'Road Rage' Versus Reality

A media coinage that rests more on the infectious appeal of alliteration than on the weight of evidence

"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.

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