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Aggressive driving : A road well-traveled

The stories are everywhere. Heinous or humorous, accounts of aggressive driving and "road rage" are spawning headlines that warn of "Free-For-All Freeways" and "The New Asphalt Jungle."

Tales of auto anarchy have the attention of Capitol Hill as well. Last fall, lawmakers became so alarmed that they called congressional hearings. One staff member declared aggressive driving "a national disaster." Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater announced that aggressive driving had become one of the nation's top three highway threats, along with drunken driving and failure to use seat belts.

But are the roads becoming as menacing as the hearings and headlines suggest?

A USA TODAY analysis of more than 500,000 accident reports over the past decade shows that aggressive driving imperils the average driver no more today than it did 10 years ago. Contrary to popular notions about mounting mayhem on the highways, aggressive driving is neither a new nor a worsening problem.

It is, however, a serious one. And the analysis suggests that it may be on the verge of becoming worse.

Roadway congestion, the chief cause of aggressive driving, is expected to worsen as the number of cars on the road continues to outpace miles of new roads built. And in another dangerous trend, speeding -- one of the chief kinds of aggressive driving -- is rising sharply. That, too, could lead to an increase in aggressive-driving accidents.

USA TODAY analyzed 50,000 traffic accident reports collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in each of the past 10 years. The reports are a representative sample of all 24 million accidents reported to police from 1988 through 1997. The newspaper's analysis found:

-The accident rate has held steady. Aggressive-driving accidents with injuries have remained virtually constant over the past decade: They account for about one of every five crashes with injuries. Last year, 20.8% of accidents with injuries were caused by aggressive driving. The lowest percentage was 19.2% in 1988; the highest was 23.3% in 1989.
-The cost of aggressive driving is immense. Over the past decade, aggressive driving has killed an average of 1,500 people each year, injured another 800,000 and cost the country roughly $24 billion in medical costs, property damage and lost time from work.
-Accidents could increase in the future. After years of staying flat, the rate of aggressive-driving crashes may be on the verge of surging. Crashes involving speeding, a key component of aggressive driving, have risen 48% over the past decade. Speeding, combined with unprecedented levels of traffic, may force the problem to soar in the years ahead, the analysis shows.

The analysis also showed that many stereotypes of aggressive drivers do not hold up. Although the analysis found a direct link between young motorists and aggressive driving, they are hardly the only threats on the road. There are aggressive drivers of both sexes and all ages.

They drive minivans and station wagons. Most are suburban commuters. In other words, they're everywhere.

"The question isn't why we have a problem with aggressive driving," says Denver therapist William Webster, author of the study, Anger Management on the Road and Beyond. "The question is what took us so long to see it."

What is it, exactly?

Part of the difficulty in gauging the problem has been in defining it. The term "road rage" first appeared in England in 1988 and has become a catch-all expression for virtually any calamity on concrete.

Only recently have law-enforcement agencies and insurance companies reached a consensus on what constitutes aggressive driving. Most authorities now agree that aggressive driving is at least one of four driving offenses: speeding, running a red light or stop sign, failure to yield the right of way and "reckless driving." In its analysis, USA TODAY examined every accident in which a driver was cited for one of these infractions and a death or injury resulted.

"Reckless driving" can include the first three violations, but police generally use it as a charge against drivers they deem dangerous on the highways. That can include drivers who are tailgating, weaving or blinding other drivers with high beams -- all mainstays of the modern drive.

"Road rage" is much more extreme than aggressive driving -- and much more rare. Experts use the term to refer to physical assaults stemming from traffic disputes. Road rage is an aggressive-driving incident gone haywire: A near-accident becomes an argument that turns to violence.

No agency can say exactly how bad a problem road rage is. The AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association), estimates that 218 people died in road-rage incidents from 1990 through 1996. That's about 30 a year.

Aggressive driving is far more prevalent -- and deadly. During the same seven years, about 10,500 people died in aggressive-driving accidents, USA TODAY's analysis showed. About 290,000 people died in traffic crashes of all kinds on American roads from 1990 through 1996.

Congestion often the trigger

Congestion is at the crux of aggressive driving, almost two dozen highway safety experts told USA TODAY. For as much as we love our cars, we hate traffic.

