'Road Rage' Versus Reality

A media coinage that rests more on the infectious appeal of alliteration than on the weight of evidence
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"ROAD WARRIORS: AGGRESSIVE DRIVERS TURN FREEWAYS INTO FREE-FOR-ALLS," read the headline of an Associated Press article in the Chicago Tribune last year. "Armed with everything from firearms to Perrier bottles to pepper spray and eggs," the text began, "America's drivers are taking frustrations out on each other in startling numbers." Newsweek warned, "ROAD RAGE: WE'RE DRIVEN TO DESTRUCTION." In January of this year Time declared, "It's high noon on the country's streets and highways. This is road recklessness, auto anarchy, an epidemic of wanton carmanship. "Earlier USAToday had spoken of "AN `EPIDEMIC' OF AGGRESSIVE DRIVING," and the Washington Times also reported, "HIGHWAY VIOLENCE SAID TO BE SPREADING LIKE AN EPIDEMIC." The media couldn't talk enough about the awful carnage. Even a piece by the columnist William Safire, on the death of Princess Diana, was titled "ROAD RAGE IN PARIS." By July of last year matters had become so serious that Representative Tom Petri, of Wisconsin, called hearings before the House Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, which he chairs. "It's a national disaster," Jeff Nelligan, a committee staff member, said. "It's making our roads some of the most dangerous places in the country."

By the end of May there were about 200 citations on the Nexis media database that used both "epidemic" and "road rage." In fact, there's been a tremendous proliferation of the term "road rage" itself. It was, apparently, coined in 1988, and appeared in up to three stories yearly until 1994, when it began to catch on. After twenty-seven mentions that year the numbers escalated sharply, to almost 500 in 1995, more than 1,800 in 1996, and more than 4,000 in 1997.

Headlines notwithstanding, there was not -- there is not -- the least statistical or other scientific evidence of more-aggressive driving on our nation's roads. Indeed, accident, fatality, and injury rates have been edging down. There is no evidence that "road rage" or an aggressive-driving "epidemic" is anything but a media invention, inspired primarily by something as simple as a powerful alliteration: road rage. The term was presumably based on "roid rage," referring to sudden violent activity by people on steroids. The term, and the alleged epidemic, were quickly popularized by lobbying groups, politicians, opportunistic therapists, publicity-seeking safety agencies, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

*  *  *

The most frequently cited evidence that Americans have been killing and maiming one another at record rates was a study from the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, released in March of last year. More than 260 references to the AAA study soon showed up on Nexis. "ROAD RAGE: UGLY INCREASE IN ACTS OF FREEWAY FURY,"from the San Francisco Chronicle, was a representative headline. The study, however, was quite possibly a measure more of perception than of reality.

To conduct it, AAA commissioned Mizell & Co., of Bethesda, Maryland, a consulting firm that collects criminal statistics. The study purported to show an increase of about 60 percent in what it termed "aggressive driving" from 1990 through 1996 (if the rate applicable partway through 1996 held constant). Although Mizell never used the inflammatory term "road rage," he did pour rhetorical fuel on the fire, saying, "What used to be just two people screaming at each other is now one person losing it and pulling the trigger."

The study has numerous problems. Consider that the 218 deaths Mizell claimed were directly attributable to aggressive driving occurred in a period during which 290,000 people died in traffic accidents. He identified 12,610 people whose injuries were attributable to aggressive driving out of a total of 23 million people injured by vehicles. And the survey was hardly scientific. Rather, Mizell simply drew on stories from about thirty newspapers, reports from sixteen police departments, and insurance-company claim reports. He didn't even demonstrate that the changes in his numbers from year to year were statistically significant. Couldn't an increase in the number of incidents reported simply reflect increased awareness of and publicity for aggressive driving, along with an explosion in the use of the term "road rage"? Mizell essentially dismissed this idea both when I interviewed him recently ("We would have picked up on this") and in his report, where he called the influence of such factors "almost certainly not significant."

David Murray, the director of research at the Statistical Assessment Service, in Washington, D.C., doesn't buy it. Once a phenomenon picks up a label, he explains, the label tends to be applied to more and more things. "We find it everywhere," Murray says. "There has always been a degree of aggression while driving, but what did we used to call it? Nothing. Now that we have a name, we look for things that seem to be similar and build a pathology." Stuart Kirk, a professor in the School of Public Policy and Social Research at the University of California at Los Angeles, concurs. "You get an epidemic by the mere coining of a term," he says. What's more, Murray suggests that Mizell's sources -- reporters, police departments, and insurance adjusters -- influence one another.

