Pop Quiz. Answer the following questions as honestly as you can: Do you regularly drive over the speed limit? Find yourself trying to beat a traffic signal that just turned red or is about to? Tailgate or flash your headlights at a driver in front of you who you believe is driving too slowly? Honk the horn often? Use obscene gestures or otherwise visibly communicate anger toward another driver?
While we all might have to fess up to at least one or more of these behaviors on occasion, if you are checking all the boxes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, you are a candidate for escalating into full-blown road rage. Not just aggressive driving, which is considered a traffic offense, but a behavior that is considered a criminally chargeable offense.
Do you find yourself keeping your high beams on, regardless of oncoming traffic? Constantly switching lanes or making turns without using your turn signals, or failing to check your blind spot before switching lanes to make sure you aren’t cutting someone off? In addition to creating a hazardous situation, you may well be triggering road rage in others, so says statistics compiled from the NHTSA.
The sad reality is that, for all of us who must navigate our nation’s roadways, we are now constantly susceptible to, and endangered by, these now all-too-common behaviors.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times’ Emily Baumgaertner and Russ Mitchell, the latest evidence complied by the National Safety Council “suggests that after decades of safety gains, the pandemic has made U.S. drivers more reckless — more likely to speed, drink or use drugs and leave their seat belts unbuckled.” Says Ken Kolosh, an NSC researcher, “I fear we’ve adopted some really unsafe driving habits, and they’re going to persist.”
According to the Times, current statistics show that traffic fatalities are up in cities and rural areas, on highways and on back roads, night and day, weekdays and weekends. Fatalities have climbed in every age group between 16 and 65.
In a column I wrote last March covering escalating reckless driving on our roadways, I posed the following question: As people more and more start to get out and about, are we now about to trade one deadly epidemic for another, more familiar, deadly one on our nation’s roadways? I believe we have our answer. We have not traded one for another. We are now living and dying by both a pandemic that is ongoing and preventable car crash deaths, injuries and even shootouts on our highways and byways.
The most current statistics compiled by the NHTSA, in conjunction with AutoVantage auto club and reported by the American Safety Council, reveal more than half of traffic fatalities today (66%) are caused by aggressive driving. A shocking 37% of aggressive driving incidents involve a firearm, and 2% of drivers surveyed admit to trying to run an aggressor off the road.
“The rise in motor vehicle deaths lines up with other pandemic-era trends: Alcohol sales have soared, drug overdoses have set new records, and homicides have seen their biggest increase on record,” reports the Times.
To add to the mix, researchers using GPS as well as other data are showing drivers on their phones more than ever, creating an additional distraction during today’s dangerous conditions.
Frank Farley is a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. He views reckless driving as a form of rebellion. His term for it: arousal breakout.
“You’ve been cooped up, locked down, and have restrictions you chafe at,” he explains to the Times. “So, if you can have an arousal breakout, you want to take it.”
It seems similar kinds of “breakouts” are now popping up everywhere, including abuse upon flight attendants, restaurant employees and other service business employees.
Jonathan Adkins is the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a Washington nonprofit representing road safety agencies nationwide. He sees “people’s disregard for themselves and others on the road (as) part of a national decline in civility that accelerated during the pandemic.” Says Adkins, “It’s very aggressive. It’s very selfish.”
“While it may be difficult in the heat of the moment, do not give in to feelings of anger or rage on the road,” cautions the American Safety Council. “Think twice before you honk the horn or flip that finger, because you never know what may set off the person in the cars around you. Getting home safely is more important than teaching someone a dangerous lesson.”
It is not just motorists who are in jeopardy. As Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, recently explained to CNN, traffic stops are statistically considered “a high-risk category in what we do” because of the “unknown” that officers approach. In a recent week, it was reported that five law enforcement officers around the country were “seriously injured” during traffic stops. Four were injured by gunfire, which killed one sheriff’s deputy.
Until very recently, the increase in traffic fatalities has attracted minimal public notice or media coverage. That has now changed with the recent announcement by the U.S. Transportation Department of its new National Roadway Safety Strategy to significantly reduce today’s serious and fatal injuries on U.S. roads and highways.
Says Consumer Reports, “The effort is more necessary now than ever: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020, an increase of 7.2 percent from 2019. Preliminary data from 2021 shows that things are getting even worse: In the first half of 2021, roadway deaths were on track to increase 18.4 percent from 2020.”
The department said its NRSS is “the first step in working toward an ambitious long-term goal of reaching zero roadway fatalities.” The question that remains is, what is going to be done to help us with the deadly epidemic on our roadways right now?