Road rage's causes and prevalence debatable
After watching yet another car whiz past me, while I -- and hundreds of other well-behaved Detroiters -- waited patiently in a construction zone on I-696 near Van Dyke, I was proud of the general politeness of the other drivers.
There were narcissists, for sure, but none of us who were passed dished out vigilante justice by shooting out the tires of the offending drivers.
This reality presented a sharp contrast to a recent survey I came across. In the annual AutoVantage Road Rage Survey, Detroit ranked as the third most unfriendly city to drive in, behind New York and Dallas/Fort Worth. That consensus came after the Affinion Group survey interviewed about 100 motorists in each of 25 metropolitan areas about driving behaviors on local roads.
"We wanted to identify driving behaviors that that could lead to a serious incident," said Mike Bush, a spokesman for Affinion Group. "The common thread that we found is this: In the cities with the worst rankings, drivers simply weren't paying attention to their driving, and this caused problems."
Survey participants noted that this lack of attention -- eating, texting, or shaving behind the wheel -- was linked with poor driving behavior. Researchers believe this sort of behavior inspires road rage.
In my 30 years of holding a Michigan Operator's License, I've never noticed universally rude and threatening drivers on our roads. Detroit's car culture, I believe, is generally friendly and respectful.
But the Affinion survey begged the question: Is road rage a real danger?
So I pressed Michigan State Police First Lt. Thad Peterson about his recollection of such incidents.
"I can't recall a specific incident," he said. "As a matter of fact, in terms of the worst kind of road rage -- one that results in a homicide -- I can't even recall one ever happening in Michigan."
Like me, Peterson believes media attention to road rage is disproportionate to the reality.
"Road rage makes for great headlines, and upon occasion results in terrible, catastrophic events. But when we go looking for data about the frequency of road rage, there isn't much to support or encourage widespread panic," he said.
Peterson, chairman of a Michigan State Police committee on driver behavior, studies the issue closely.
"We find that aggressive driving is not normally the result of distracted drivers. It is usually the result of some environmental or engineering issue related to the physical roads where aggressive driving occurs," he said.
Factors that provoke
Peterson said major contributors to aggressive driving include: speed limits that are too low for the road; traffic congestion; and poorly timed traffic lights. These act as instigators to drivers speeding, changing lanes and tailgating, all characteristics of "aggressive" driving.
Changes made to roadways where aggressive driving occurs have reduced reported incidents or road rage, he said.
As an example, Peterson pointed to changes made along a section of Interstate 496 outside of Lansing, which accounted for 40 percent of reported incidents of aggressive driving in that area. When the speed limit was raised from 55 mph to 70 mph, incidents of aggressive driving dropped to zero.
"The low speed limit frustrated many drivers, so they drove over the speed limit. This caused problems for other drivers who were driving at the limit. The speed differential caused the tailgating, passing, and speeding that were reported as 'aggressive' driving," Peterson said.
His data also showed accident rates in that area also fell when the speed limit was raised.
Surprisingly, the higher speed limit also improved traffic flow, nearly eliminating all symptoms of rush hour congestion along that stretch.
As the Michigan State Police have pointed out, not-so-obvious factors can cause aggressive driving. More importantly, the scariest incidents of road rage -- those we're most likely to read about or see on TV -- are rare.
All those people you're sharing the road with may not be perfect, but they're also not likely to go ballistic at the slightest incident.
Good news, eh?
Car Culture's Rex Roy can be reached at http://www.RexRoy.net
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