Circularity also affects polls indicating that people believe that aggressive driving is on the rise, which are often cited by safety advocates as evidence that it is. One poll, taken in August of last year, found that 74 percent of Americans surveyed believed that other people were driving more aggressively than they had been five years earlier. A few months later another poll showed that Americans considered AIDS to be one of the nation's top two health problems, even though it was actually the No. 8 killer and AIDS deaths and the number of new cases are declining. Those being polled were merely reacting to an image of AIDS with which they had been presented.

in May of last year quoted Bob Wall, a traffic-safety coordinator for the Fairfax County, Virginia, police department who speaks on the issue around the country, as saying that aggressive driving is "becoming a national epidemic."Powerful words. "But how do you know this?" I asked Wall. "You can talk to just about any police agency in the country," he said. "Every time Igo somewhere they are talking about aggressive driving."

I asked Wall if he had any evidence beyond what the police thought. He referred me to an employee in the Traffic Safety Program at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, whose comments have to go without attribution because the NHTSA press office wouldn't let her speak on the record. She candidly admitted that although aggressive driving is "a newly emerging issue," "no data" indicate an actual increase in it. "Not here and not anywhere," she emphasized. "Aggressive driving"is "just a term," she explained, with "no fixed definition.""There's no law against anything called `aggressive driving,' and therefore no tally to look at, as with speeding tickets," she said. "You have to have something to mark."

*  *  *

If road rage were increasingly a problem, shouldn't it show up in an increase in highway fatalities? Political appointees at the NHTSA -- as opposed to those who actually collect and analyze the data -- claim that it does. Ricardo Martinez, the head of the NHTSA, told Petri's subcommittee, "After years of steady decline, the total number of highway deaths increased slightly in each of the last four years." He added that in 1996 there were 41,907 highway fatalities in the country, an increase from the year before.

But those numbers don't take into account additional drivers or miles driven. During the period in which the AAA survey found a 60 percent increase in aggressive-driving accidents, deaths on American highways actually declined, to 1.7 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 1987, the year before "road rage" first appeared on Nexis, the rate was 2.4. This decline is not explained merely by the greater use of seat belts and air bags. In 1987 there were 2.8 passenger-car crashes per 100 million miles traveled. In 1996 the figure was only 2.0. For both these categories the numbers are now the lowest they have been since the NHTSA began keeping records.

As for injuries, in 1990, the first year of the Mizell data, there were 151 per 100 million miles traveled. By 1996 the number had slipped to 141. Preliminary NHTSA data for 1997 show that motor-vehicle deaths, crashes, and injuries all declined in absolute terms, despite an increase in vehicle miles traveled of about two percent.

None of this is proof that no increase has occurred in the number of deaths or injuries attributable to road rage. After all, improvements in auto safety may have more than compensated for increases in road-rage casualties. But it's clear that authorities are being disingenuous when they claim that casualty data are worsening.

Still, aggressive driving does cause some accidents. At Petri's subcommittee hearings Martinez claimed that "one third of these crashes and about two thirds of the resulting fatalities can be attributed to behavior associated with aggressive driving." The media accepted this claim without question: "TEMPER CITED AS CAUSE OF 28,000 ROAD DEATHS A YEAR" (The New York Times); "TWO-THIRDS OF ALL AUTO DEATHS BLAMED ON STRESSED-OUT, AGGRESSIVE DRIVERS" (the San Francisco Examiner); "SEETHING MOTORISTS MAKE CARS WEAPONS" (the Albany Times Union). But was there any truth to the figure of 28,000? Liz Neblett, a spokeswoman for the NHTSA, responded quite candidly. "We don't have hard numbers,"she said, "but aggressive driving is almost everything. It includes weaving in and out of traffic, driving too closely, flashing your lights -- all kinds of stuff. Drinking, speeding, almost everything you can think of, can be boiled down to aggressive driving behaviors." With such a broad definition, Martinez could conceivably label virtually every accident as the result of aggressive driving.

*  *  *

Originally "road rage" meant one driver acting against another. No longer. By last year it had come to include a Washington, D.C., bicyclist who shot the driver of a car who ran into him, and a Scottish couple who threatened a driver with a knife after his BMW ran over their dog. The definition of "road rage" now requires neither a road nor rage. One newspaper published a story about developing pristine land under the headline "ROAD RAGE HAS TAKEN TOLL ON WILDERNESS," and USA Todaydiscussed people angry about their insurance premiums under the headline "DRIVERS FEEL 'ROAD RAGE' OVER HIGH INSURANCE RATES."

Driving behavior that was once called something else is now called road rage. Thus a British insurance firm recently conducted a poll in which, it claims, "almost one in two state they have either been a victim of or a witness to an act of 'Road Rage.' "But the primary road-rage act was "verbal abuse,"the second largest category was "hand gestures," and the third was "intimidatory driving." Attacks on vehicles or people were rarely reported.

