Hell on Wheels

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

But stories about bizarre roadside altercations are easy enough to find. Everybody has one. The Fox television network regularly airs "World's Worst Drivers." On the Internet, there's the Database of Unsafe Driving, a cyberspace dumping ground where aggrieved motorists worldwide vent their frustrations. "Don't Get Mad--Get EVEN!" the Web site commands. Below these words is a digitized fist with a raised middle finger.

The site includes two examples from Colorado.
One driver tells this story: "While I was driving 40 mph in a 45 mph zone, a woman decided it would be a really cool thing to pass me on a four-lane road...She cut it so close to my rear bumper while passing, that I could see dust (yes, dust) on her hood...She was so sure of her driving she didn't even have her kid buckled up. Twit."

The other relates: "Homicidal female driver runs a red light at a high rate of speed and rams into my sedan broadside, totaling the car. While we are injured and laying on the sidewalk, waiting for the ambulance, she talks to her friend about 'I was needing a new truck, anyway.'"

A driving force behind the hubbub might be the term "road rage" itself, since having a name for the phenomenon makes it easier to talk about. "Maybe it's just you and me talking, and before, we didn't," says Jerry Deffenbacher, a psychologist at Colorado State University who has conducted research on aggressive driving.

Nevertheless, in this state, new programs are being rolled out to combat the crazies. In July the Colorado State Patrol launched a whistle-blower telephone line that lets Coloradans rat on each other. Motorists with cell phones can call Star CSP (actually *277) to report bad driving. Callers speak to an officer and give information including license plate numbers, the offending vehicle's make and model and the alleged infraction. Callers are also required to give information about themselves; the CSP makes note of people who call to bitch more than once. This prevents people from abusing the system, says Carl Kay, another spokesman for the CSP.

When the CSP receives more than one complaint about a specific vehicle, letters are sent to its registered owner, who may or may not be the offending driver. The letters urge the motorist to "please be courteous." Powell says no one who has received a letter has subsequently gotten into trouble, but after three or four reported incidents, the police would be sent out to the driver's home to have a visit. Unless one of the callers wants to press charges, however, nothing much happens.

Kay says the line has been averaging several thousand calls a month. If a caller reports "something really serious," he says, "the communications officer might dispatch an officer if one is in the region." This past summer, for example, the CSP received a call about a driver speeding and zigzagging through traffic and headed for Loveland, where police officers got the call and managed to locate the driver.

But even Powell can't say for sure whether aggressive driving is on the rise in Denver. "I don't know," he says. "People here are used to open roads and open space, and now they have to leave early to get to work. But go to L.A.--that's a whole other level of frustration."

"We're certainly a lot more aware of it," says Deffenbacher. "How angry people are certainly is going to increase when you increase the number of drivers and the density of drivers. But I'm not sure the way people felt is all that different from the way it was twenty or thirty years ago, adjusting for population."

ne difficulty in assessing whether road rage is myth or reality is the lack of consistency in terms. Some researchers consider the terms "road rage" and "aggressive driving" interchangeable; others say the terms define different situations. A few are leery of the phrases altogether and would rather use legal terms such as felony menacing or assault.

Lou DeCarolis, a regional administrator for NHTSA, defines aggressive driving as the "operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger person or property" and is the broad term under which most examples of unsafe driving fall: speeding, running red lights, tailgating and cutting off other drivers.

Road rage, he continues, "is an extreme form of aggressive driving, such as physical or vehicular assault that occurs between two drivers. It's the assault that makes it a felony."

"I prefer to call it aggressive driving and inconsiderate driving rather than road rage," offers Captain Brian Gallagher of the Denver Police Department.

Sergeant Attila Denes of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office rather unhelpfully defines aggressive driving as "driving as if you were in a really, really big hurry."

Powell says there are actually two kinds of aggressive driving. The first is "active aggressive" driving--the drivers you can see coming up fast in your rearview mirror, who will get by you one way or the other. "All of us can identify the active aggressive," he says. "That's the contact of the day--you love to catch the guy."

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