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Responses to the Problem of Aggressive Driving

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem.

It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.

Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. In some cases, you made need to shift the responsibility of responding toward those who have the capacity to implement more-effective responses. (For more-detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems).

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

There are several response strategies that can effectively address aggressive driving, including enforcement, legislation, environmental and situational factors, public education, and judicial responses. A comprehensive strategy that blends tactics from each of these components and that addresses psychological, environmental, situational, and cultural factors is most likely to be effective.

A comprehensive aggressive driving intervention should focus on reducing the likelihood that drivers will act aggressively and the aspects of the driving environment that precipitate aggressive behavior. A focus on drivers can occur at the individual or aggregate level. At the individual level, enforcement and sanctions can modify the behavior of identified aggressive drivers. At the aggregate level, data analysis can identify hot spots for targeted saturation and emphasis enforcement, and public education can impact group behavior. A focus on the driving environment can lead to interventions that mitigate the physical and social environments and situational stressors that contribute to aggressive driving.

Specific Responses To Reduce Aggressive Driving

Enforcing Traffic Laws

Traffic enforcement to address aggressive driving has three primary goals:

  • to deter the cited driver from driving aggressively again in the future,
  • to deter other drivers who learn about police enforcement from driving aggressively, and
  • to remove aggressive drivers from the roads while they are angry and most dangerous.

Deterrence is advanced through significant fines or other consequences such as jail time, and through high-visibility enforcement.

Enforcement provides only partial deterrence to aggressive driving because of police staffing limitations. Most of the time, police do not catch drivers who violate the law. Risk-inclined drivers are less likely than the general driving population to accurately gauge the likelihood of being caught.

If you are considering emphasizing aggressive driving enforcement, you should narrowly define the scope of the intervention, deciding which observable behaviors and sites you should target, what the ticketing threshold will be, what information you will collect, what type of enforcement you will deploy, what deployment schedule you should use, and what planned project to implement.

You should also consider what types of partners should be involved; whether you will undertake efforts to educate the general public as part of the project; what type of education and sanctions will be in place for offenders; and whether construction, weather, or other situational variables are likely to affect the project.

Geographic Information System or GIS mapping of aggressive driving hot spots can help you target your efforts where the need is greatest. You can identify hot spots based on information such as traffic or speed survey findings, collision and fatality data, and citation data. You can compare aggressive driving or road rage hot spots with felony and drug crime hot spots to increase the value of hot-spot enforcement.

1. Deploying surveillance technologies. Surveillance technologies can increase the pervasiveness of enforcement, creating greater saturation and increasing both the likelihood of apprehending offenders and their perception of that likelihood. This increased saturation enhances deterrence.

You can use surveillance technologies for automatic enforcement through mailed citations. They also help you collect data about aggressive driving behaviors such as speeding and running red lights.

There is a variety of surveillance technologies you can use to apprehend and deter aggressive drivers, such as the following:

  • Red-light photo-enforcement cameras.
  • Automatic number-plate recognition technology in aggressive-driving hot spots.
  • Closed circuit television or CCTV at aggressive-driving hot spots, construction zones, or high-collision intersections that can detect unusual traffic patterns and illegal maneuvers and capture license plate data for automatic enforcement or mailed warnings.
  • Video-equipped patrol cars recording drivers' behavior and police stops.
  • Video-equipped unmarked cars to follow aggressive drivers before marked-car vehicle stops.
  • Tailgating detection devices for fleet vehicles.
  • Road sensors and cameras working in concert to detect illegal passing.
  • Helicopter-mounted cameras that can download clear license plate number photos into patrol vehicles.
  • Electronic speed displays attached to speed-limit signs.
  • Crash reconstruction software that allows investigators to clear congested roads quickly.
  • Downstream lights that allow traffic enforcement officers to cite red-light runners without being physically present in dangerous intersections.
  • Telephone-reporting hotlines connected with police follow-up procedures such as keeping a database for use in future investigations, mailing citations, mailing warnings, or mailing anger-management or aggressive-driving-avoidance tip cards.
  • Data from vehicles equipped with event data recorders (EDR) could be subpoenaed to support aggressive driving investigations and prosecutions. Data typically recorded include whether the driver was speeding, whether the driver was pressing the brakes, and whether the driver was wearing a seatbelt. Some jurisdictions, including that of the Pennsylvania State Police, access data from vehicle EDR when investigating crashes.

