With road rage on the rise, driver’s ed teachers advise staying out of it

Times (2016)
As more people get behind the wheel that means more congestion and likely more angry drivers on the road. Driver\u2019s ed instructors say that avoiding conflict is the best way to make sure you stay safe.
Times (2016) As more people get behind the wheel that means more congestion and likely more angry drivers on the road. Driver\u2019s ed instructors say that avoiding conflict is the best way to make sure you stay safe.
Published August 31 2018
Updated September 1 2018

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 manís 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 driverís 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?

"Itís the complete breakdown of society. This didnít just happen yesterday, people losing their minds over nothing," said Bart Cassidy, president of the American Safety Institute. "If youíre 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 driverís education and training at the Suncoast Safety Council. "I donít know a better way to put it than that."

"This world has changed completely," said Greg Finkel, driverís education instructor at Wiregrass Ranch High School. "Itís 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 ó when youíre cutting them off youíre 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.

"Thatís 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 donít know what it means when a truck driver flashes lights at a passing car ó a signal that itís 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 driverís education have not changed. The best way to stay safe, they said, is to avoid conflict in the first place.

"Donít start anything," said Maurer, who urged drivers to have respect for each other and to forgive mistakes. "You donít know who youíre 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 Ö thatís fine," said Cassidy. "Theyíre 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.

"Thatís 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, itís about making sure youíre 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.