"No one gets angry when they see an empty stretch of highway," says Aaron Showalter, a traffic adviser with AutoTech, an auto industry consulting firm based in Chicago. "They get angry when they see a 5-mile backup and they're late for work."

That frustration can turn a commuter into a stunt driver. In August, Sarah Carr, a North Carolina mother of two, was arrested after taking desperate measures to get her kids to their elementary school on time.

Durham police say Carr drove onto the sidewalk and across people's yards to get around a traffic jam. Cpl. Lori Fansler, who was directing traffic, says she ordered Carr to stop and leaned into the car to talk to her. Carr told the officer that she "didn't have freaking time for this" and hit the gas. Fansler's hand got tangled in the seat belt, and she was dragged 10 feet. Another officer chased the car at about 75 mph before the woman pulled up at her children's school.

Carr was charged with assault with a deadly weapon on a law officer, speeding to elude an officer and careless and reckless driving. She had to post $1,000 bail to get out of jail.

Police say many aggressive-driving accidents occur just before drivers reach stalled traffic, as they're jockeying for position and trying to maintain speed until the last moment. USA TODAY's analysis showed that nearly half of all accidents, and slightly more than half of aggressive-driving crashes, occur during the morning and evening rush hours.

The analysis also found that aggressive-driving accidents occur more frequently in areas less accustomed to traffic jams. Most crashes occur in the South and West, where population booms in recent years have resulted in newly crowded streets and highways. Sixteen Southern states and the District of Columbia, for example, have only a third of the nation's population but account for almost half of all aggressive-driving crashes with injuries.

Carey Gigi, 48, of Hialeah, Fla., typifies the frustrated driver there. "I'm not really a violent person, but in traffic I go crazy," says Gigi, who commutes 300 miles a week.

The Northeast has comparable traffic volume. But highway safety experts say motorists there are more accustomed to backups and are less likely to try daredevil maneuvers to avoid them.

"People are flocking to the South and West, and the highways aren't built to accommodate that much traffic yet," Showalter says. "That leads to backups, which leads to traffic jams. That leads to trouble."

Thanks to increased use of seat belts, more cars with airbags and widespread use of highway guardrails, traffic fatalities began decreasing in the late 1980s and early '90s. The number of people killed fell from 46,000 in 1987 to 39,000 in 1992. However, the number of deaths has started creeping back up in the past five years. Nearly 42,000 people were killed in traffic accidents last year.

If highways continue to grow more and more congested, Webster says, "No technology in the world is going to stop deaths and injuries from going through the roof."

All kinds of people

Anyone can be an aggressive driver, the analysis found.

USA TODAY found that women are just as aggressive as men. They drive about 43% of all miles driven, and cause 43% of aggressive-driving crashes with injuries.

Some psychologists refer to their aggressiveness as the "iron womb" mentality: Although women may tend to act less aggressively than men off the road, automobiles afford a sense of security when they lose their tempers while driving.

"You feel a whole lot safer yelling at someone when you are surrounded by 2,000 pounds of metal," says Athelia Gunderson of Tacoma, Wash., who admits to an occasional outburst during her daily 30-minute commute to her job at a roofing supply company.

The analysis found a direct correlation between age and aggression. While the nation's youngest drivers, those 16 to 24, are involved in 27% of all accidents, they cause 37% of all aggressive-driving crashes.

"A lot of young people carry a feeling of invincibility, on and off the road," says Mark Coleman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Safe Streets Coalition, which monitors traffic and accident trends. "Plus, they're inexperienced behind the wheel. That makes them the biggest risk."

But experienced motorists cause their share of crashes as well. Drivers 25 to 34 are involved in 24% of all crashes and 20% of aggressive-driving crashes with injuries. Those 35 to 44 are involved in 20% versus 15%, respectively. Those 75 or older account for 6% of aggressive driving crashes and 3% of the crashes overall.

There also is no vehicle of choice for the aggressive driver. Passenger cars are involved in most aggressive-driving crashes that result in injuries. But they're involved in most accidents of all kinds, too. No type of vehicle, not even pickups or sport utilities with their macho reputations, is involved in a disproportionate number of wrecks caused by aggressive driving, the analysis showed.

Not a new problem

Certainly, freeway fury is nothing new.