The purpose of electronic surveillance is both to facilitate detection and apprehension, and to promote self-monitoring of driving behavior. Cameras have succeeded in achieving substantial reductions in speeding, and red-light cameras have succeeded in reducing infractions, injuries, and fatalities.40 Nonetheless, visibility would have to be very high, or surveillance widespread, for enforcement alone to impact risk-inclined drivers. Antisocial drivers, especially, are likely to be difficult to influence with negative reinforcement because they tend to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the risks of their aggressive driving behaviors.

You should consult your state codes to ensure that camera- and mail-based ticketing is permitted, and laws should be amended, as necessary, before enforcement programs' initiation.41 If your jurisdiction decides to use electronic surveillance and enforcement, you should first gauge public support for using such technology. Publicizing the contemplated use of surveillance technology allows you to assess the public's reaction before implementation. You might also consider issuing warnings for a set period before issuing citations. An evaluation program should be designed before police issue citations.42

Non-technology-based surveillance, such as when police monitor aggressive driving from aircraft, highway overpasses, and unmarked cars, is also used around the country to apprehend and deter aggressive driving. Some types work well with technology-based enforcement.

2. Conducting high-visibility enforcement. High-visibility enforcement has the effect of calming the driving behavior of a greater number of motorists than those police actually stop. Using marked vehicles can increase visibility, as well as adding magnetic "aggressive driving patrol" signs to enforcement vehicles.

Photo credit: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Example of high-visibility aggressive driving

Example of high-visibility aggressive driving enforcement. Source: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

3. Conducting "centipede" enforcement. In centipede enforcement, six or more speed enforcement cars are placed approximately two miles apart to stop speeding drivers who think it is safe to speed up after passing a police officer who has pulled another driver over. Centipede enforcement is useful for apprehending aggressive drivers by distinguishing them from motorists who maintain lower speeds after they pass the initial visible enforcement officer.

4. Conducting enforcement crackdowns. Aggressive driving enforcement crackdowns, properly timed and executed, can be effective.§ For example, saturation police patrols on congested streets or around aggressive driving hot spots focus enforcement geographically. In addition to enforcing actual aggressive driving violations, enforcing precursors or actions that commonly trigger aggressive driving—such as blocking intersections during rush hour, failing to yield the right-of-way, and abruptly changing lanes—can also help reduce aggressive driving.

§ See Response Guide No. 1The Benefits and Consequences of Police Crackdowns, for further information on how to make hot-spot enforcement effective.

5. Referring habitual aggressive drivers to state licensing agencies. Where police officers have ready access to motorists' driving histories, they can determine whether the current aggressive driving violation reflects a pattern of similar driving. If so, the officer might then refer the driver to the state licensing agency for consideration of a license suspension or revocation.

6. Checking records of portable electronic device use. If officers suspect that aggressive driving occurred in conjunction with the driver's use of a cell phone, personal digital assistant, or other distracting technologies, they should check those devices' electronic records to verify their time of use and, perhaps, the nature of the communication. Enhanced penalties may apply.

Enhancing Legislation and Regulation

Efforts to address aggressive driving should include a review of your jurisdiction's current regulatory environment. This will help determine whether police agencies have legislative authority to address aggressive driving effectively.

A robust aggressive-driving regulatory environment would include the following:

  • A statutory definition of aggressive driving exists and does not require that intent to harm be proved, but rather is based on objective driving behaviors. Intent to harm is difficult to prove in court.
  • Criminal statutes and sentencing guidance provide for enhanced penalties for violence arising from road incidents.
  • A range of judicial sanctions exist for aggressive driving, including fines; jail time; license suspensions and revocations; vehicle confiscation, booting, or impounding; anger management treatment; probation; and enhanced penalties for repeat violators.
  • Police are authorized to cite drivers on the basis of camera, laser, and other technological evidence.
  • Police are authorized to use unmarked vehicles for traffic enforcement.
  • Police are authorized to work in teams in which the officer issuing the citation is not the same officer who witnessed the incident.

