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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?

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.

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."

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."

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."

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."

The suggestions appear well-intentioned but fruitless. They obviously didn't work for Mackenzie. "It sounds like common sense," says Mackenzie, whose two-year sentence will be up next spring (he's currently on work release). "But it's like telling people to get up and brush their teeth every morning. If you wake up and can't figure that out, should you have a driver's license?"

And while law-enforcement agencies gear up for the battle against angry drivers, the malady--or the psychobabble--may already have whizzed by. Last week, outside a Georgia Wal-Mart, one man used a tire iron to assault another man, who then shot him in the face after the two men's shopping carts collided in the checkout line. The Denver Post headline: "Checkout rage sparks shootings."

And on November 27, the Rocky Mountain News reported that a Keystone snowboarder "took a jump in a restricted area" and knocked over an off-duty ski patroller, who then punched the snowboarder in the face. Altercations culminating in "screaming matches" and "brawls" occur every "three or four years" on the slopes, a Breckenridge spokesperson told the News. The paper tagged the phenomenon "ski rage.

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