Cops scramble to deal with deadly road rage during pandemic
Highway safety advocates say the key to getting a handle on road rage is focusing on reducing aggressive driving
Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts
By Jenni Bergal
When an SUV cut off Marlin Smith’s Jeep near a busy intersection in Las Vegas late last month, he got angry and honked his horn.
A passenger in the SUV got out and threw a beer can at Smith’s Jeep, witnesses told Las Vegas police. Smith then stepped out and argued with the passenger. Tempers flared. The SUV’s driver ended up running over Smith, police said, critically injuring him.
Smith, 73, a retired Navy officer who worked security at Las Vegas casinos, died the next morning from blunt force trauma. The Clark County coroner’s office ruled the death a homicide.
“We’re devastated about what happened,” Kaycee Frost, Smith’s daughter, said in an interview with Stateline. “We’re all traumatized. My mom was in the car and witnessed her husband being killed.”
Across the country, road rage altercations already were a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. But in some areas, police say they’ve seen incidents spike during the past year and a half, as people have become more stressed and tensions have flared more easily.
Some police departments have started tracking road rage incidents. Others have set up task forces or held news conferences alerting the public about the problem.
“People are getting shot. People are getting hurt,” said Officer Blake Page, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina. “It’s just not worth it.”
The results of road rage have been tragic for victims and their families.
Just in the past several months:
- In Orange County, California, a 6-year-old boy riding in a booster seat was shot to death in June while his mother was driving him to kindergarten. A car had cut her off on the freeway and the mother held up her middle finger. That angered one of the occupants, who allegedly grabbed a gun and fired into the back of her car, striking the child.
- In Lumberton, North Carolina, a 47-year-old mother of six from Pennsylvania was riding in the passenger seat with her husband in March on the way to the beach to celebrate their anniversary when she was fatally shot during a road rage incident. The couple’s SUV had come close to another car during a merge, angering the other driver, who allegedly fired multiple shots into the passenger door, according to police.
- In Washington, D.C., a 49-year-old man died in April after being shot in the head in an apparent road rage incident three blocks from Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence. A woman driving a coupe had sideswiped his SUV, and the two drivers argued before continuing on their way. The woman then pulled in front of his car, got out and fired at him, according to police.
For families like Smith’s, road rage has changed their lives forever.
“My dad was a great man. My parents had been married 52 years,” Frost said. “He took care of my mom, he cared for his kids, his grandkids, his great-grandkids. He was a fun, loving man.
“Road rage has gotten completely out of control,” she added. “You can’t just stop and honk your horn or flip the bird anymore because you could potentially lose your life.”
Road rage cases sometimes begin with a minor fender bender, police say. The drivers start out arguing about who was at fault and the situation escalates.
But often road rage results from aggressive driving, such as excessive speeding, weaving through traffic, tailgating or cutting off other drivers.
Aggrieved drivers might respond by yelling or flashing an obscene gesture. Usually, nothing more happens. But sometimes, incidents can intensify. Drivers have thrown objects, rammed or sideswiped another car or forced a vehicle off the road.
Some cases have been even more violent.
In 2020, 42 people a month on average were shot and killed or wounded in road rage incidents, according to a recent report by Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun violence prevention organization. That’s nearly double the monthly average for the four years prior.
The group’s report comes from data collected by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research organization.
If the trend continues, Everytown projects there will be more than 500 deaths or injuries involving road rage incidents with guns in 2021. So far this year, someone has been shot and killed or injured every 18 hours, said Sarah Burd-Sharps, the group’s research director.
“The pandemic has brought all sorts of new stressors into our lives. And gun sales have surged,” Burd-Sharps said. “Many people have suffered from uncertainty, job loss. I think those stressors make you have a shorter fuse. If a gun is right there in your car, these incidents which would just be unpleasant can turn deadly.”
Some road rage deaths don’t involve shootings. Victims have been beaten, run over or stabbed. In West Dundee, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, a man died from injuries he received in a fight in June that began as a dispute that moved from an expressway to a gas station.
And while no agency monitors road rage incidents nationally, there were 446 fatal crashes resulting in 502 deaths linked to road rage in 2019, the most recent numbers available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Police agencies and highway safety advocates advise drivers to remain calm and nonconfrontational in a road rage situation. If people feel they are in danger, they should call 911.
“Violent crime is overtaking the nation right now,” said Michigan State Police spokesperson Lt. Mike Shaw, referring to an increasing crime rate in many places, especially some large cities. “A lot of it is because people cannot de-escalate. They don’t know how to handle these types of incidents.”
