Alarming Statistics and Feverish Headlines Have Fed the View that Road Rage is a National Epidemic

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Transport

"Road Rage: We're Driven to Destruction," read one Newsweek headline. "All Drivers Feel Impact of Road Rage," a Free Press headline said last year.

But underlying the hype is a dearth of evidence supporting the notion that Americans are driving more aggressively than in the past.

Indeed, evidence suggests that traffic injury and fatality rates are going down across the country. In Michigan, which does not track road-rage incidents, the number of tickets given out by State Police for careless or reckless driving declined from 1995 to 1997.

"Road rage has been mostly fueled by the media," said Howard Fienberg, a research analyst at the nonprofit Statistical Assessment Service in Washington, D.C. "If you give people the term road rage, which is not defined anywhere, they react to it and associate it with just about anything."

The term, which first appeared in the late 1980s, has gradually broadened over the years. It was initially used to describe physical confrontations between motorists, but has expanded to include verbal exchanges, gestures, honking, light-flashing and serial lane-changing.

The media soon latched on. The Nexis media database recorded four citations of road rage in 1988, a figure that grew to 279 in 1995 and 1,887 last year.

An August article in the Atlantic Monthly examined a widely quoted study by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, which found a 60-percent increase nationally in aggressive driving between 1990 and 1996.

The magazine concluded the study was "hardly scientific," with much of the research drawing on media accounts and reports from a handful of police departments.

Still, some experts who have studied road rage argue that the dangers to motorists have increased.

"I think drivers are more challenged now because there are more cars and more congestion and more hostility," said University of Hawaii professor Leon James, who teaches traffic psychology and is known on the Web as Dr. Driving.

James said on-line surveys show motorists view themselves as more aggressive than in the past and more scared of fellow drivers than 10 years ago. He also points to television and movie images, which he said tend to glamorize "drivers behaving badly."

In the last year or so, politicians have also reacted to the "epidemic." Earlier this year, the states of New York and Washington proposed road-rage legislation that would make such acts as yelling at another driver a misdemeanor. In New York and Illinois, "Road Rage Vans" with video equipment are targeting drivers for tailgating and aggressive driving.