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Aggressive driving led to death in the Howard Frankland crash. But millions of people do it, and it’s getting worse.

More than 100 million people said they purposefully tailgate, according to a AAA study
An episode of aggressive driving Wednesday on the Howard Frankland Bridge led to one person's death and massive backups on area roads. The behavior is common, say officials, who urge drivers to keep a cool head and minimize conflict on the road.
An episode of aggressive driving Wednesday on the Howard Frankland Bridge led to one person's death and massive backups on area roads. The behavior is common, say officials, who urge drivers to keep a cool head and minimize conflict on the road. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 30, 2019

The two drivers involved in Wednesday’s crash that sent an SUV over the Howard Frankland Bridge barrier and into Tampa Bay were driving “aggressively and recklessly,” officials said.

The crash killed Hiran Reis Vaz, 53, of Tampa, and snarled traffic on the southbound span of the bridge for hours. But it’s far from the only incident of aggressive driving in Tampa Bay.

National numbers suggest the behavior is on the rise and more prevalent than some may realize.

RELATED STORY: ‘This is not NASCAR.’ Body of driver who fell off Howard Frankland found. Charges could be filed.

A 2016 study from the American Automobile Association found that nearly 80 percent of drivers expressed significant anger, aggression or road rage in the previous year.

More than 50 percent of respondents, or 104 million people, admitted to purposefully tailgating.

The findings suggest that approximately 8 million U.S. drivers engaged in extreme examples of road rage, including purposefully ramming another vehicle or getting out of the car to confront another driver.

“It’s surprising,” AAA Florida spokesman Mark Jenkins said of the numbers. “Some people just have a short fuse when they’re driving. We don’t always know what’s going on in the minds of the drivers around you.”

Drivers can’t control others on the road, but they can control their own actions. Jenkins stressed the importance of not engaging with drivers who are exhibiting aggressive tendencies, such as yelling or gesturing. Any response could escalate the scenario and lead to a crash or fatality.

Both drivers in Wednesday’s fatal crash seemed to fuel the other’s reactions, Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Steve Gaskins said. Their mutual agitation resulted in a collision, sending the SUV flipping over the railing.

“It was the type of behavior where it escalated quickly ... when people start acting like you’re the cop or you’re going to get him back, brake-check him,” Gaskins said. “The better response is, ‘Let me get out of his way and create some space.'”

Nearly 2 in 3 drivers in the AAA study believed that aggressive driving was a bigger problem than three years prior.

Tracking data on aggressive driving can be difficult, as troopers don’t issue tickets for it. Instead, Gaskins said, it’s a box on the citation that can be checked when there are multiple moving violations. That box lets a judge know the driver was acting aggressively.

Drivers can be cited for reckless driving, but that usually happens in connection with other incidents, such as driving under the influence, Gaskins said.

RELATED STORY: Would higher barriers on the Howard Frankland have stopped an SUV from going over?

Use of cell phones on the road may be contributing to higher instances of aggressive driving as people express frustration at their fellow drivers tapping a screen.

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The situations are all too common: cars stopped at green lights, not realizing the signal changed; drivers in the left lane going too slowly while on the phone; a driver unintentionally cutting off another car while merging.

Any of these instances could trigger road rage, Jenkins said, but they seem to be happening more frequently as drivers stare at their phones and become increasingly distracted.

“You see it all the time,” Jenkins said. “You can look to the car next to you and see someone texting or holding up their phone while driving.”

Both Jenkins and Gaskins encouraged people to call law enforcement if they see drivers speeding or acting aggressively. Then, Jenkins said, it’s best back off and let officials handle the situation.

“Things can escalate quickly when you’re behind the wheel,” Jenkins said. “If you can just try to keep a cool head and minimize conflict to your best ability, I think you’ll maximize your chances of arriving alive.”