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Rising road peril driven by anger

First of two parts.

You've heard of air rage, road rage, maybe even sports rage if you watch Oprah. O.J. Simpson was in the news not long ago over a road rage incident. It's no secret that he has an anger management problem. And that's essentially what road rage is.

The holiday season has brought even more stress, more pressure as more demands are placed on our time. All the more reason why you should be conscious of your own behavior and boiling point as well as those around you.

Road rage and its cohort, aggressive driving, are now as big a concern for law enforcement as drinking and driving and domestic violence were a few years ago. Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving worked hard to get drinking and driving legislation passed, and police and prosecutors established a zero tolerance policy against domestic violence, police agencies and psychologists are looking carefully for solutions to aggressive driving.

I recently attended a MADD Candlelight Vigil in Temple Terrace. It was very sad to witness the mourning of so many whose loved ones were either killed or seriously injured by drunken drivers. Even sadder than the number of mourners was the number who had multiple tragedies occur in their families.

Statistics, shared with me at a recent symposium on aggressive driving and the law put on by the American Institute for Public Safety in Miami Beach, suggest fatality rates are three to four times higher in aggressive driving cases than in DUI cases.Aggressive drivers caused more than 3-million injuries and $150-million in costs, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The federal government has named aggressive drivers as one of the most serious transportation challenges facing state legislatures today. Violent incidents reported between drivers in the United States have increased annually by 51 percent since 1990.

One theme expressed repeatedly was the comparison of aggressive driving to the past problems of drunken driving and domestic violence. To solve the problem, law enforcement, prosecutors and psychologists stressed a similar five-prong approach of education, enforcement, strong judicial effort, traffic engineering and media.

Hillsborough County is in a unique position. In 1998, the Tampa Bay area was named the most dangerous place in the nation for pedestrians. In 1999, Florida had the second-highest pedestrian death rate in the United States _ a little better than 1998, when it had the highest. The Tampa Bay area also is No. 2 in aggressive driving incidents for large metropolitan areas in the nation.

So what is the difference between aggressive driving and road rage?

According to the NHTSA, aggressive driving is a traffic offense while road rage is a criminal offense.

Road rage is defined as "an assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by the operator or passengers of another motor vehicle precipitated by an incident that occurred on a roadway." Aggressive driving is defined as "three or more moving violations as part of a single continuous sequence of driving acts which is likely to endanger persons or property."

These traffic violations could include: flashing lights, passing on the right or shoulder of the road, weaving, running stop signs or red lights, sudden, unsafe lane changes, going around railroad gates, tailgating, speeding and excessive honking.

Other behaviors conducive to road rage include making obscene gestures.

Even the car horn's function has changed over the years. Now the horn too often is a vent for anger.

"Aggressive driving is nothing new, we've always had it," says Cpl. George Mosher of the sheriff's district office near the University of South Florida. In fact, he says, it was the subject of a Goofy cartoon from around 1957.

"Aggressive driving is a term coined by mental health and law enforcement, which essentially means driving impatience. It's like a Jekyll-and-Hyde mind set when someone gets behind the wheel. This type of aggressive driving unchecked turns into road rage," said Sgt. Alan Hill of the sheriff's Community Relations Section.

According to Hill, several things factor into the situation.

You have a me-first attitude, along with the comfort zone that comes from being in your own automobile. Factor in a traffic offense committed by someone else and the situation becomes a personal offense against the driver, who might also be in a hurry.

Add the rapid population growth and the immense increase in traffic that goes along with it.

The gravity of the problem in Hillsborough has caused Sheriff Cal Henderson to take a stand against aggressive driving. With the help of a Department of Transportation grant, the department was able to assign two deputies the full-time position of promoting traffic safety.

Deputies Karen Dipaolo and Patricia Morris are helping to promote DUI traffic awareness. They also enforce traffic laws, promote car seat and safety belt use and teach traffic safety to children and adults. These deputies are working with the sheriff's motorcycle and DUI units. And they are teaming up with other law enforcement agencies in the county to combat speeders, aggressive drivers and other traffic safety problems.

While these agencies combat careless and aggressive driving every day of the month, on designated days they come together for a concentrated Hillsborough County Aggressive Driving Enforcement Program. On Dec. 12, that effort resulted in 281 citations. The 40 officers involved wrote 272 tickets for speeding, five for running red lights, 23 for seat belt violations, and 257 warning tickets.

Hill hopes this concerted effort will increase public awareness of traffic safety. "We want drivers to comply voluntarily," he said. "But since that doesn't always happen, we have to use the fear of apprehension."

_ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Deputy Teresa F. Slattery teaches crime prevention and safety at schools, including Schwarzkopf Elementary and several in New Tampa. Part II of her column, which will be published next week, will include ways you can stop yourself from driving aggressively. You can e-mail her at tslatteryij.net.

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