Aggressive Driving (Road Rage)

Almost every day the media report another horrible incident involving aggressive driving or, in its most extreme form, road rage. Speeding, weaving in and out of traffic, following too closely, yelling and gesturing are actions that characterize the aggressive driver. In some cases the behavior escalates into a duel between two cars, often with fatal results. Studies show an increase in these kinds of incidents over the past several years. Reported incidents of aggressive driving have in-creased by 7 percent every year since 1990, according to an American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety study.

Most drivers will tell you that they "know it when they see it." It is difficult however, to concisely define aggressive driving in one simple statement.  Another issue is the distinction between aggressive driving and road rage. The difficulty in de-fining the problem has lead to questions about how prevalent it is and how to research it effectively. To thoroughly examine the issue, however, a clear definition of aggressive driving needs to be established. Once a consistent definition is found, targeting the behavior becomes easier.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines aggressive driving as "the operation of a motor vehicle in a manner which endangers or is likely to endanger persons or property." A progression of unlawful driving actions such as speeding, weaving or unsafe passing can constitute "endangers or likely to endanger."

These actions can include a range of offenses up to and including reckless driving, although aggressive driving does not necessarily require a willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others. NHTSA sees aggressive driving as a traffic offense and road rage as a criminal offense. NHTSA defines road rage as "an assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by the operator or passenger(s) of one motor vehicle on the operator or passengers(s) of another motor vehicle or vehicles precipitated by an incident which occurred on a roadway."

Many others have set out definitions. For example, Mark Edwards, American Automobile Association, defines aggressive driving as "operation of a motor vehicle without regard to others' safety." He distinguishes road rage from aggressive driving. Road rage is "assault with the intent to do harm arising from the use of a motor vehicle."

Psychologists examining the phenomenon of aggressive driving see anger as the root of the problem. California psychologist Arnold Nerenberg describes four major traffic situations that trigger road rage:

Traffic behaviors such as cut-ting in front of other drivers, slamming on the brakes to surprise a tailgater, obscene gestures and yelling, honking the horn, and flashing head-lights repeatedly are considered psychologically pathological if exhibited twice within a one-year period.

"Aggressive driving is not extreme any more; it has be-come a cultural norm on the highway," says traffic psycho-logy professor Leon James. He sees that more angry exchanges are occurring between drivers and that a culture of disrespect exists on the roads.  James de-scribes road rage as the habit of aggressive driving.

James describes three types of road rage. Verbal includes yelling, gesturing, honking, and insulting. Quiet road rage involves complaining, rushing, resisting, and competing. Finally, epic road rage is cutting drivers off, blocking, chasing, fighting, and shooting.

With the growing attention on aggressive driving and the se-verity of recent incidents, many groups have come together to address the problem. Law enforcement agencies across the country are developing pro-grams to make the roads safer. Twenty-two states have implemented enforcement programs aimed specifically at aggressive driving. For example, the Ohio Highway Patrol started a statewide aggressive driver program known as "Targeting Reckless and Intimidating Aggressive Drivers" (TRIAD). The effort uses aircraft and ground units to pursue violators.

The Citizens Against Speeding and Aggressive Driving (CASAD) group formed in February 1997 in response to the many dangerous driving incidents in the Washington, D.C. area. The groupís goals are to slow down traffic, reduce aggressive driving, and increase safety on the roads. CASAD plans an approach that includes:

Federal Action

No specific action has been taken on the federal level to require states to take action against aggressive driving. Recognizing, however, that aggressive driving has become a highway safety problem, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Surface Transportation held a hearing about aggressive driving on July 17, 1997. The goal of the hearing was to learn about the causes and dangers of aggressive driving and to discuss what actions are being taken to curb the problem. The subcommittee members heard from safety advocates, law enforcement, citizens groups, the insurance industry, and psychologists.

State Action

Legislatures have begun examining ways to deal with dangerous drivers. In 1997 Maryland and Virginia introduced legislation to create specific penalties for aggressive driving offenses. Although none of their bills passed, interest in the issue has grown. Numerous states are now considering several aggressive driving bills. Nine states introduced a total of 26 bills in 1998 and 15 states introduced 31 bills in 1999.  In 1998, Arizona was the first state to pass a law creating a specific aggressive driving offense.  Nevada and Delaware followed in 1999 and established the offense of aggressive driving.

Arizonaís law created the offense of aggressive driving. The offense occurs when a driver speeds and commits two other traffic violations creating an immediate hazard to another.   

The Nevada law defines aggressive driving as a driver speeding and committing two or more specific traffic violations in the course of one mile that creates an immediate hazard to another vehicle or person. Aggressive driving is a misdemeanor offense with penal-ties that include traffic safety courses and possible license suspension. A second offense in two years leads to license revocation.

The offense of aggressive driving in Delaware is based on a combination of unsafe driving behaviors that show a disregard for safety. Drivers convicted of three or more specific traffic offenses resulting from a single incident are guilty of aggressive driving. The law requires offenders to attend behavior modification courses and repeat offenders face license suspensions.

In January of this year Oklahoma House Bill 1920 was sent to the House Committee on Public Safety for review.  This bill prohibits aggressive driving and establishes a definition of the crime aggressive driving.  Also, Senate Bill 856 was filed in January and relates to aggressive driving.

Currently, Oklahoma officers issue tickets only for specific traffic violations such as improper lane change, following too closely, or reckless driving.

Most of the bills try to define a specific aggressive driving offense and set out penalties for it. For example, the Washington bill describes aggressive driving as an offense where a driver commits any two or more specific traffic violations within five consecutive miles in a manner that "intimidates or threatens another person." Other definitions include:

The legislation proposed in Illinois envisions a continuum of traffic offenses from the existing moving violation to the next more serious level of a new aggressive driving offense. Reckless driving follows and a proposed offense of road rage constitutes the next level.  Pro-posed legislation in Hawaii, Nebraska, New York, and Virginia also talks about brandishing or displaying a weapon in a manner that induces fear in another as one component of aggressive driving.

Attacking aggressive driving through driver's education is another approach. This is the area where legislation was successful in Virginia. The Virginia law requires that driver's education courses offered through the schools include instruction about aggressive driving. To implement the new law, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles sent a letter to teachers of driver's education classes in-forming them about the requirement to address aggressive driving in their courses.  New drivers will learn strategies to pre-vent triggering aggressive driving in themselves and others, how to cope with stress on the road and how to respond when confronted with an aggressive driver. 

This is the second success in Virginia with aggressive driving education requirements. Last year, a Virginia bill to require that driver improvement courses for repeat offenders include curriculum about aggressive driving was withdrawn when the Department of Motor Vehicles implemented the curriculum administratively. The Virginia DMV now offers instruction designed to curb aggressive driving behavior and to rehabilitate aggressive drivers. The purpose of the class is to raise the students' awareness of aggressive drivers including how to identify aggressive driving, safely avoid it, and report the aggressive driver.

Many of the participants in the driver improvement class have multiple traffic violations on their records and may be characterized as aggressive drivers. Penalties proposed in Arizona and Connecticut re-quire attendance at driver training programs aimed at dangerous driving behavior. Maryland is proposing that driver improvement courses address aggressive driving and how to modify it.

Other options for state legislatures might include increasing fines and penalties for traffic offenses, enacting primary seat-belt laws to protect motorists, authorizing camera enforcement programs for red-light runners and speeders, increasing funding to step up enforcement efforts, and adopting graduated licensing for new drivers.

Evidence of Effectiveness

The Virginia law requiring driverís education to include a section on aggressive driving has not been in effect long enough for its impact to be known.  Law enforcement efforts in Arizona and the Washington, D.C., area have met with positive support from the public. Although it is difficult to measure the success of the law enforcement programs, proponents believe they have been successful.

It is interesting to note that the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO) recently adopted a policy stating that although aggressive driving is a serious problem, new laws are not needed to address it. NCUTLO advocates for the strong and consistent enforcement of existing traffic laws. Where a driver violates multiple traffic laws, they should be charged with each offense. In addition, states with points systems should assess points for every violation.


Recent media reports high-light the growing concern over aggressive driving. Aggressive driving has become very real and very deadly in many areas of the country. Safety and law enforcement groups have developed programs to target the problem. Legislators have introduced a flurry of bills to combat aggressive drivers. These actions have encouraged enforcement and increased the visibility of the issue. State legislatures play a key role in ensuring the safety of the roads and are in a unique position to address the worries and fears about aggressive drivers in each state.