Corrections or additions?
This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the September 24,
2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Driven by the Clock, Some Drive into a Rage
by Bart Jackson
Your car — Your castle. For most of us, our autos
are far more than an extension of ourselves. They become a stage where
our libidos can run wild. Cars have become billboards sporting our
strongest beliefs in language we would never dare speak or write in
a letter. We can hurl these epithets from the steel fortress of our
automobile; we feel safe. Quite naturally, this feeling of impunity
extends to our actions.
We spend so many hours behind the wheel that we become somewhat expert
and totally blase. Lieutenant Bill Wade sits and stares out his window
overlooking that busy chunk of New Jersey Turnpike between exit 8
and 8A. During his quarter century as state trooper, he worked nine
years in the fatal accident reconstruction department, and currently
is the traffic officer for Troop D, headquartered on Prospect Plains
Road in Cranbury.
"Drivers seldom envision any car as a weapon," states Wade.
"Instead we turn on the key and say `I’m in my car now. Nothing
can happen.’ For some reason we fail to see the scenario of our
Interestingly, women are increasingly adopting this view. Several
studies and some anecdotal experiences indicate that many women see
the auto as a personal body armor — a secure shell not afforded
them as pedestrians.
This false security syndrome, however, may not chauvinistically be
dumped in female laps alone. Virtually everyone who pilots an auto
at today’s increasing speeds becomes inured to danger. Almost any
driver will assure you: 25 miles per hour is truly crawling. I shall
never forget the comments of the bystanders staring in disbelief at
the tragic aftermath of a car that had plowed into a telephone pole
on our side street. "Surely she must have been going much faster
than 25," was the common refrain. She had not been. In one way,
such speed nonchalance is beneficial. You cannot competently go with
the flow on the turnpike at 80 miles per hour while simultaneously
running potential disaster scenarios through your worried brain. A
bit of fatalism is required.
Alas, for most veterans who cruise with the herd in the sanctity of
their auto, fatalism evolves into a willing suspension of disbelief.
The road is theater. It is not real. I can do no harm; I cannot be
harmed; I am safe. Traffic jams or those idiots who drive so close
ahead of me are disruptions to my tableau. Let me just wedge in a
little closer behind and get that clown moving. What’s the harm? My
fortress and fantasy protect me.
My buddy Butch provided my most recent example of
and distracted driving. "Okay, Toots. You wanna play with the
big boys? Let’s get your sorry butt up to speed." With these
Butch jammed his new Corvette into high gear (a recent male menopause
purchase) and brought us bumper to bumper with the blonde in the SUV
who had just cut us off and then slowed to 50 mph in the left lane.
Several drivers behind caught the fire of Butch’s move. As he
they began honking at this admittedly foolish lady who had suddenly
cut their turnpike speed by one third. Abashed, the SUV driver
slinked back into the center lane.
Road Rage, you would probably say; or "aggressive driving"
as the police term it. But not a really big case. Butch’s was just
a little driver’s anger. Certainly not nearly as violent as the recent
New Jersey Turnpike incident in which two drivers got so enraged that
they pulled over to the side of the road where Wade found them
it out on the shoulder.
While the raw anger and adrenaline of these two roadside gladiators
far exceeded Butch’s, a pair of bloodied noses and split lips probably
would have been their total damage. Yet Butch’s anger piloted a
that easily could have destroyed all his honking fans. No fortress,
no fantasy. Just unprotected bodies.
Over the past decade, aggressive driving swooped both into our speech
and onto our roadways, leaving law enforcement with a very real
While New Jersey holds no specific statute penalizing aggressive
Wade and his fellow officers look for a combination of behaviors that
allow them to cite a driver for recklessness. "Excessive
weaving in and out of lanes without signaling, and general discourtesy
are the most commonly seen items," he says. Charging yellow or
red lights, speeding through junctions, passing on the shoulder, and
dangerous interference with traffic flow are also on the checklist.
Straight forward speeding is not. Whether on a backroad or highway,
witnesses can report such aggressive driving to a NJ State Police
Hotline by dialing #77 (see story below).
Last year the Garden State’s 36,175 miles of roadways saw 280,000
traffic accidents and 740 fatalities. (Fatalities have been declining
fairly steadily since the 1982 high of 1,060.) The National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration claims that New Jersey, in keeping with
the national profile, can blame one third of these accidents and two
thirds of the fatalities on the specter of aggressive driving.
But lest we begin to rant wildly about a plague of road rage, Wade
asks us to note a few considerations. Forty per cent of those 280,000
auto accidents occurred at — believe it or not — tollbooths.
Most were minor fender benders committed by folks jockeying for
Further, aggressive driving is actually the behavior of the vehicle
— not any predetermined motivations of its driver. While the #77
Hotline and general publicity, Wade feels, has made the number of
enraged drivers level off, another real demon is driving us to
— and into each other.
"Well Congressman, we very much appreciate you giving us this
phone interview to discuss Connecticut’s new education bill."
I was dragging myself out of bed and neither caught nor cared about
the congressman’s name.
"Always willing to phone chat with the folks at WOR Radio, Bill.