7. Defining and prohibiting aggressive driving in the state vehicle code. At a minimum, aggressive driving should be defined in the state traffic code and sanctions prescribed. States and localities vary widely in terms of whether they have aggressive driving laws in place and how they define aggressive driving. Arizona, Nevada, and Delaware developed aggressive driving prohibitions in the late 1990s, and other states have since followed suit. Arizona defines aggressive driving as the co-occurrence of speeding and two other traffic violations that create an immediate danger to another. The law includes a list of violations that meet the terms of the definition, including failing to obey a traffic signal, passing on the shoulder, unsafely changing lanes, tailgating, or failing to yield. Other parts of the state's traffic code separately define each of these violations.

8. Restricting window tinting. Window tinting increases driver anonymity, thus lowering inhibitions to aggressive driving. Restricting the level of front window tinting reduces driver anonymity. Some states regulate the percentage of light that window tinting can block. Rules vary widely by state.

9. Requiring Intelligent Speed Adaptation systems in large vehicle fleets.Intelligent Speed Adaptation systems can be installed in vehicles to notify drivers and/or automatically slow vehicles when drivers exceed speed limits. While private vehicle owners may not choose to use such technology, these systems could help improve professional drivers' driving habits when the entire fleet uses them.

Removing or Modifying Environmental and Situational Triggers

Certain environmental changes are known to reduce aggressive driving. For example, more efficient use of existing road capacity can improve traffic flow, better aligning natural human behavior with desired driving behavior. Engineering efforts such as coordinated signals, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, shoulders converted into merge lanes, and similar measures can improve traffic flow. Non-road efforts, such as telecommuting and flexible work schedules, can also increase road-use efficiency.43

Environmental and situational responses are varied, and can include strategies that address vehicles' features, traffic signals' operation, road features, signs, and other means for providing additional information to drivers and traffic-calming techniques. Many of the following environmental strategies reflect Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles,§ or what traffic engineers call ergonomic strategies.

§ See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 8, Using CPTED in Problem-Solving, for further information.

10. Timing traffic signals to reduce aggressive driving triggers. Traffic-signal timing can influence driver frustration and anger and can facilitate safe and nonfrustrating driving.44 Ensuring adequate green signal times to reduce driver waits and frustration, eliminating excessively long red signals, ensuring appropriate signal-change intervals, and coordinating or synchronizing traffic signals all permit traffic to flow more smoothly and irritate drivers less.

11. Enhancing traffic-signal and street-sign visibility. Low traffic-signal visibility puts drivers in the position of having to make last-second driving decisions, which could increase driver errors and violations. Easy-to-see signal housings and signs that provide advance warning about approaching signals on roads with high speeds and/or short sight distances can enhance traffic-signal visibility. Sufficient signal brightness is also important to help drivers clear intersections quickly. Clear and highly visible street signs help drivers find their way and also reduce last-second driving decisions.

12. Improving drivers' commute information in congested areas. The more drivers know about what to expect on their commutes, the better prepared they are to handle delays calmly. Information can reduce driver frustration in situations where congestion and time urgency could combine to trigger aggression. There are many ways that transportation departments have enhanced drivers' information about their driving environment on freeways. Such tactics include signs that inform drivers of traffic delays, their causes, alternate routes, and estimated arrival times to urban centers. Added information gives drivers a sense of control and the option to choose alternate routes.

Photo credit: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Providing drivers with more information about their commutes can help them to handle delays calmly.

Providing drivers with more information about their commutes can help them to handle delays calmly.

