Just after 3 p.m. on June 14, a road-rage incident turned deadly when Jeremy Webster, 23, allegedly opened fire outside a dentist's office in Westminster, killing a thirteen-year-old boy and severely injuring three others. Since then, plenty of drivers in the metro area have been wondering how they'd react in a similar situation. And the Colorado State Patrol has some potentially life-saving advice.
Trooper Joshua Lewis, public information officer for the CSP, makes it clear that he's speaking in general terms and not in direct reference to the Westminster tragedy, stressing that "unfortunately, there's no black-and-white rule that will work for every single scenario." Rather, he's simply offering best practices that can be applied in a wide variety of circumstances.
"The biggest thing is to get yourself away from the danger," Lewis says. "That obviously doesn't mean speeding away at 100 miles per hour. It means slow down, separate yourself, take an exit, get yourself out of it, and then, whenever possible, contact the proper authorities."
That may include dialing 911.
"If it's an emergency situation, 911 is appropriate," he notes. "Hopefully, you'll have the location, a description of the vehicle, the license plate and maybe even a description of the party, if possible."
Lewis stresses, however, that "the first thing to do is get away from danger. Don't put yourself in more harm's way in order to get that information."
Aggressive behavior on the part of one driver can inspire otherwise calm folks to fly off the handle, too — and that's definitely the wrong thing to do, Lewis maintains: "This is where we have to fight our own human nature. We have to realize that most people are not intentionally driving poorly or cutting you off or not using a turn signal as a deliberate, specific offense to another person. It may simply be a matter of distraction — that they weren't paying attention for a few seconds. Or maybe they are a bad driver. But ultimately, drivers should try not to take it as a personal offense. Take a few deep breaths and make sure you're being as safe as possible."
Of course, many drivers who've unintentionally made someone mad will want to make amends. But Lewis says that attempting to do so can actually cause more trouble than it avoids.
"There's nothing that says you need to get out of your vehicle and engage somebody who's coming up to you," he points out. "And what may be a simple way to indicate that you didn't mean to cut somebody else off may be taken as a sign of aggression. So the best recommendation is don't engage, period."
Lewis understands the motivation of drivers who do otherwise. "We all understand what can take place. Maybe you cut somebody off or you weaved out of a lane and somebody took great offense," he says. "You want to apologize, to let them know you had no intention of doing that. So you give a little wave as a mea culpa. But if they're upset, they may take it as an aggressive kind of gesture. As much as we might want to engage or even apologize, it's typically best to just separate."
The same goes for shrugs, smiles or other facial expressions, according to Lewis. If another driver is already so overwhelmed by indignation that he's giving chase, he may interpret something meant kindly as sarcasm or ridicule.
When a furious person is following another driver, other options are available — but Lewis generally feels they should be choices of absolute last resort.
"If need be, you can drive to a law-enforcement office," he says. "But if you have a phone and you're having to look up how to get to that place, it's better to call 911, indicate that you're afraid for your life for whatever reason, and then follow what the dispatcher tells you. Then we and dispatch and officers responding will know where you are and what's going on at that moment, rather than you taking an exit and going someplace else."
He adds: "It's harder to find you even if you're coming toward an office of a law enforcement agency, because chances are they didn't receive that call and they have no idea you're coming. Most 911 centers aren't typically located in a lot of actual police departments, especially if they're smaller satellite stations. Driving to one may not mean they know what's going on in your case, especially if you're in the Denver metro area, where you may change jurisdictions ten times over the course of ten miles. So sticking to 911 is still the best course of action in that case."
For the most part, Lewis concludes, "It mostly boils down to either separating yourself from that situation if it's being caused by someone else or just letting things go and making sure you're as safe as possible."