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Hell on Wheels

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

More common, though, are what Powell calls "passive-aggressive" drivers, also known as inattentive drivers or boneheads. "They're riding your tail," says Powell, "but they're not trying to push you out of the way. They're just not paying attention."

Deffenbacher has three categories. The most dangerous drivers are those who commit road rage. He calls those who inadvertantly do dangerous things "risky" drivers. The rest--the majority of drivers, he says--who simply get pissed off behind the wheel are "angry" drivers. "Clearly we need to reduce the most violent stuff," says Deffenbacher. "Even for the people who aren't putting other people at risk--I can be screaming and giving you the finger and still be a safe driver--that latter group, they may inflame another driver to a more aggressive exchange."

But all of this debate over semantics only seems to drive home the lack of hard data regarding road rage.

The country's only major study on aggressive driving was conducted in 1996 by Louis Mizel, the owner of a corporation that maintains crime report databases, for the American Automobile Association. The unscientific study culls data from, as Mizel notes, "30 major newspapers, reports from 16 police departments and insurance company claim reports."

His study found that between January 1, 1990, and September 1, 1996, there were 10,037 incidents of aggressive driving in the United States. The study defines aggressive driving more aggressively than most: "An incident in which an angry or impatient motorist or passenger intentionally injures or kills another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian, or attempts to kill another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian, in response to a traffic dispute, altercation or grievance."

The yearly incident total rose between 1990 and 1995, then dropped in 1996. At least 218 men, women and children were killed and another 12,610 people injured during that time.

Mizel offers a sampling of quotes explaining the mindset of drivers guilty of road rage. One driver accused of murdering another said, "He couldn't care less about the rest of us--he just kept blocking traffic." Another claimed, "I never would have shot him if he hadn't rear-ended me." And a teenager charged with killing a passenger in another car said, "We was dissed."

The study concludes that these "reasons" are actually triggers that unlock "some reservoir of anger, hostility or frustration." In other words, many aggressive drivers are already on the verge of dysfunction.

This past June, AAA released another study, this one gathered from a nationwide poll of 942 respondents. The survey found that one-fourth of Americans acknowledge that they engage in aggressive driving. With 180 million registered U.S. drivers, the study concludes, there are 45 million aggressive drivers out there. The most common forms of aggressive driving were speeding, expressing anger at other motorists, changing lanes excessively, tailgating and running red lights or stop signs.

The primary reason given for engaging in such activity? Running late and slow-moving traffic in the left lane.

Mike Matthews, 33, a pilot for a delivery company called Key Lime, was driving in the left lane on Quebec Street near the intersection with C-470, trying to pass a slow-moving car in front of him. But a driver in the right lane, in a red Eagle Talon, seemed to be deliberately blocking him, slowing down so Matthews couldn't move into the lane behind him, then speeding up to prevent Matthews from passing in front.

Finally Matthews got past the Talon and around and in front of the slow car. Then he moved into the left turn lane. That's when, he says, the Talon driver cut all the way over from the right lane to the turning lane and managed to beat all traffic to the intersection. Then the Talon stopped. "When the light turned green, he did nothing," Matthews says. "When the light turned red, he just jammed to the right."

Matthews, now peeved, did the same. He followed the Talon "four or five miles to his complex. He waited around the corner right for me at the cul-de-sac." Matthews says he pulled up to get the Talon's license plate number. The cars' windows rolled down.

"Is there a problem with my driving?" Matthews asked.
He recalls the Talon driver responded, "Yeah--if you got a problem, I'll kick your ass."

Both men stepped out of their cars and a fight broke out. Matthews says the other driver, identified in court records as nineteen-year-old Saif Ali Sultan, threw a rock that hit him in the leg. Then Matthews threw a rock and broke Sultan's tinted window. Sultan's cousins intervened to break up the fight and called the police, but, Matthews says, not before he knocked out some of Sultan's teeth. The police report says Sultan suffered only hip pain and a swollen eye.

Matthews was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct/fighting in public and third-degree assault. A restraining order against him was issued on August 19, and a pre-trial hearing took place last week. Sultan and his family have since moved away, says a neighbor who saw the fracas, and his whereabouts are unknown. Dee Demers, a Douglas County deputy DA who is handling the case, refused to comment.

Matthews says he was just trying to get Sultan's plates when things escalated. "It's harder to drive down the road and focus on the road," Matthews complains. "People are just assholes. I know it sounds childish, but he started it."

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