13. Clarifying appropriate merging zones. Clarifying where drivers should merge can reduce all drivers' frustration. This can be achieved by using signs and painted indications on the road, for example, an arrow with the words "Merge Here" painted nearby. Merging can be encouraged late or early, as long as all drivers have the same idea about the point at which they should start merging. From a traffic-flow perspective, appropriate merging involves cars' using all lanes and merging at a fair speed rather than forming a single queue early and coming to a near stop.

14. Providing speed and distance indicators in areas where speeding or tailgating is common. When drivers are reminded of the law and their own driving behavior, they often monitor themselves and self-enforce driving rules. Police widely use digital speed-limit signs that indicate the legal limit and the speed of the approaching driver to remind drivers to slow down in areas where speeding is common. Similarly, painted dots on the road can indicate appropriate driving distance for the road's speed. Based on road speed limits and safe following distances, painted indicators can help drivers gauge their distance from the car ahead and remind them that safe following distances are important. Painted chevrons create the illusion of a narrowing roadway, thereby reducing driving speeds.45

Photo credit: Virginia Community Policing Institute.

PThe use of painted chevrons has been successful at reducing
driving speeds.

The use of painted chevrons has been successful at reducing driving speeds. 

15. Using traffic-calming features in neighborhoods where speeding is common. Traffic calming describes a wide range of road and environmental design changes that either make it more difficult for a vehicle to speed or make drivers believe they should slow down for safety. Some commonly used physical features include flat-topped speed bumps that double as crosswalks, traffic circles, radar speed signs, and road markings. Visual cues include street trees and streetlights. Tested traffic-calming approaches create self-enforcing behavior in drivers.§

§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 3, Speeding in Residential Areas, 2nd Edition for further information.

16. Maximizing the use of existing roads. In already congested areas, adding road capacity is not feasible, for either lack of funding or space. You can use existing road capacity more effectively, however. Measures such as coordinating traffic-signal timing, using HOV lanes and promoting nontraditional work hours and arrangements all reduce congestion without requiring added road capacity.

17. Modifying physical road features. Sometimes modifying existing road features can reduce triggers for aggressive driving. By converting shoulders to merge lanes, congestion at peak traffic times can be somewhat mitigated. Creating right-sized freeway entrance and exit ramps that allow for effective merging can also reduce congestion. Converting shoulders into well-designed bus and bike lanes encourages alternatives to vehicle use. Limiting road construction and repair work to off-peak hours also reduces congestion and removes an aggressive driving trigger.

Educating Drivers

In public health matters such as road safety, primary prevention is generally considered the most effective approach to reducing injury. Although a small percentage of drivers are responsible for most traffic incidents, a primary prevention approach gets the prevention message out to all drivers.

Deterrence is heightened when society stigmatizes the behavior in question. Potentially aggressive drivers weigh the likelihood of negative consequences such as fines, increased insurance, vehicle damage, injury, and social stigma against the rewards of breaking traffic laws, namely enjoyment and efficient mobility. Antisocial drivers are partially immune to the deterrent effects of most negative consequences because they underestimate their personal risk, but both antisocial and competitive drivers are interested in maintaining their image, thus making them susceptible to social stigma's influence.

According to an advertising executive, "We need to raise the salience of the embarrassment thattheir failure to contain their rage on the road will make them appear foolish and pathetic. The most powerful deterrent to road rage will be the damage it might do to [an aggressive driver's] image.... If people who are prone to road rage are to maintain their cool, it will be because, by doing so, they can avoid social disapproval."46

18. Stigmatizing aggressive driving through public information campaigns. The most promising education approach for educating antisocial drivers involves stigmatizing aggressive driving behaviors in much the same way advertising campaigns transformed social perceptions of drunken driving.47 Such a campaign targeting the young white male demographic from which most antisocial drivers are drawn is more likely to reduce aggressive driving than a general prevention campaign.§

§ See Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns, for further information.

19. Addressing aggressive driving in drivers' education curricula. Mandatory aggressive driving components in driver's education can instruct young people, who are more at risk for aggressive driving, in the triggers, dangers, and consequences of such behavior.48 Virginia includes information about avoiding aggressive driving behaviors in its mandatory drivers' education curriculum.

