*Anonymous? Really? Why won’t I put my name on this column? As I see it, the purpose of my writing is to stimulate thought and conversation about the assumptions we have about safety, and what that means in the context of a civil society that generally follows the rule of law. I know that some folks will be furious at me for the things I say. That’s fine, but because I really don’t want this to become personal, I choose privacy. Moreover, a lot of what I will be describing is blatantly illegal—not that I’m encouraging others to do the same. But still, does it seem wise to invite the scrutiny of law enforcement? I don’t think so. That’s why I’m staying undercover. Sign me: Anonymous—for good reason.
Who are you calling Aggressive?
This happened today: I am following a car on a busy, six-lane, 35 MPH suburban thoroughfare. In the back seat of that car is a child, a girl who is maybe six or seven years old. She has turned around to look back at me and she is smiling and wants to get my attention. It’s hot and the car windows are all down, so she’s also able to lean her head out the window a little bit to look back at me. I wave to her and she waves back. This is not unusual, right? A lot of little kids pay special attention to the motorcyclists they see, and I’m usually happy to respond with a friendly wave. (I don’t give ‘em the wheelie they sometimes request using the familiar “Handlebars UP” gesture. I may be an incorrigible road outlaw, but hey, for the kids I’ll try to set a good example!) We slow down as we approach a busy intersection and I see an opportunity ahead to pass so I move to the left lane and now the car with the little girl is on my right. She is now almost next to me, leans out again and excitedly says Hi and gives another wave. Then the driver, a woman who I assume is her mother, immediately turns her head back to the child and angrily yells “SHUT UP!” Just after that we slow to a stop to wait for the light to change. I look over again and see this woman reaching into the back to violently hit the child repeatedly! (If you’re wondering if this woman was, in some twisted way, trying to teach her daughter not to invite the attentions of bikers because, as everyone knows, we’re all potentially dangerous, psychopathic deviates, then you should know that I look like a pretty normal guy on a pretty normal motorcycle; i.e. non-threatening, not covered in visible tattoos; no studs, spikes, or skulls; I’m not wearing a Nazi style helmet; there are no anti-social statements emblazoned on my jacket. Even my exhaust is quiet!) So as I witness this abuse, shocked and appalled, I’m immediately thinking about getting off my bike to intervene on the child’s behalf. But just then the light changes, forcing the woman to cease the beating and drive ahead. As we start pulling away, not knowing what, if anything, I could or should do, I simply lean over towards the car, look the mom in the eye, and say, “Try a little kindness!”
I doubt my brief admonition made the slightest difference; I don’t even know if the woman heard me. But as I’m able to speed away from her and put some distance between us, I still can’t shake the thought of what I just observed. I’m thinking, if that woman isn’t an Aggressive Driver, than who is?
Hold on, you say, she didn’t direct her aggression toward another motorist, so she’s not an aggressive driver— just an aggressive person, perhaps. To that I would respond: yeah, but once that kind of anger is unleashed, the slightest additional incident could cause her to direct her aggression toward someone else on the road. Her next target could have easily been me. And she could have thought she had good reason. I actually SPOKE to her. An invasion! A provocation! This was clearly a case where a driver’s heightened emotional state could be detrimental to their ability to drive safely. I say get off the road and chill out before you or someone else gets hurt!
And this brings us to the point of today’s column. (Thank you for your patience, dear reader.) What exactly is an Aggressive Driver? Well, I have been the target of aggressive drivers — while lane splitting, which seems to inspire the worst in some people, I have often been cursed at, had things thrown out of windows at me, had doors opened on me, and had attempts made to swerve into my path (once, ironically, by a guy in a big pickup with a Harley Davidson sticker on the rear window!). But I have also been accused of being one, as you’ll read below. Since I now know you can get pulled over and ticketed for Aggressive Driving, I have to assume there is a definition for it written into law someplace. What are the legal criteria used to determine it? Who decides: the police, the lawyers, the judges? It troubles me to think about it because it’s one of those things that are loaded with potential for misinterpretation and abuse. It deals with the tricky business of motivation.
One time a cop pulled me over for what I assumed was speeding. I was speeding, of course. But he acted very angry, almost enraged at me. He stood there with me on the side of the Interstate as morning rush hour traffic whizzed by us, leaning in with the unmistakable body language of dominance, reciting a list of the offences with which he was prepared to charge me; not just speeding, but also tailgating, unsafe lane change, failure to signal, and naturally, reckless driving . Then he added one more. And it was the worst, I assume, judging by his increasingly menacing tone of voice when he said it: Aggressive Driving! “Oh NOooo!” I thought to myself as I could barely refrain from laughing out loud at the absurdity of his accusation because, to me, I was only out to enjoy my ride, without the slightest feeling of aggression toward anyone. HE was the only one being aggressive! (But I learned a long time ago that you need to let cops be cops. Many have a deep NEED to express their authoritative bluster, to make sure you are chastened and diminished. To disrupt these proceedings is to invite further consequence for sure. The smartest thing you can do is be polite, contrite, and respectful – no matter how much you want to argue. Play your proper submissive role, while also paying close attention to everything that happens and everything that is said. Then wait till you get to the court room to tell your side.)
