three threatening behaviors: cutting too closely in front (36%), following too closely (19%) and dangerous passing (15%). Those behaviors often translate to accidents: NHTSA blames aggressive driving for about one-third of crashes and two-thirds of fatalities each year.

Aggressive driving is so pervasive that victims are often offenders, too. Almost two out of three people responding to a 1997 American Automobile Association survey admitted driving aggressively in the last year, including speeding, gesturing, tailgating, and slowing down and speeding up to get even with another driver. Asked why, the respondents cited issues related to traffic congestion, including running late for appointments and frustration with slow travel.

In many areas, law enforcement has taken steps to curb aggressive driving, including heightened patrols, stepped-up enforcement and public education campaigns. While these efforts have shown varying degrees of success, only a reduction in congestion will address the primary root of the frustration and anger that can lead to bad driving behavior and outbursts of road rage, experts say.

Until that happens, truckers and four-wheelers alike must find ways to deal with congestion-induced stress. For some that means seeking outside help, says Keith Jackson, whose chaplaincy serves Sitton Motor Lines and R&R Trucking, both of Joplin, Mo. Next to marital problems, anger and stress issues, often related to coping with traffic, are the main things drivers seek counsel for, he says. “The interstate goes through Joplin; I think traffic on it has doubled,” Jackson says. “That’s one thing I hear drivers talk about – the stress on the road.”

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