Hell on Wheels

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

Matthews's fight took place in Douglas County, the fastest-growing county in the U.S. and home to a volatile stretch of I-25 that often has the floor-it pace of the Autobahn. People doing 75 or 80 miles per hour are routinely dusted by faster cars. The county has become ground zero in the fight to reduce aggressive driving.

A year ago, county sheriff's departments throughout the metro area began cracking down on aggressive driving. Officers from several jurisdictions now spend one day a month doing nothing but writing tickets for speeding, tailgating and the like. Denes says the program has resulted in tens of thousands of traffic citations throughout the six-county region.

"It's gotten to where they work it a certain day all around the metro area," adds Steve Davis of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. "We target aggressive violations that we believe are specifically that--not a mistake, not a goof."

This September, Douglas became the first county in metro Denver to receive a federal grant to specifically combat road rage. The one-year $140,000 grant, awarded through Colorado Department of Transportation from federal highway safety funds, pays for a full-time deputy, a traffic clerk and an unmarked car. The grant also includes programs to educate the public.

The Douglas County grant is the spearhead for a more pointed attack in the courts. Soon, when deputies write tickets for traffic violations, they may be instructed to include a special notation to the district attorney's office regarding aggressive drivers.

"They're trying to take a tougher stance," says Michael Knight, a spokesman with the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe and Douglas counties. "If the officer felt like the reason you were speeding was because you were playing tag, cops would need to give the DA that information."

Which means that in the future, defendants might either have to plead guilty and face the full penalty for the violation--there'd be no standard reduction--or they would be required to go to trial.

"We're not there yet in terms of making notations on citations; however, it's something we're working toward," Denes says. "What we're trying to do is get an agreement with the DA that on specific violations that have high accident causations, and if we see those violations with the same driver, the DA would take a harder line."

That raises the question of whether the road-rage distinction might diminish the rights of those charged. Isn't speeding speeding, whether you're pissed off or not?

Knight says no. "The officer is trying to make that distinction," he says. "Perhaps you're more dangerous if you're doing it arbitrarily--if you're trying to make your point with a vehicle--versus if you're speeding 'cause your late."

"If you're going 85 miles per hour on your way in to work this morning, say someone else is doing the same 85 miles per hour, flippin' a guy off, right on his bumper with his headlights on," Davis says, adding that perhaps the court should be aware of all the circumstances. "I always had a rule that maybe I wouldn't write a ticket if somebody genuinely made a mistake."

The Colorado State Patrol has also started asking its officers to mark violations they feel stem from aggressive behavior with an "A" on the back of the summons. Powell admits it may take a while to work out the kinks. "Five hundred [officers[ have different interpretations of that, and 300 forgot you asked them to do that," he says.

Denver's Gallagher says that the city, too, is toying with the idea of some kind of road-rage box on tickets. "We've had some preliminary discussions; we haven't had a chance to get together," he says. "In order for that to be effective, you have to get a buy-in from prosecution. It's a tough bag; they've decriminalized a lot of the traffic code. You have to make sure you're putting them in the right court."

Erik Mackenzie was coming home from a seminar. A car filled with teenagers was driving on southbound I-25, heading toward the Yale exit ramp. Mackenzie, who was driving a Mercedes, inadvertently cut them off while exiting the highway. The kids passed him on the shoulder, flipped him off and threw something at his car, which busted a headlight. Then they began shouting that he was a "yuppie fuck" and tried to spit on him.

Adam Turley, then seventeen, and his friends pulled out in front of Mackenzie, who followed them, trying to get the car's license plate. After a long chase, they wound up near the corner of Yosemite and Syracuse. Mackenzie claims he got out of his car and was hit by the other car, which knocked him over the hood of his Mercedes.

A scuffle ensued, and he says he shoved Turley into the door jamb of the other car. The kid hit his head.

While Mackenzie says he merely shoved Turley once and then backed off when Turley hit his head on the door frame, a witness, Mike Dalvit, testified in a deposition that Mackenzie was more enraged. "Erik just grabbed him and just started smashing his head against the door frame of the vehicle...There's road rage and then there's this." Dalvit broke it up. "I don't know what would have happened if he wouldn't have stopped, if he could have killed him; I mean, he looked that insane."

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