I saw a recent article in The Washington Post that was about the dramatic increase in the number of drivers who exhibit aggressive behavior behind the wheel. I was astonished to read that “nearly 8 out of 10 drivers in the United States engaged in at least one aggressive driving behavior in the past year,” according to a survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. What? Instantly, I was suspicious of the scientific accuracy of this survey. But then the article goes on, “In a separate survey conducted by AAA Mid-Atlantic this year, drivers in the Washington region ranked aggressive behavior behind the wheel as the top threat to highway safety.” (Emphasis mine) Now I’m slapping my forehead. Do you mean to tell me that most people think the dumb asses who change lanes without signaling or even looking, or who use the passing lane as their personal comfort cruising lane, who read books, apply makeup, talk on the phone or text while driving, or who are asleep or DRUNK are less of a threat to highway safety than some guy who expresses his frustration by honking, yelling, gesturing, or tailgating? Oh wait. Now I see this was an online survey. Therefore the results are completely subjective, arbitrary, and well, basically worthless. Still, this article, having been published in a prominent newspaper, in print and online, along with the meaningless “statistics” on which it is based, have now entered the stream of consciousness of more Americans. That means there are now more drivers out there on the highways with an even more elevated sense of fear and dread. Great.
Plus, as this false fear that the bogeyman might be driving the car behind you gains momentum in the general public, it further encourages politicians and bureaucrats to “do something” about the problem. There are several highways around Pennsylvania, for example, where peculiar yellow warning signs are posted that say, “Beware of Aggressive Drivers,” and another which says, “Aggressive Driver High Crash Area.” Think about that for a minute. Can you tell me what on earth these signs actually mean, or what possible benefit they could have? I have to laugh. Yes, and once laws are on the books— as they already are in most places— law enforcement will use their authority to charge drivers with Aggressive Driving, a much more serious charge with much higher fines. This would be on top of the other things such as speeding, unsafe lane change, tailgating, and reckless driving that you’ll be charged with anyway. You’re potentially looking at fines and court costs in the thousands! But gee, do you think it’s remotely possible for a cop to misread another motorist’s intent, or worse, purposely add the charge, regardless of its merit, only to bolster his case and thereby greatly amplify the consequences of what otherwise might be a relatively routine misdemeanor? You bet!
There is some similarity here, though on a lesser scale, to the situation with Hate Crimes. This is when someone commits, let’s say, a vicious murder, and the prosecutor may have reason to believe that the crime was motivated by “hate.” If he can convince the judge and jury of it, the sentence will be much worse, say, life plus 99 years, as opposed to simply life. (Or if it’s Texas, I don’t know, maybe they just leave the electricity turned on even after the accused is already fried.) The poor victim of this crime is just as dead, regardless of the perpetrator’s alleged motivation, while the victim’s family meanwhile is left with even deeper wounds and more years of tormented healing, hoping for the “closure” that never comes. That prosecutor, of course, can revel in the positive press he gets, maybe even an interview on Fox News, and the subsequent big boost to his reputation as being Tough on Crime, which will help him later on when he runs for political office.
OK, so Aggressive Driving could be thought of as the Hate Crime of the highway.
Aggressive behavior, whether in the form of road rage or exhibited elsewhere such as the work place, among fans at a sporting event, or in the home between family members, just to name a few its many faces, is most often caused by excessive negative emotion, usually frustration or anger. It’s rarely manifested in an isolated incident, but rather a pattern of behavior that’s the result of years of causation, often stretching back to early childhood. It’s a very complicated thing. Are our police officers trained and equipped to understand, correctly identify, and intervene appropriately in cases where someone’s aggressive behavior threatens the safety of another? Well, in light of the all-too-common, heartbreaking news of police shootings of unarmed citizens, I’d have to say no. Something’s wrong. Deeply wrong.
Am I stretching too far to compare aggressive driving to these more serious crimes and catastrophes? I don’t think so. Of course most traffic infractions, even serious ones, are normally dealt with on a much smaller scale than murder cases, though there have been a few Aggressive Driver cases that resulted in fatalities. An automobile, after all, can be a murder weapon, and even when there is no intent to murder, cars carelessly driven can kill. But my point is that when guessing motivation enters a police officer’s calculus in the moment he’s busy apprehending a suspected offender, objectivity disappears and things are more likely to get out of hand. Consequences could range from something as little as a wrongful charge to something a little more serious – like a bullet in the chest.
Couldn’t someone be driving (riding) down the road in a perfectly good mood—indeed joyful—with no malice toward anyone, and still be engaged in any one or combination of the aforementioned “offenses?” Of course they can! I know this because that would be me on any given day commuting to work on my bike. So any officer who, like the one I described above, tried to pin the Aggressive Driving rap on me would be doing so through gross misinterpretation. By the way—because you’re dying to know, right?— in my case, after that officer got his righteous anger out of his system and could see that I was contrite (acting) and compliant, he wrote the ticket only for speeding, and for much less than the speed I was actually going. Then, in court (always go to court!) it was reduced to what’s called Probation Before Judgment, and eventually it disappeared from my record.
On this topic I could go on and on. But, alas, I have gone on and on enough already for one column. We will revisit these issues for sure. I just want to finish with this: I know that there really are a few aggressive drivers out there who could potentially put other drivers or riders in danger. There actually is some risk. But just as there really are sharks in the ocean that occasionally bite people and terrorists who are plotting to harm us, how the fear of these dangers negatively affects our lives is a consequence that far outweighs the actual threat. When fear takes hold all is lost.
NOTE: This column is not set up as a forum where readers’ comments can be instantly posted—and that’s by design. However, you can write to me, and I welcome your thoughts. I may occasionally post pertinent discussion threads in future columns. Got something to say? Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org