Hell on Wheels

Colorado Highways are safer now than they've been in decades. So what are drivers so mad about?

June 5, 1998
"What you have," begins attorney Derry Rice, "is a sixteen-year-old, a new driver from a nice family, driving on Broadway and Highlands Ranch Parkway." The first driver--we'll call her Pam--and the second driver, another sixteen-year-old we'll call Cynthia, are both turning left onto northbound Broadway.

While turning, Pam clips the fender of Cynthia's car. It's only a fender bender, but Cynthia pulls in front of Pam's car at the edge of the intersection, gets out and yanks Pam from her car.

Then Cynthia punches Pam in the face and unleashes a string of epithets: "You fucking bitch! Look at what you did to my car! I hope you have insurance. I should just kill you now."

Instead, she merely gives Pam a hell of a shiner. Pam wears braces, too, and they cut her lips as Cynthia pounds away. Afterward, X-rays reveal she has no serious injuries, but Pam is in shock. Rice says she told him she couldn't believe what had happened.

Cynthia was charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor; in October she was sentenced to fifteen days of incarceration, two years' probation, anger-management classes and 48 hours of community service.

"At sentencing, she wasn't arrogant," Rice says of Cynthia. "She said, 'I worked so hard for that car.'"

Rice, Pam's attorney, sounds bemused at the whole affair: "You have two insured cars and a minor scrape." Pam, who had only had her license for a couple of weeks, is still having nightmares.

Yes, Virginia, there are crazy motorists. Everyone has seen a car bolt through traffic like a wild horse or has nearly been hit by a driver obliviously changing lanes. Who hasn't gotten the bird, the horn or the high beams? You might even have seen a roadside brawl, since Douglas County sheriffs break up a few every week.

There are many reasons for this crash course on highway fury. Last year Ricardo Martinez, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, appeared before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee. Since 1987, he said, the number of miles logged by American motorists has increased by 35 percent--but the number of miles of new roads has gone up by a piddling 1 percent. Metro Denver has stretched out some 167 square miles since 1980; the population has grown by roughly 600,000 people in the same time, creating not just suburbs, but inner-ring suburbs, outer-ring suburbs, exurbs and edge cities. More people are driving farther on roadways that can't handle the flow.

And the tempo of life has accelerated. People are busier, there's more stress, and there's a pervasive desire for immediate gratification that, when transferred from the marketplace to the highway, means folks want to get there--wherever there is--faster.

Cars have changed, too. "They're quieter. You don't have the sensation of speed," says Captain Steve Powell, a public-information officer with the Colorado State Patrol.

But people haven't changed. Faced with congestion, traffic jams, stop and go and a sea of red lights, tempers start to rise. "By virtue of our population, the roads are obviously much more crowded than ten, fifteen years ago," says Steve Davis, public-information officer with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. "Tension gets the best of people sometimes."

And that's when the roads begin to look a little like Death Race 2000--in which drivers earned points for running over pedestrians--and "road rage" takes over. Or does it?

he term "road rage" has found wide use, and overuse, in the press and on television since it was coined in the late Eighties. The earliest mention of it in a database of newspaper and magazine articles is a story from the April 2, 1988, St. Petersburg Times that begins: "A fit of 'road rage' has landed a man in jail, accused of shooting a woman passenger whose car had 'cut him off' on the highway."

Ten years later, thousands of articles mention the term, and everyone from Newsweek to the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, has weighed in on the increasingly grizzly spectacle of the American road and the rage that has overtaken it.

But while the odds of getting cut off, flipped off and pissed off seem to have risen in recent years, the chances of getting into a crash or being injured or killed, whether by a maniacal road warrior or an ordinary person who makes a mistake, have actually decreased.

According to figures from the NHTSA, fatalities per 100 million miles driven have been falling since 1966. The rate this year is at an all-time low of 1.7. Fatalities have also dropped in Colorado. Automobile injuries in 1997--there were 3,399,000 --are a shade lower than they were in 1986, despite the fact there are now 17 million more registered drivers.

The NHTSA estimates that "about one-third of these crashes and about two-thirds of the resulting fatalities (41,097 in 1996) can be attributed to behavior associated with aggressive driving, or driving behavior that endangers or is likely to endanger people or property."

What the administration does not say, however, is how these figures were determined or whether they have increased over the years. NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd says most of the information suggesting an increase in aggressive driving is anecdotal. "Aggressive behavior probably is responsible for the majority of crashes, but as far as pointing to a crash and saying what the driver's state of mind is, that's hard to do," he says.

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