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4/1/1999
Aggressive Driving: Where you live Matters

Chapter One

Aggressive Driving:
Where You Live Matters

Jennifer Hywari was killed while on her way to work in St. Louis, Missouri, when another commuter slammed on the brakes ahead of her and she swerved into oncoming traffic. The driver who braked told police he did so because Hywari had made a move earlier that had caused him to spill hot coffee on himself. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident.
("Driver Tells How Road Rage Caused Crash, Man Charged in Death of Woman Who Swerved into Oncoming Traffic," St. Louis Post Dispatch, Bill Bryan and Jenny Price, 08/15/97.)

STPP wanted to have a better understanding of where aggressive driving is occurring and why. The only database which allows comparisons among different states and metropolitan areas is the Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS), of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which records all traffic deaths. So we looked at how aggressive driving death rates vary to determine what factors in the general travel environment may influence the phenomenon. Do factors such as congestion, the extent of the highway system, the total amount of driving in an area, or availability of transportation options have any bearing on aggressive driving deaths?

While "road rage" is the popular term for crashes and deaths due to aggressive driving, it also implies those rare sensational incidents when drivers murder each other, often with guns. For this analysis, we use the term aggressive driving in reference to the parameters used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other organizations. NHTSA has used the following factors to identify crashes involving aggressive driving: speeding, tailgating, failing to yield, weaving in and out of traffic, passing on the right, making improper and unsafe lane changes, and running stop signs and red lights. STPP used a slightly narrower definition, excluding from our sample aggressive driving crashes in which drugs or alcohol were a factor, and included only very excessive speeding, above 80 mph. As a result, our estimate is that about 56 percent of all highway deaths involved aggressive driving in 1996.

Aggressive Driving Death Rates in
Metro Areas and States

STPP’s research shows that where you live influences the likelihood that you will be killed in an aggressive driving crash. Using the most recent data available (1996) from the Fatal Accident Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration1, we found that the following were the top ten large metropolitan areas2 with the highest fatality rates due to aggressive driving factors: Riverside-San Bernardino, California, with a rate of more than 13 deaths per 100,000 people, Tampa,-St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Orlando, Miami, Las Vegas, Ft. Lauderdale, Dallas-Forth Worth, Kansas City, and San Antonio. (See Figure 1.) Most of these regions are marked by weak transit systems that struggle to serve the sprawling metropolitan area and development that discourages walking and biking forcing people to drive everywhere they need to go.

Because of the way most U.S. cities have grown in the last few decades, driving has become a part of almost every activity for many Americans. With housing subdivisions isolated from shops and schools, many people must get in the car even for short, simple errands. Working in an office park usually means driving is the only practical commute, and lunch may necessitate yet another trip in the car. Strip shopping centers mean drivers may get in and out of their cars many times on a single trip, each time searching for parking, and often relying on cooperation from other motorists.

Is Aggressive Driving on the Rise?

A recent USA Today article found no rise in aggressive driving crashes, using a federal database that estimates levels of aggressive driving in all traffic incidents nationwide*. While our study focused on one year of data, a quick survey of fatalities in past years showed a similar trend. However, regardless of whether or not aggressive driving is on the rise, the issue continues to resonate with a driving public that experiences daily frustration on the road. Thousands of incidents of 'road rage' are reported in newspapers across the country every year.

figa.GIF (13234 bytes)

One potential explanation for the perception that aggressive driving is increasing may be the fact that driving overall is increasing. More motorists are traveling more miles. Daily vehicle miles traveled (VMT) for American households rose 29 percent, from 32 miles per person in 1983 to more than 41 miles per day in 1990. Americans spend an average of 84 minutes each day driving, according to the 1995 Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey. This increase in driving increases the likelihood that motorists will encounter other drivers with bad or aggressive driving habits.

* Scott Bowles and Paul Overberg, "Aggressive Driving: A Road Well-Traveled," USA Today
23 November 1998: 17A.

The majority of the metropolitan areas with lower aggressive driving deaths are older and have grid street patterns, sidewalks and more developed transit systems. The ten metropolitan areas with the lowest aggressive driving death rates include Boston, with two deaths per 100,000 people due to aggressive driving, followed by New York City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Seattle. (See Figure 1.) When people in these regions go out to lunch, run to the drugstore or go to the office, many of them have the choice to leave their cars behind and walk, bike, take the bus or ride the train.

We found similar patterns when we ranked aggressive driving deaths by state. The state with the highest death rate in 1996 was South Carolina, at 15 deaths per 100,000 people. States included in the top ten are Wyoming, Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Carolina, Arkansas, Idaho, and Florida. (See Figure 2.) These states tend to include rural communities that are not served well by transit and where sprawling development forces residents to use cars to get everywhere — work, grocery and drug stores, and even health care services.

