Pedestrians dodge rash of road rage

As a lifelong pedestrian, some parts of my day never fail to bring me joy. Traffic reports interrupting my morning radio program. The ever-escalating gas prices. Lines of cars crawling along the freeway at a snail’s pace on the evening news. Reports of gridlock.
Waiting outside at a bus stop in January might not be fun, but at least I don’t have to contend with these annoyances.
Recently, another driving hazard cropped up that I am glad to avoid: road rage. As I walk placidly to work, on-the-road drivers’ aggression levels have risen to violence and even murder. Driving was never meant to be a contact sport, but increasingly, it has become one.
This summer on an Eagan off-ramp, Dr. Tomas Valente got out of his car and punched a 69-year-old woman in the face before driving away. He was fined and sentenced to 10 days in jail.
Last week in an Alabama suburb, two middle-aged women never finished their commute home. Gena Foster died on the road from a gunshot wound to the face and Shirley Henson was toted straight to jail.
Ricardo Marinez, a federal administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, declared road rage the top traffic problem two years ago, and studies have shown that enraged drivers are viewed by the public as a bigger threat than inebriated ones.
Newspaper accounts feed this new fear. Last week, an elderly man was driven off the road near Forest Lake, Minn., by a younger driver who alternately tailgated and cut off the man. Albert Augustine, 71, broke his hand in the accident. In Maryland on Tuesday, a man was grazed by a bullet from an enraged driver. On Friday, a man in Arkansas surrendered to police after he allegedly killed another man in a road-rage incident, hitting him with a sport-utility vehicle and then running over the victim’s legs as he drove away.
What has caused this onslaught of violent, angry drivers? Of course, the easy answer is all the inept drivers on the road. Hey, I might not have a car, but I know how stupid some of those drivers can be.
But a more reasonable explanation is the gridlock commuters face on a daily basis. The Texas Transportation Institute found in a report this week that the Twin Cities rate 14th in the nation in roadway congestion, up from 34th in 1990. Los Angeles has the most congestion according to the study, followed by Washington, D.C.
Professor Leon James at the University of Hawaii has studied driving psychology for 23 years and spelled out the cause of road rage to lawmakers at a congressional hearing in 1997. He said more cars lead to more traffic, which causes frustration, stress, anger, hostility and violence.
“More cars lead to more aggression on the roads, sort of like rats fighting in a crowded colony,” he wrote in his testimony to the committee.
Fortunately, rats don’t carry .35-mm handguns in their glove compartments. Things could really get ugly as the little rodents tried to find the cheese at the end of a complicated maze.
Among the culprits are the high-school gym teachers who taught us defensive driving techniques in our driver’s education classes. My teacher in Moorhead, Minn., explained to the class that most drivers on the road are incompetent, and we had to be on our guard all the time to avoid the accidents they were sure to cause. This attitude can easily cross over from aggression to anger.
In fact, a symposium of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in January prescribed a solution that’s very anti-defensive driving. They suggested these rules: 1) Don’t make eye contact. 2) Back off and make appropriate apologies when possible. 3) Adopt a “be my guest” attitude — let people pass, for instance.
Some of the other proposed solutions sound like a lot more fun. Dr. James, also known as “Dr. Driving,” recommends Quality Driving Circles — group therapy organizations for drivers in congested areas.
An innovative Texas company makes hand-held signs that drivers can hold out their window to communicate with other cars. While pitched as the cure to road rage, I don’t know how holding a sign that says “Jerk!” or “Back Off!” will really improve the situation. In light of the current gun-toting atmosphere, it might be asking for a bullet wound.
In Pinellas County, Fla., officials revealed a new traffic safety program, according to a report last week in the Star Tribune. The article explained:
The program asks pedestrians to extend their right hands (as if shaking hands) continuously through an intersection, while smiling, to get the attention of drivers.
As a pedestrian, I have to oppose to this plan. No public official can force me to smile. The only way this could help remedy road rage is by making the drivers laugh so hard they forget to be angry.
Instead of intruding on pedestrians’ rights and integrity, perhaps more drivers should join the ranks of the walkers and peddlers. A few weeks of riding the 16A bus to campus or work every day will make drivers so appreciative of their vehicles that a little matter like getting cut off won’t seem like such a terrible offense.
Giving up car keys for bus passes will also cut down on gridlock and reduce pollution. Ten traffic-pollution toxins were detected in a study of Twin Cities air quality released on Tuesday. Also, less money will be needed for roadway construction if we get some of the cars off the road.
Imagine, saving taxpayer money and saving lives. That bus route never looked so good.
Coralie Carlson’s column appears on alternate Thursdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected].