Guns, road rage and a tragic trend:
James Alan Fox and Jack Levin
12:06 p.m. ET Jan. 4, 2017
When it comes to driving, "gunning it" should
be about horsepower, not firepower.
used to mean just being on the alert for reckless, careless or inebriated
drivers not aggressive and enraged motorists armed with a loaded gun.
Certainly, the Little Rock woman whose 3-year-old grandson was fatally shot
last month never imagined she would be the victim of road rage. The toddler
was bleeding to death in her back seat before she even realized that the
other driver, furious over an exchange of horn blasts at a red light, had
fired at her car and not into the air.
This senseless incident, along
with other recent rage-inspired, sometimes fatal shootings on the roads of
Omaha, Las Vegas and New Orleans, are extreme examples of a much larger
problem of folks driving under the influence the influence of frustration
and anger, that is. And such drivers are, research suggests, more likely to
have guns. A 2014 survey of 2,705 licensed drivers taken by the AAA
Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 78% admitted to at least one
instance of aggressive driving during the previous year acts such as
purposely tailgating, intentionally blocking another car's path and
deliberately cutting someone off. Nearly 4% reported having exited their car
to confront another motorist.
And the result is often far worse than
a mere shouting match over a contested parking space or a traffic mishap.
According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
aggressive driving the more technical term for road rage is implicated in
hundreds of highway fatalities each year. The numbers have increased sharply
over the past decade and are only part of a picture that also includes
non-fatal incidents and violence unrelated to collisions, such as shootings.
Frustration and anger show no boundaries of class or neighborhood. All
sorts of nice folks can lose it amidst rush-hour competition to get to work
on time. Because of growing levels of traffic congestion, the American
commuter, on average, spent an extra 42 hours traveling in 2014 than in
1982, and 63 extra hours fighting traffic in metropolitan areas with over 3
million people. Not only would advances in public transportation and highway
infrastructure reduce wasted commuter time, but such improvements would also
cut down on the presence of irritated and enraged motorists.
course, some drivers are already frustrated and angry before they step into
their vehicles. They decide to go for a drive to cool off after arguing with
their boss, their spouse, or their friends. People with aggressive impulses
frequently take their cars out for a spin as a release from the tensions of
the day. They get into a minor confrontation on the highway and explode.
It is not difficult to understand why countless nice guys become madmen
behind the wheel. It has much to do with the anonymity and dehumanizing
effect of the motorized metal capsules that encase us as we drive.
Offering power, especially to the powerless, the automobile can satisfy the
desire to be in charge. Even the most timid and passive individuals may
become fearless bullies as soon as they get inside the 3,000 pounds of steel
that separate them from the rest of humanity. Not only do they feel
anonymous; they also feel invulnerable, caught up in an illusion of their
own omnipotence. At the extreme, unbridled power turns nasty, and arguments
between drivers erupt into violence.
You never hear about "sidewalk
rage." When two pedestrians accidentally collide, they both say "excuse me."
But the same two people as motorists will typically blame the other even for
near-misses on the road. Without the eye-to-eye and face-to-face contact,
the encounter is no longer mano against mano, but auto against auto.
Of course, roadway collisions pose far greater risk to life and limb than do
pedestrian encounters. Yet they also apparently represent a greater threat
to the ego, at least for some people.
Cocooned inside a Hummer or a
Honda with the stereo blaring, stressed drivers can perceive the world
outside their windshield like targets in The Simpsons: Road Rage video game.
Throw a gun into the mix and you've got the more insidious Grand Theft Auto.
Over one-third (37%) of aggressive driving incidents involve a firearm,
according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. No matter how one feels
about gun owners' rights and gun control, hopefully we can all agree on one
thing as an immediate fix. When it comes to driving, "gunning it" should be
about horsepower, not firepower.James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.