20. Providing primary education on avoiding aggressive drivers. The general public could likely benefit from education about how to avoid becoming the victim or aggressor in a driving violence or aggressive driving incident.49 Education-based responses include the following:

  • a media and public outreach campaign to stigmatize aggressive driving behaviors;
  • a media campaign promoting safe parking-lot etiquette;
  • road signs with public education messages, for example, signs reminding slower traffic to keep right, clear street signs to help drivers find their way, and signs that inform drivers about their obligation to share the road with cyclists in areas where bicycling is common;
  • officers' providing educational materials to cited drivers; and
  • educational programs for new, young drivers, focused on the social aspects of driving and avoiding aggressive driving offending and victimization.

21. Training professional drivers in aggressive driving prevention. Professional drivers, such as those who drive large trucks, taxis, and buses, should receive special training concerning general driving attitudes and avoiding aggressive behaviors as a condition of their employment.50 Company policies against aggressive driving behaviors, vehicle monitoring and regulating devices, and surveillance of drivers' behavior can complement training.

22. Encouraging employer monitoring of professional drivers' driving. Commercial fleets that used "How's my driving?" bumper stickers reduced crashes between 20 percent and 53 percent.51 Some companies have hired trained safety consultants with law enforcement or fleet management experience to report to the company on their commercial drivers' driving behavior. Such consultants can surveil drivers' behavior patterns in a variety of situations and provide credible, professional feedback to employers.

Enhancing the Consequences of Aggressive Driving

23. Requiring anger management treatment for aggressive drivers. Anger management treatment may be beneficial to aggressive drivers, risky drivers, impaired drivers, and drivers convicted of violent offenses. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anger management has proved effective in reducing anger.52 Court referral to anger management treatment has been demonstrated effective in reducing aggressive driving.53 Traffic court judges in some states can refer aggressive driving offenders to anger management treatment or traffic safety education, in addition to imposing fines and jail time. Both the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., have anger management treatment options available to traffic court judges. The National Center for State Courts examined these programs, but an insufficient number of referrals took place to support a program outcome evaluation.

Many jurisdictions already have post-conviction programs to address impaired drivers' needs. These programs are often required as a condition of license reinstatement. One researcher concluded, "Currently, available evidence provides strong support that these programs can reduce subsequent recidivism and collisions and may provide additional health and social benefits as well."54 Court-based anger management programs require provider training and certification and eligibility guideline checklists for judges to use in making referrals.

Courts could also require that aggressive drivers with alcohol and/or mental health issues seek treatment for those problems as part of their diversion or sentence.55 Judges must be trained and willing to make referrals, and police officers must be trained to write citations in a way that will indicate to judges that the defendant is a candidate for referral to anger management for aggressive driving.

Courts may not have sufficient numbers of eligible offenders to keep treatment programs open if only aggressive driving offenders are eligible. Because reckless and aggressive driving are interrelated and involve some of the same behaviors, it may make most sense to have both be eligible offenses, although reckless drivers should not be automatically referred, as they may not have anger management problems.

Drivers identified by courts in other matters as having anger control issues such as intermittent explosive disorder, or other indicators that a person is highly vulnerable to acting aggressively, could be referred to state licensing agencies for license restrictions or additional education requirements. License restrictions are commonly used for physical and mental health issues that could impact driving safety. While treatment for convicted aggressive driving offenders has been successfully piloted, treatment for persons not yet charged with aggressive driving has not been evaluated.

24. Requiring vehicle-based monitoring systems to enforce driving restrictions. Judges can also impose certain driving restrictions on aggressive drivers. Vehicle-based monitoring systems can include ignition locks and intelligent speed adaptation systems that report supervised drivers' speeding to the court.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

25. Discouraging aggressive driving through general publicity campaigns. General publicity campaigns designed to alter drivers' attitudes toward aggressive driving have failed to reduce collisions.56 Aggressive drivers tend to be those who underestimate their risk of apprehension and overestimate their driving skill. They respond to trivial triggers that activate reservoirs of latent anger. Such drivers are unlikely to be swayed by logic and reason.

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