The shortage of evidence that aggressive driving is increasing hardly keeps some "experts" from providing reasons why it is. John Larson, a psychiatrist at Yale University, in his testimony before Petri's subcommittee divided aggressive driving -- or "vigilante behavior," as he called it -- into four degrees, with "road rage" the highest and "highway madness" just beneath it. One of the causes Larson listed for road rage was sports -- being "strongly imbued with the sports model, either from high school, college, or professional sports; and from identification with sports heroes, who become introjected models for behavior. "Another lay in the make of the car itself. "Often aggressive drivers will 'deduce' the motivation of the other driver from the make of his car," Larson told the subcommittee. "BMWs, pickup trucks, sports cars, or off-road vehicles may be given aggressive motivations.... Thus aggressive drivers react to the 'personality' they associate with the make and model of the vehicle, not the person inside it." Larson even indicted "Ford Tough" and similar advertising slogans.

Arnold Nerenberg, a clinical psychologist in Whittier, California, invokes evolution. "This competitiveness on the road is similar to what you see in all social mammals," he told one reporter. "There is this 'I will not let you get ahead of me.'" Nerenberg is the nation's expert on the causes of road rage -- or, perhaps, the guru. He dubs himself "America's Road-Rage Therapist," and has his own Web page (www.roadrage.com). He has testified before the Petri subcommittee, has appeared on the CBS Evening News, Fox News, 48 Hours, and Johnnie Cochran, and has been featured in Newsweek, U.S. News &World Report, The New York Times, and various women's magazines. Nexis shows more than 100 citations for him on the subject of road rage. His Overcoming Road Rage can be ordered in book, audio-tape, or video format. Originally Nerenberg sold it through a PR firm, using the toll-free number 1-888-ROADRAGE. But the firm has since folded, and now he sells it directly from his office, without benefit of the catchy phone number. Personal sessions can be arranged with him, during which, among other things, according to the Web magazine Salon, he accompanies his patients in the car and throws "screaming fits to demonstrate how crazed and unattractive they appear."

Nerenberg says that occasionally expressing anger behind the wheel is normal. "What's abnormal," he told Salon, "is when it goes beyond muttering to screaming and other aggressive actions." But to hear him tell it, not having road rage is abnormal. He claims that more than half of drivers have "road-rage disorder. "Sometimes he describes this as "basically a maladaptive reaction to an identifiable psycho-social stressor that interferes with social functioning. "When he wants to be understood, he calls it "one driver expressing anger at another driver ... at least twice a year."

Nerenberg has his own road-rage statistics. During a CNN interview he said, "Fifty-three percent of our population has a road-rage disorder," and 1.78 billion "episodes" occur each year. "That's based on the fact that on average drivers manifest road rage twenty-seven times a year, and we have about a hundred and twenty-five million cars on the road." Nerenberg considers road rage a "mental disorder and a social disease," and proposes that it be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association.

*  *  *

While roads become slightly safer each year, traffic accidents remain a leading cause of death in this country, and disproportionately so among the young. But the fuss over aggressive driving and road rage distracts us from those behaviors that could be controlled with relatively minor investments, greatly reducing deaths and injuries. In recent years Americans have waged a fairly successful campaign against drunken driving. But a poll in March of last year, commissioned by AAA Potomac, showed that 48 percent of those surveyed identified "aggressive drivers" as their chief concern, whereas only 28 percent so identified drunk drivers. What happens to the drunken-driving campaigns now that road rage has become our greatest fear?

Clearly a major factor in American road deaths and injuries is that it is ridiculously easy in this country to get a driver's license -- to drive a couple of tons of metal capable of going more than 100 miles per hour. Vehicle crashes are by far the leading cause of death for those aged fifteen to twenty-four. According to NHTSA data for 1995, drivers aged twenty and under suffered sixty-seven fatal accidents per 100,000 licenses. For those twenty-one to twenty-four years old the rate dropped to forty-seven, and for those twenty-five to thirty-four it was thirty-three. In the 1960s and 1970s virtually all high schools had some form of drivers' education. According to AAA, it has been eliminated in about half the schools.

One behavior that apparently has become truly epidemic is the running of red lights. Drivers who run red lights cause a quarter of a million traffic crashes a year, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that was released in May. The Department of Transportation has determined that crashes at stoplights increased by 14 percent in the period 1992-1996, with the number of fatal crashes at stoplights increasing by 19 percent. A handful of cities are installing cameras at stoplights. And it's working. During the first six months after cameras were mounted at four San Francisco intersections, the number of drivers who ran red lights there dropped by 42 percent. Although some (including members of the California Assembly who fought unsuccessfully to stop the expansion of that state's three-year experiment with cameras) say these smack of Big Brother, the cameras take only single shots of the license plates of violators. A Harris poll in May found that Americans favor them by two to one. How many more lives could be saved and injuries prevented if we focused on behaviors that cause accidents, rather than on media creations like road rage?

was published last year. He is at work on a book about mass hysteria.


Illustration by Stephen Kroninger

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; "Road Rage" Versus Reality; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 12 - 17.




Michael Fumento writes about science and health issues. His fourth book,

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