October 11, 2006

Road Rage Revealed

Sag Harbor resident Richard Sawyer was headed with his girlfriend for a Sunday morning breakfast at Estia's Little Kitchen recently when a pleasant outing turned ugly.

"I was coming down the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, and before I got to the restaurant, I started signaling that I would be turning off the road. I gave the person behind me plenty of notice," he said. "As I turned off to Estia's the guy behind me sat on his horn. I got annoyed and flicked him 'half the peace sign,'" he said. "I could feel my heart starting to beat faster and I thought, 'Don't tell me we're going to have a confrontation.'"

Tailgating. Lane changes. Speeding. Cutting off another driver. All are symptoms of a growing unrest on our nation's streets and highways that have sparked a nationwide epidemic of aggressive driving. And, when tempers flare and tensions heat up, incidents of road rage have turned deadly.

According to Robert Sinclair, Jr., manager of media relations at AAA New York, a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for traffic safety examined over 10,000 incidents involving assaults by enraged drivers between 1990 and 1996. Results revealed that "at least 218 people were killed and another 12,610 inured when drivers got angry," he said.

Sinclair said that while many drivers involved in those incidents were men between the ages of 18 and 26, he added, "Almost any driver becomes violent if they let their anger take precedence over driving carefully."

Locally, a simmering brew of pent-up rage has been bubbling on the East End in recent months as rage-prone drivers deal with the frustrations of crawling traffic and increasingly congested roads.

Last July, drivers on County Road 39, stalled in bumper-to-bumper traffic in front of the Princess Diner in Southampton, watched as one driver attempted to cut off another vehicle while trying to enter the parking lot. After a near-collision, the man jumped out of his car, gesturing wildly and shouting obscenities, stopping traffic completely as he engaged in a verbal altercation.

Such incidences have become commonplace on the East End, and across the nation, as the rules for safe driving are tossed to the side of the road.

But, according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the United States Department of Transportation, although the expression is bandied about freely, riled-up motorists are not necessarily exhibiting road rage, a criminal offense.

According to a report on controlling road rage prepared for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 1999, road rage is defined by "an incident in which an angry or impatient motorist or passenger intentionally injures or kills another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian, or attempts or threatens to injure or kill another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian."

The report emphasizes that "road rage" and "aggressive driving" are not synonymous. While road rage is criminal behavior, aggressive driving includes tailgating, abrupt lane changes, and speeding, alone or in combination — traffic offenses.

Most documented instances of fury on the freeway involve cases of aggressive driving, according to NHTSA.

Because crashes are complex events, it is difficult to pinpoint any one factor as a primary cause; therefore, the NHTSA refers to contributing causes of accidents, which include aggressive driving offenses.

For instance, in 2003, speeding was a contributing factor in 31% of all fatal crashes.

According to the NHTSA, it's difficult to define whether or not an accident was sparked by aggressive driving, because each case is situational and state and local jurisdictions vary in their rules and regulations.

According to the AAA Foundation report, there appears to be a slightly higher incidence of road rage incidents during the Friday afternoon peak travel times, during fair weather, under moderately congested conditions, and in urban areas.

Also, while road rage does not seem to spike during holiday seasons. alcohol and/or drugs were found to be associated with one quarter of incidents.

Road rage, said Sinclair, is not generally sparked by congested roads or stalled traffic alone. It is a certain type of personality — "generally, the same type A personality that makes one successful in business; the go get 'em, workaholic type" — that translates to aggressive driving and road rage.

Sinclair said the relatively new syndrome has sprung from a nation that's been working too hard.

And the more insulated society becomes the less respect individuals have for others. "It's an offshoot of modern personal attitudes. People today are driven — that's a good metaphor."

East Hampton Town Police Chief Todd Sarris said that while road rage was difficult to document and no specific numbers were available, East Hampton has "had an increase," in aggressive driving behavior on the road, especially during summer and morning and evening commutes. Not all such incidents lead to police intervention or arrests, said Sarris, leading him to believe "there are a lot more out there than we're made aware of."

Even Sarris, in uniform, was once the victim of road rancor. "Someone tried cutting me off, and I let her in. I just tooted the horn and she flipped me the bird."

Sinclair pointed out that certain behaviors provoke aggression-prone drivers, such as drivers who cut off other vehicles, drive slowly in the left lane, use obscene gestures, or tailgate.

Prevention is key in road rage avoidance, said Sinclair: "Don't engage. Steer clear. Pull over and get out of the way, avoid eye contact. If the other person is following you, go to a police station or a heavily populated, well-lighted area. Do not go home, or lead them to your domicile."

Most important, he said, is mindset. "It's attitude adjustment — latitude in your attitude."

According to AAA reports, enforcement and education are the most commonly used interventions to prevent aggressive driving and road rage, as well as legislation and public information campaigns.

Sawyer's got a simple solution: He's planning on manufacturing bumper stickers that say, "Have a nice day." He will distribute the stickers to anyone who contacts him.

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