Only 25 percent of small cities provide transit service. More transit is needed in these communities because a substantial number of people do not have access to reliable vehicles (11.5 percent of households were without a vehicle in 1990). Many people in rural communities have a difficult time finding and keeping jobs if they don’t own a car.3 Also, since many of these communities — even towns of only several thousand people — include sprawling development with strip malls, big box stores and services outside the center of the community, driving is most people’s only option. Another reason a high aggressive driving death rate is found in rural areas may be that there are opportunities for drivers to increase their speed between the strip malls, shopping centers, gas stations and residential areas, which increases the likelihood of fatalities.

States where more towns and cities have established transit systems and traditional grid development patterns are heavily represented among the states with the lowest aggressive driving rates. Rhode Island has the lowest rate, at three deaths per 100,000 people. Also included are Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Iowa, Hawaii, Minnesota, Maryland, and Virginia. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 1. Aggressive Driving
Deaths in Large Metro Areas

Rank

Metro Area

Deaths per 100,000 people

1996 Aggressive Driving Deaths

1

Riverside--San Bernardino, CA

13.4

178

2

Tampa--St. Petersburg--Clearwater, FL

9.5

177

3

Phoenix, AZ

9.2

215

4

Orlando, FL

8.1

88

5

Miami--Hialeah, FL

8.1

167

6

Las Vegas, NV

8.1

87

7

Ft. Lauderdale--Hollywood--Pompano Beach, FL

7.8

115

8

Dallas--Fort Worth, TX

7.3

247

9

Kansas City, MO--KS

7.1

95

10

San Antonio, TX

7.0

83

11

Sacramento, CA

6.8

83

12

Oklahoma City, OK

6.5

67

13

Atlanta, GA

6.5

158

14

Houston, TX

6.3

193

15

Los Angeles, CA

6.0

728

16

San Diego, CA

5.9

150

17

St. Louis, MO--IL

5.3

104

18

Detroit, MI

4.9

184

19

Portland--Vancouver, OR--WA

4.8

65

20

San Francisco--Oakland, CA

4.8

186

21

San Jose, CA

4.7

75

22

Baltimore, MD

4.6

97

23

Chicago, IL--Northwestern Indiana

4.5

354

24

Philadelphia, PA--NJ

4.3

194

25

Denver, CO

4.2

75

26

Buffalo--Niagara Falls, NY

4.1

44

27

Washington, DC--MD--VA

4.1

140

28

Seattle, WA

3.8

73

29

New Orleans, LA

3.7

39

30

Cincinnati, OH--KY

3.5

40

31

Milwaukee, WI

3.3

42

32

Cleveland, OH

3.2

57

33

Norfolk--Virginia Beach--Newport News, VA

3.2

46

34

Pittsburgh, PA

3.2

56

35

Minneapolis--St. Paul, MN

2.9

66

36

New York, NY--Northeastern New Jersey

2.6

425

37

Boston, MA

2.1

62

Figure 2. Aggressive Driving Death Rate by State

Rank

State

Deaths per 100,000 people

1996 Aggressive Driving Deaths

1

South Carolina

15.1

557

2

Wyoming

13.9

67

3

Alabama

13.7

586

4

Kansas

13.7

352

5

Oklahoma

13.6

448

6

New Mexico

12.9

221

7

North Carolina

12.4

909

8

Arkansas

12.4

311

9

Idaho

11.9

141

10

Florida

11.7

1679

11

Missouri

10.8

581

12

Mississippi

10.5

285

13

Tennessee

10.2

545

14

Montana

10.2

90

15

Texas

9.9

1901

16

Arizona

9.8

434

17

Utah

9.7

195

18

Nevada

9.7

156

19

North Dakota

9.6

62

20

South Dakota

9.6

70

21

Georgia

9.4

690

22

Colorado

9.3

354

23

Kentucky

9.0

348

24

Nebraska

8.7

143

25

Vermont

8.2

48

26

California

8.1

2582

27

Michigan

7.9

759

28

Louisiana

7.9

344

29

West Virginia

7.8

142

30

Delaware

7.6

55

31

Indiana

7.3

424

32

Ohio

7.1

794

33

Oregon

7.0

225

34

Maine

6.9

86

35

Pennsylvania

6.7

802

36

Illinois

6.6

784

37

Wisconsin

6.6

340

38

Alaska

6.3

38

39

Washington

6.1

335

40

Virginia

5.9

395

41

Maryland

5.8

295

42

Minnesota

5.8

268

43

Hawaii

5.6

66

44

Iowa

5.6

159

45

Connecticut

4.5

146

46

New Jersey

4.1

330

47

New Hampshire

4.1

48

48

New York

3.7

671

49

Massachusetts

3.3

201

50

Rhode Island

3.1

31

The Link between Aggressive Driving and Travel Choices

These observations are backed up by a number of statistically significant links between aggressive driving deaths and the way people travel in each community. Using a sample of 69 metro areas of all sizes, we found that in areas where more people commute by transit, fewer people are killed by aggressive drivers.4 The metro areas with the highest death rate also had the lowest number of people riding transit. To clarify our statistical findings, we divided the metro areas into three equal groups: those with high, medium, and low aggressive driving death rates. On average, each person living in the cities with a high death rate traveled about 80 miles annually on transit. In comparison, people living in cities with lower aggressive driving rates logged an average of about 200 passenger miles traveled per year. Therefore, residents in regions with high transit use – six times higher than areas with the highest death rates — were 61 percent less likely to die in an aggressive driving crash than residents in areas with fewer transportation choices. We also looked at what percentage of the population takes the bus or train to work. We found that in metro areas with few aggressive driving deaths, an average of eight percent of commuters take transit, compared with just two percent in metro areas with the most deadly aggressive driving crashes. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3. Metro Areas with Few Aggressive Driving Deaths Have High Transit Use