In fact, I’m just driving into your city as we speak. As to the
bill….Pause…Holy ****, I almost ran into that guy!…"
The interview ended hastily on both sides, but a week later, I caught
a blurb in the paper about Connecticut’s proposed ban on cell phone
use while driving. These days, what is just as likely to send that
neighboring car swerving erratically is its driver’s multi-tasking
with cell phone, lap top, GPS, TV, or child’s car seat in need of
adjustment. All such modern inconveniences cram our auto cockpits
and are making distracted driving the increasing cause of accident
But the true culprit is time, says clinical psychologist Keith J.
Alexander, director of Interchange Behavioral Health Center on
Road. Like many of his cohorts, he believes most road rage, distracted
driving and even much of the drowsy driving are spawned by hurrying.
"Pressed by the hourly urgency of the clock," Alexander says,
"we fail to see people. We just see appointments." Our
instead of providing us with swiftness that should set our minds at
ease, force us to slice time too thinly. The frantic life has become
a status symbol. "How are you?" is now answered with
busy." In short, we disdain any unused moments.
"Place your arousal level on a continuum from 1 to 100,"
Alexander. "Arousal can be anxiety, anger, even sexual stimulus.
To your body it’s all the same — a gearing up of adrenaline, heart
and sweat. Everybody needs some arousal, say about 10 to 20 just to
get out of bed in the morning. But add to that pressures from the
job, the kids, the endless social whirl captivating us, and all those
time crunches that our society daily makes us heir to. Now we are
slipping behind the wheel with anxiety levels at more likely 40 to
50: borderline manageable. (You haven’t even had a drink yet.)
Add to our simmering psyche some bozo cutting us off,
some sluggish roadhog making us late for the next appointment, or
the never ending round of red lights. (One new traffic light goes
up in America every 30 seconds.) The trigger has been pulled and we
go over the edge. Anxiety flashes to anger.
Witherspoon Street-based psychiatrist Linda Gochfeld agrees with the
time tyranny theory and points out that the Northeast is the
center of the rat race. "Princeton particularly is a fast track
where people operate under constant frustration of delays which
cut short the juggled job and family time." She also sees this
anxiety exacerbated by media, political, and even video game violence
in which every act of actual injury or consequence is sanitized.
Yet certainly the automobile is here to stay. The clock will keep
ticking ever loudly and anxiously. And the number of gadgets is not
likely to diminish in our lifetime. So what’s the answer? We can just
suppress our angers — a method about as effective as pushing a
pool toy under water in hope it won’t reemerge. Alexander believes
that anyone driving should initially monitor his anger level before
turning the key and tromping on the pedal.
So in the end, we must admit that the nut behind the wheel reacts
no differently than when he is walking his dog. We all face the
of this life and culture. The ticking clock and other triggers are
ever there to drive us to frantically multi-task, play bumper tag,
or drive beyond our wakeful limits. It is all a matter of how we
to deal with them.
Every year more than 3,000 drivers phone in and report
aggressive or erratic drivers to the New Jersey State Police Hotline,
a program that started six years ago with funding from the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The police don’t give a hoot
whether the alleged culprit is drunk, drowsy, distracted, or enraged.
They just want this dangerous driver off the road.
Considered aggressive and dangerous: flashing your brights to move
the slow driver out of the way, cutting drivers off, making hand
weaving through traffic, needlessly honking your horn, displaying
impatience, disregarding traffic signals and signs, and blocking the
passing lane on a two lane highway.
A witness who reports an erratic driver to the #77 Hotline will be
asked the location, the license plate number of the supposed culprit,
and if he would be willing to swear out a complaint. The dispatchers
answering the calls are in West Trenton and are trained and supervised
by the New Jersey State Police. They are the same dispatchers who
are answering 911 calls, but the #77 line is a dedicated line.
The dispatcher then sends the nearest state or local police vehicle
to the scene. The police officer can pull a driver over based on the
#77 report even if the officer sees no misbehavior. Sometimes just
telling drivers that they have been reported is sufficient to make
them change their behavior, says Wade. But offending drivers who are
observed driving dangerously will be pulled over and ticketed. If
the officer sees the reported driver acting safely, he may still issue
a ticket if the plaintiff has stated a willingness to swear out a
Swearing out that complaint means that you can be subpoenaed to
in court. (This step tends to weed out the vengeance and crank calls.)
"Typically," notes Wade, "these cases break down into
a `he-said-she said’ argument before the judge, and few actual
are meted out." So with so few convictions, what good is the
#77 Hotline? Wade compares it to that big vicious dog that patrols
your property. It may circle the grounds for years and never catch
a soul. But knowing he’s out there keeps a lot of potential
Though there is no "aggressive driving" statute, a citation
such as following too closely costs a minimum of five points on your
license plus a fine. The proper distance for following is 10 feet
for every 10 miles of speed, and Wade admits that this is a nearly
impossible standard in New Jersey. "At rush hours, drivers seem
to have their own set of rules."
But just as many reports come in, Wade says, for refusing to move
from the left lane as for tailgating. "When it happens to me in
my personal vehicle, I just move out of the way to minimize the
of an incident."
That’s his first mantra. His second is to leave earlier: "Allow
a realistic amount of time to get from Point A to Point B. I get to
work a half hour to an hour early each day, so there is no need for
me to exceed a speed limit, and if there is an accident, I am not
arriving at my usual time, but I am still on time."
"We recommend avoiding conflicts at all costs," says Wade.
"Allow law enforcement to deal with the driver at some point in
time. Get out of the way."
Corrections or additions?
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