The frightening headlines are easy to find.
February 2015, Washington Post: Road rage is getting uglier, angrier and a lot more deadly
April 2017, CBS News: Study: Road rage incidents involving guns are increasing
Even right here in Tampa Bay:
August 2016: Experts see road rage as serious public health crisis
February 2018: Deputies: Road-raging Riverview woman tried to ram man’s car on U.S. 301
April 2018: Man accused in fatal road rage stabbing hit victim with flip-flop first, witness says
July 2018: Driver impaled and killed in apparent road rage incident in Polk County
August 2018: Lutz motorists shot after flashing lights at dark car...
August 2018: Shooter in Florida parking space argument had history of road rage, records show
More people on the road means more distracted driving, more congestion and more confusion. And more confrontation.
It begs the question, how do you drive safely today? How do driver’s education teachers balance the lesson of communication with the creeping uncertainty that someone could take a wave of the hand, flashing headlights or a pass in traffic the wrong way?
"It’s the complete breakdown of society. This didn’t just happen yesterday, people losing their minds over nothing," said Bart Cassidy, president of the American Safety Institute. "If you’re a good driver, you see these people coming, and you just stay away from them."
Ask instructors about road rage and the conversation can veer more toward a dissertation on life than driving a car.
"Live and let live used to be the motto," said Cassidy, who has worked in the field for 30 years.
"Just chill out," said Ed Maurer, director of driver’s education and training at the Suncoast Safety Council. "I don’t know a better way to put it than that."
"This world has changed completely," said Greg Finkel, driver’s education instructor at Wiregrass Ranch High School. "It’s not the same as it used to be."
They all agree that people feel protected on the road, leading some to have a quick trigger.
"Their car is their domain — when you’re cutting them off you’re cutting them off in their domain," Cassidy said.
The issue is particularly acute for Finkel, in rapidly expanding Wesley Chapel, just outside New Tampa, where more and more people fill the streets. Finkel recalled the clogged lanes of his native New York.
"That’s what Bruce B. Downs is starting to look like," he said.
The added congestion leads to more traffic and more stress.
"We see (road rage) more often on the road now because of the number of vehicles out there," Finkel said. "As a whole in our wonderful world, patience has come to a head."
Teaching high schoolers has also helped Finkel learn how the language of the road changes as it trickles down unreliably to new generations. For instance, he said, some new drivers don’t know what it means when a truck driver flashes lights at a passing car — a signal that it’s safe to move back over to the other lane.
"Other people take it the other way, why are you flashing your high-beams at me?" Finkel said "There was meaning behind our madness. Now the newer generations have no idea."
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Despite the stakes, instructors said the fundamentals of driver’s education have not changed. The best way to stay safe, they said, is to avoid conflict in the first place.
"Don’t start anything," said Maurer, who urged drivers to have respect for each other and to forgive mistakes. "You don’t know who you’re going up against."
A recent shooting in Lutz, authorities said, was touched off when a driver flicked her headlights at another driver, who had his headlights off. The man then drove past the woman, who was riding with another man, and fired a shotgun into the car.
While alarming, the instructors said they try not to upend lesson plans specifically for one-off incidents, no matter the shock.
"This is the exception that proves the rule," Maurer said.
"If you flash your headlights at somebody because they want to change lanes … that’s fine," said Cassidy. "They’re used to it."
But he said the best policy is to be alert on the road, identifying aggressive or bad drivers and avoiding them altogether.
"That’s the great driver of the world," Cassidy said. "They see everything going on around them all the time."
In Pasco, Finkel teaches his students with an acronym, PASS: Plan, Awareness, Space and Sleep. Ultimately, he said, it’s about making sure you’re not in too much of a rush; being aware of your surroundings; giving other drivers and yourself space; and being rested, in a good state of mind.
Keep middle fingers down, he said, and try to avoid irritants like honks and high beams.
"The main objective of driving," Finkel said, "is to get from Point A to Point B without incident."
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.