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.