About 20 years ago, “road rage” was all the rage, in news reports on aggressive driving.
What appeared to be a growing trend of reckless incivility on American roadways spurred states such as Georgia to pass laws targeting the conduct.
But the issue since has faded from the headlines. Though most motorists likely can recall some instance in which an angry driver honked a horn, tailgated, made an obscene gesture or cut them off in traffic, the offense of “aggressive driving” is seldom charged.
Usually police opt to issue a citation for the particular violation resulting from aggressive driving, such as speeding or reckless driving. If the conduct escalates to the point that a driver uses a vehicle as a weapon in trying to injure or kill someone, then the charge in Georgia becomes aggravated assault.
Sometimes road rage leads to the use of other weapons, such as guns.
That’s what happened Thursday in Russell County, authorities said: A road-rage encounter on the JR Allen Parkway in Columbus turned into an extended back-and-forth between drivers headed to their homes in Fort Mitchell, where one man was killed and two others were wounded in a shooting at a Dollar General, across the street from a gas station where the motorists pulled over.
"They basically got into a shouting match, shooting each other birds," said Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor. "They were tailgating each other back and forth, starting on JR Allen.”
Unlike Georgia, Alabama does not specifically outlaw aggressive driving. Should law enforcement officers observe a driver exhibiting such conduct – speeding, tailgating, weaving through traffic, etc. – they most likely would charge the motorist with reckless driving, said Cpl. Jesse Thornton of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
Troopers regularly see such recklessness borne of anger, he said: “We see a lot of aggressive driving and reckless driving behavior.”
Under Alabama’s point system for traffic violations, a reckless driving or “reckless endangerment involving operating a motor vehicle” charge adds six points – half the 12 points in a two-year period that warrant a 60-day license suspension. For comparison, a minor offense such as failing to use a turn signal adds only two points.
The Georgia law
Georgia’s law against “aggressive driving” makes it a six-point penalty, with a license suspension resulting from accruing 15 points or more in a two-year period.
Here’s the statute the state General Assembly passed in 2001:
“A person commits the offense of aggressive driving when he or she operates any motor vehicle with the intent to annoy, harass, molest, intimidate, injure, or obstruct another person. ... Any person convicted of aggressive driving shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.”
Though police have the option of applying the law to road rage incidents, its use is not common.
“We don’t see it charged very often,” said Steve Craft, the assistant chief of the local public defender’s office. Police more likely will issue citations for a specific violation such as speeding or reckless driving, he said.
Said Columbus Police Maj. J.D. Hawk: “It’s not readily reported.” Officers do look for aggressive driving, and act on it when they see it, he said, but, “It’s not running rampant.”
Both Craft and Hawk noted that when police discover someone’s using a motor vehicle to attack others, such as trying to run them down or ram their automobiles, officers don’t treat that as a traffic offense.
“It’s a crime,” said Hawk. “It’s not a moving violation. It’s an assault.”
He cited a case Aug. 2 in which a 42-year-old LaGrange woman fatally was injured at Talbotton Road and Veterans Parkway, where a motorist allegedly drove so recklessly he caused a five-car crash.
The suspect, who got out and ran after the wreck, was charged with multiple traffic violations, but police also charged him with murder, deciding he had not merely broken traffic laws. “He was committing a crime,” Hawk said.
Driver confrontations leading to gunplay like Thursday’s incident in Russell County are what propelled “road rage” into the public consciousness, back in the 1990s. A Los Angeles news station, KTLA, came up with the term “after a string of shootings occurred on several freeways in the city,” reports SafeMotorist.com, a defensive driving website.
The phrase “aggressive driving” also came into common use then, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which defines it as “the operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger persons or property” and says the term encompasses conduct such as “following too closely, driving at excessive speeds, weaving through traffic, and running stop lights and signs.”
Until the 1990s, it was not an issue that got much attention. Such confrontations were thought to be brief and infrequent, typically no more noteworthy than the angry honking of a horn or display of an insulting gesture.
“However, beginning in the 1990s, an unrelenting series of news reports captured the public’s attention and elevated to a national problem what previously had been considered to be, simply, rude and occasionally bizarre human behavior,” reports an NHTSA study. “The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety studied more than 10,000 reported cases of road rage and found a 51 percent increase in serious incidents between 1990 and 1996.”
According to a 1999 NHTSA survey, 60 percent of motorists thought others’ unsafe driving was “a major personal threat to them and their families,” and 75 percent thought it “very important” to address the problem.
But research showed much of that sentiment was media-driven: People were hearing more about road rage because of news reports highlighting particularly egregious cases. “The crash data suggest that road rage is a relatively small traffic safety problem, despite the volume of news accounts and the general salience of the issue,” the NHTSA said.
The agency identified these factors as contributing to aggressive driving:
- Traffic delays and congestion aggravated drivers’ impatience, provoking aggressive conduct.
- Running late also prompted motorist frustration, as drivers were not leaving adequate time to reach their destination.
- The anonymity and power of being in a motor vehicle, such as one with tinted windows, led drivers to feel less accountable for their actions. “The anonymity provided by this insulation can erode the inhibitions to antisocial behavior that normally shape interpersonal relations,” said the NHTSA.
- Societal fragmentation leading motorists to feel less connected to each other and to have less respect for the law and authority also could be a factor, as could the individual driver’s propensity to act in anger. Some people simply lack self-restraint, and “chronic anger, habitual or persistent aggressive driving, and especially a pattern of confrontation on the road, must be considered manifestations of pathology, in addition to violations of the law,” the agency said.
Says the Georgia Department of Public Safety: “Violent traffic disputes are rarely the result of a single incident, but rather are the result of personal attitudes or the cumulative result of a series of stressors in the motorist’s life.”
The typical road-rager is a male between age of 18 and 26, commonly with a history of violence and drug or alcohol abuse, and with a recent “emotional or professional setback,” the department says.
Because no one can control another’s conduct, the department advises motorists confronted with an aggressive driver to avoid escalating the issue by responding in kind. It offers these tips:
- Keep your focus on the road; don’t make eye contact with the other driver.
- Don’t respond to provocation.
- Avoid others who are driving erratically.
- If pursued, drive to a public place or law enforcement facility.
The department gives this advice to avoid roadway confrontations:
- Use a turn signal when changing lanes.
- Don’t block right-turn lanes.
- Don’t hit a car next to you with your door when you open it.
- Don’t gratuitously honk your horn.
- Dim your headlights when approaching an oncoming car or following close behind one.
- Don’t tailgate.
- Allow other traffic to pass if you’re moving slowly.
- Don’t block the road by stopping to talk or check a map.
- Don’t have the car stereo at a volume that annoys others.
- Allow adequate time to reach your destination.
- Don’t view another motorist’s bad driving as a personal affront.
- Avoid driving when you’re already angry or upset.