In the Metro Detroit area, state police have dealt with 26 cases involving shootings on the freeway since January, Shaw said. While some involved gang violence or domestic disputes, half were linked to road rage.
Reducing Aggressive Driving
Highway safety advocates say the key to getting a handle on road rage is focusing on reducing aggressive driving by ensuring that motorists act courteously. That means maintaining a proper following distance, using turn signals, allowing others to merge and not using hand gestures and long blasts on the horn.
Ryan Pietzsch, a program technical consultant at the National Safety Council, an Itasca, Illinois-based organization focused on eliminating preventable deaths, said his group teaches calm driving techniques. Drivers, he said, need to reflect on why they’re getting so angry at the other driver, maintain their composure and refocus on what’s important, whether it’s their family, their job or their destination.
“Driving is a very antisocial activity,” Pietzsch said. “An individual may act civilly in a grocery store. In a vehicle, they’re encapsulated and their behavior changes completely.”
Ryan Martin, a psychology professor and associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who has done research on anger while driving, agrees.
“Everyone is anonymous to us and we are to them. We do things we wouldn’t normally do—give people the finger, yell at them, cut them off,” he said. “If I’m walking down a hallway at work, I wouldn’t do these things. Being on the road brings out and exacerbates anger.”
But the problem isn’t just anger, Martin said, because a lot of people get angry on the road but don’t pull out a gun or use their car as a weapon. It’s that some people have a hard time controlling their impulses.
And the pandemic only has made things worse, he added.
“Whether people realize it or not, they’ve been under greater stress during the last year and a half,” Martin said. “People are in a more anxious state than they used to be. I think that’s increasing people’s likelihood of snapping.”
New Tracking Efforts
Police agencies often don’t track road rage incidents because the actions aren’t by themselves criminal offenses. Road rage might be classified as an aggravated assault, criminal mischief, reckless driving or some other offense. But some agencies, alarmed at what they’ve been seeing, have begun collecting information about road rage cases.
This year, the Dallas Police Department started tracking aggravated assaults involving road rage. From January through mid-June, there were 387 cases, said Sgt. Tramese Jones, a spokesperson. In one June case, a 20-year-old pregnant woman riding in a car with her boyfriend was shot after he had a dispute with someone who opened fire and struck her during a road rage incident. The baby was delivered at a local hospital, but the mother remained hospitalized in critical condition as of July 12.
In nearby Arlington, Texas, police began tracking road rage incidents separately from other types of aggravated assaults in 2020.
So far this year, the city has had 13 incidents, compared with 10 during the same period last year, said Arlington Police Department spokesperson Tim Ciesco.
The department also has a road rage hotline that drivers can use if they see someone driving aggressively. They can call in a license plate number and describe where something happened, and police will mail the car’s owner a letter explaining that someone had reported them for aggressive driving and providing safe driving tips, Ciesco said.
The department also has a task force that maps the latest hotspots for speeding and crashing each week, then sends officers to try to prevent aggressive driving from turning into something more deadly.
In Charlotte, where police track crimes that are the result of road rage, there have been 61 criminal cases from January through the end of May, according to police spokesperson Page. Thirty-seven of the cases involved a firearm. Police have made 11 arrests, and the remaining cases are under investigation.
“It’s a pretty serious issue,” Page said. “With everything going on, people are more on edge. They’re making less intelligent decisions and more emotional ones.”
The department was so concerned that it held a news conference in April to discuss the effect road rage was having on the community and how to avoid such volatile situations.
In November, the Houston Police Department joined with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the county district attorney and the Texas Department of Public Safety to create a road rage task force. It was funded with CARES Act money.
About 200 incidents in which someone was shot had been reported in the Houston area during the first 10 months of 2020. That was more than a 30% increase compared with the same period in 2019, according to Art Acevedo, who was Houston’s police chief at the time.
Members of the task force, which disbanded at the end of last year because the funding ended, issued 958 moving citations and 462 other citations, and made 17 misdemeanor and two felony arrests, according to Houston Police Department Commander Michael Collins.
But the problem hasn’t gone away. From January through April, Houston police have gotten 3,428 calls involving road rage, Collins said.
Police find it nearly impossible to predict when a road rage incident may turn violent, he said.
“By the time a call is routed and dispatched to our patrol officer, very often there’s a lag time,” Collins said. “It’s very difficult to respond and deal with a crime in progress due to road rage.”
But, he noted, drivers can take proactive measures.
“We have to work on not engaging in that type of behavior,” he said. “Every citizen has a choice. If someone cuts them off, then they can call an emergency number and not engage.”