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Navigating the Rise of Killer Road Rage

Navigating the Rise of Killer Road Rage

Are Americans becoming angrier and more aggressive as drivers?

It was a beautiful April day and I was heading up I-81, returning to Virginia after spending the weekend at a family gathering in North Carolina. The traffic was moderate and I found a radio station that played “Golden Oldies.” Life was sweet.

And then I hit the mother of all traffic jams.

Later I learned there’d been an accident involving a tractor-trailer truck, but at the time all I knew was that we were creeping along at four to eight miles an hour—when we moved at all. I drive a stick shift, a Honda Civic, and after about an hour I wondered if incessantly working the brake and the clutch might not bring on leg cramps. I managed to locate an exit with a McDonald’s, where I had a chicken sandwich and punched the keys on my laptop for about an hour waiting for the traffic to thin.

Back on the road, the expressway turned into a parking lot again within 45 minutes. Trucks and cars crept along, stopped, crept along. When we finally reached the site of this second accident, I was happy to see that no one appeared to be injured, though one of the cars looked ready for the junkyard.        

After passing this second crash site, I started paying attention to the habits of the motorists sharing the road with me. Most behaved with sensible caution, using their turn signals to shift lanes and keeping their distance from vehicles ahead of them, but many others tailgated cars or weaved aggressively in and out of traffic. All their wild maneuvers only landed them behind 18-wheelers, and I was left wondering if Americans are becoming angrier and more aggressive as drivers. If so, could those tantrums and outbursts be a consequence of the COVID pandemic and lockdowns?     

It sure looks that way.

In 2021, monthly road rage shootings doubled over the four past years, Cindy Carcamo reports in the Los Angeles Times  She also found that “in California, which saw a 5% increase in fatalities in 2020, California Highway Patrol officers issued nearly 28,500 tickets for drivers speeding over 100 mph, almost double the 2019 total.”

Aggressive driving statistics are quite prevalent, Smiljanic Sasha notes on the insurance website PolicyAdvice. She points out that “51% of Americans have engaged in purposefully tailgating other drivers” and that “24% or 49 million drivers have tried to prevent another car from switching lanes.” Sasha offers advice both on how to tamp down this anger and what to do when confronted by a driver who is clearly out of his gourd.

In addition to these contentious hotheads, many Americans are paying less attention to the road than they did 30 years ago. They talk on their phones, and worse, text while driving their vehicles. The Federal Communications Commission found that nine people are killed and over 1,000 injured every day in the United States because of distracted driving. The National Safety Council tallied up 1.6 million crashes annually caused by cell phone use. 

Add in drunken drivers, sleepyheads at the wheel, and the sheer volume of traffic on so many roads these days, and the potential for crashes grows even higher.

By chance, a friend called me the evening of the day I endured two traffic jams and told me that a driver had rear-ended his car that afternoon at a traffic light. With embarrassment he said that he’d erupted from the car, cursing and shouting at the poor woman. He then looked at his bumper and realized it wasn’t even dented. He apologized profusely for his verbal abuse.

His experience just goes to show that anyone can engage in or be the victim of road rage at the drop of a hat.

Despite higher gas prices, the arrival of summer means many Americans will be off to enjoy vacations. And while it’s impossible to completely protect ourselves from dangerous or distracted drivers, we ourselves can practice defense driving. Here are four “Keepers” to help you avoid accidents:

  • Keep your cool.
  • Keep your eyes on the road.
  • Keep your hands on the wheel.
  • And keep that cell phone out of reach.

Safe travels, everyone.

Image Credit: Flickr-Nuno Sousa, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick

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