Hell on Wheels

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

Mackenzie told police that Dalvit "couldn't really see anything. He heard some yelling. As he came around, I was walking away. It seems like he has fish syndrome. As time went on, the story kept getting bigger and bigger."

(In his initial statement to police, Dalvit says Mackenzie smashed Turley's head one time against the truck and then went back to his own car when Dalvit intervened.)

Nevertheless, in the spring of 1997 Mackenzie was sentenced to two years in jail. He's also the defendant in a $500,000 civil suit brought forward by Turley. Mackenzie believes it was Turley's allegations of subsequent severe medical problems that helped contribute to his sentence.

Apparently, highway altercations can cause seemingly normal guys to flip. "Their whole personality is, they're hanging on the edge--they're an accident waiting to happen," says Sy Cohn, a California marriage counselor who says he has spent the last 34 years as a driving psychotherapist.

For Cohn, road rage is a function of a larger cultural malaise. "More and more people's lives are more and more hectic," he says. "We're conditioned to be faster, quicker, better, and it's not working. We want ourselves to be quicker, better, faster, and we're not satisfied with ourselves."

Gallagher agrees that road rage is indicative of "other frustrations impacting people's lives. When they get behind the wheel of a car, they're more aggressive, they're more empowered. It's the one area they don't want to relinquish control."

Deffenbacher says there are a number of factors that can feed into driving angry. "Some are outside the person," he says. "One is relative anonymity. We know that when people are in anonymous situations, they can do more aggressive kinds of things. Witness what happens in riots. And cars are relatively unknown."

Other researchers point out that the car is a weird hybrid of public and private space: People feel they are sovereign in their own private spaces, such as their homes, and that feeling often accompanies them when they get behind the wheel.

"Another thing about the car," Deffenbacher adds. "For some people, there's a feeling that it's an extension of them: 'If you mess with my car, you mess with me.' That also can contribute."

Deffenbacher says the "key piece is how I think about things I encounter on the road. If you perceive being cut off as a deliberate act--if I interpret that in a personalized way, then I'm going to escalate my anger against this perceived injustice."

Which is why it may be difficult to find peace on the highway anytime soon. "It's hard to come up with a comprehensive solution," Gallagher says. "People with common sense allow themselves to take on this Walter Mitty persona behind the wheel. You're going down I-25 and you don't signal a lane change, and the guy you pull in on goes ballistic, flips you off, tries to run you in a ditch."

And the more trouble drivers have controlling their anger, the more law-enforcement agencies begin to sound like counselors. A year ago, the CSP initiated a public service campaign called "Aggressive Drivers Are a Public Threat" that revolves around the two-fingered peace salute, which authorities say drivers should use as a way of saying "Thank you" or "I'm sorry" to other motorists. The two fingers are also supposed to remind people to take two seconds to fasten their seatbelts, take two breaths before starting the car and keep a two-second interval between cars.

It's questionable whether such efforts are a realistic solution to a legitimate problem or just a feel-good response to a phenomenon based on Nineties therapy-speak.

"We're seeing it some," says Powell of the "take two" idea. "The longer it goes on, the better it'll get. It's a matter of marketing. It's part of the solution, but certainly not a fix-all."

He says the key is to "get in the mindset, get comfortable, turn on the radio and enjoy the ride home."

Mizel's study also offers several tips to minimize the potential for road-rage outbreaks. If road-rage incidents themselves are ridiculous, the suggestions aren't much better.

Some are no-brainers: "Avoid the right-hand lane if you are not turning right. Do not take more than one parking space and do not park in a handicapped space if you are not handicapped. Keep headlights on low beam."

When it comes to driving on the highway, one doesn't make sense at all: "If you have an antitheft alarm on your vehicle, be sure you know how to turn it off."

Another contradicts the CSP's program, which asks motorists to use their cell phones to report dangerous drivers: "Don't let the car phone become a distraction. The data clearly show that aggressive drivers hate fender-benders with motorists who were talking on the phone."

A final suggestion asks people to ignore the deeply ingrained American idea that a car expresses its driver's identity and to set aside their First Amendment rights: "Confederate flags on pickup trucks are not a good idea. Refrain from showing any type of bumper sticker or slogan that could be offensive; this might include an 'IM RICH' license plate."

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