In 1817, Lord Byron wrote of a "row on the road . . . with a fellow in a carriage, who was impudent to my horse. I gave him a swinging box on the ear, which sent him to the police."

Highway aggression in its latest form was in full force more than a decade ago, even though roads were less crowded and commutes were shorter. Yet the problem went largely unnoticed until the 1990s.

"No one was counting the drivers who were taking out their frustrations on the road," says Brian Traynor, chief of the traffic law enforcement division of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So what sparked the sudden media and public interest in asphalt aggression? Some credit "carjack syndrome."

In 1991, police in Detroit noticed a surge in a crime bureaucratically categorized as a "UDAA," for "Robbery Armed/Unauthorized Driving Away of an Automobile." In an investigation of the phenomenon, The Detroit News dubbed the crime "carjacking." Within four months, reports of carjackings had more than doubled in Detroit and inundated police departments in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Two years later, the FBI officially recognized "carjacking," and Congress made it a federal offense.

"Like it or not, if you give a crime a catchy name, people pay attention to it," says Robert Henning, a Washington-based media analyst.

Carjackings had plagued police for decades, but it took a catchy media phrase to alert the public to the problem -- and instill fear that anyone could be the next victim.

Similarly, public awareness about highway aggression began to grow with use of the term "road rage."

According to a NEXIS media database search, the term appeared only two dozen times in 1994. It was used 400 times the next year, more than 1,600 times the next. Last year, it was mentioned 4,000 times.

The impact has weighed heavy on the minds of the motoring public. In a poll last year by AAA, 44% of motorists rated aggressive driving the biggest threat on the road; drunken driving was second with 31%. Yet even officials at AAA, which referred to aggressive driving as an "epidemic" in its poll report, have publicly suggested that drunken driving remains the nation's top driving threat and have urged drivers not to become unduly panicked over aggressive driving.

"It's no longer a catchy phrase," Henning says. "Now it's a social issue."

What to expect

Battles on Capitol Hill and crackdowns on the nation's highways will continue as officials target aggressive driving. In September, Arizona became the first state to make aggressive driving a crime. Nineteen others are considering similar laws.

Arizona's statute defines aggressive driving, a misdemeanor, as both speeding and committing two of three other infractions -- erratic lane changes, tailgating and failure to yield.

A first offense carries penalties ranging from suspension of a driver's license for up to 30 days, a $2,500 fine or up to six months in jail. A second offense within 24 months can result in a one-year license revocation.

The federal government also has responded. The Department of Transportation announced in May that it is giving more than $10 million to a dozen communities in a test to battle aggressive driving. Campaigns include more police patrols, television monitors mounted on freeway overpasses and even "dummy cameras" at intersections to make drivers think they are being videotaped for running red lights.

These and other responses may be coming at the right time. USA TODAY's analysis showed that despite a decade of steady accident rates, aggressive-driving accidents may be ready to take off.

The reason is twofold: more cars on the same road space, and more speed.

As the population grew and the number of women entering the workplace doubled in two decades to 61 million in 1995, the number of commuters soared accordingly. There were 89 million cars on American roads, in driveways and on sales lots in 1970. Today there are more than 150 million.

And motorists are driving faster. Since 1995, 32 states have raised their 55-mph highway speed limits -- and seen a 10% increase in fatal crashes, according to Transportation Department statistics. And crashes at high speeds are almost always the most violent.

Speeding caused 153,000 accidents that ended with injuries in 1997, a 48% jump from 103,000 in 1988. Other forms of aggressive driving, such as reckless driving, have dropped over the decade, keeping overall numbers stable.

But congestion threatens the balance, experts say. Over the past decade, the number of miles driven has risen 35% while the number of miles of new roads built has increased just 1%, federal figures show.

Traffic engineer Showalter says that unless the twin problems of congestion and speeding are addressed soon, "We may be creating a recipe for disaster. We've been hearing plenty about aggressive driving and road rage. But the real problem might not have even hit us yet."

USA TODAY and many police agencies and insurance companies define "aggressive driving" as at least one of these four driving offenses: speeding, running a red light or stop sign, failure to yield the right of way, and reckless driving.

"Road rage" usually begins with aggressive driving, but includes a physical assault stemming from a traffic dispute.

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