fig3.gif (14636 bytes)

We also found that more people walk to work in the metro areas with few aggressive driving deaths. (See Figure 4.) Communities where many people walk to work are usually places where homes are close to shops and businesses, and where a grid street system and sidewalks make walking convenient and safe.

Figure 4. Metro Areas with More Aggressive Driving Deaths Are Places Where Fewer People Walk.

fig4.gif (15519 bytes)

The lower aggressive driving death rate in metro areas where more people take the bus or train is more than just a result of having fewer commuters on the road. For example, Boston, the major metro area with the lowest death rate from aggressive driving, people drive 12 percent less than in the average city, but aggressive driving fatalities are 66 percent below the average for all cities. The presence of transportation choices appears to be making roads safer for all users of the transportation system. Also, metropolitan areas such as Boston, where more people walk to work, are generally marked by an older grid street system, where streets are designed for lower, and safer, travel speeds.

boston.gif (13242 bytes)

Boston

This neighborhood in Boston gives everyone more travel choices--it provides more connections and routes for walkers, cyclists, and drivers.

river.gif (8181 bytes)

Riverside

This Riverside, California neighborhood only provides a few routes.

Both maps to same scale

All these factors – the ability to walk to destinations, lower automobile speeds, and transit use – point to community design. Compact communities with connecting neighborhood streets and local businesses are easier to serve with transit, more convenient for residents, and are safer for automobile users because they require lower travel speeds. Sprawling subdivisions and office parks that can only be reached by high-speed arterials are more dangerous for drivers and provoke more frustration among residents, resulting in more aggressive driving.

We also found strong statistical links between the use of other transportation modes and aggressive driving death rates at the state level. States with few aggressive driving deaths were also places where far more people take the train or bus. Residents in states with high transit use were 34 percent less likely to die in an aggressive driving crash than people who live in states where few people take the train or bus. States with fewer aggressive driving deaths had a significantly higher percentage of residents walking to work.

The states where fewer people travel on transit have a higher number of deaths due to aggressive driving. Again, to clarify our findings, we divided the states into three groups, those with high, medium, and low aggressive driving death rates. For example, the 17 states with the highest average aggressive driving death rate reflected just 24 passenger miles traveled by transit per person per year. The medium grouping of states averaged 44 miles traveled by transit, while the people living in the regions with the lowest aggressive driving death rate averaged a whopping 142 passenger miles traveled by transit per capita. (See Figure 5.)

Travel Choices Key To Lower Aggressive Driving Deaths

STPP’s findings indicate that better transit access and more travel choices are significant factors in lowering the risk of aggressive driving deaths. Much of the literature on aggressive driving focuses on the frustration experienced by drivers, anger management, and tougher law enforcement. Almost none recommend avoiding the situation—driving—altogether. In places with good transportation options, travelers who find driving most frustrating may be choosing to stay off the road, by taking the bus or train. Some commuters already recognize this; in a nationwide survey of transit users, 59 percent said they take the bus or train in order to avoid stress.5 In Virginia, 77 percent of people traveling on the state’s Virginia Railway Express say a primary reason for choosing the train is stress reduction.6 Commuters in places with more options may also be choosing to bicycle or walk, both physical activities that can help "work off" or prevent frustration.

Figure 5. States with Few Aggressive Driving Deaths Have Far Higher Transit Use.

fig5.gif (13393 bytes)

However, millions of Americans have no viable alternative to getting in their cars. About 29 percent of American households live more than one mile from the nearest transit route or have no access to transit at all.7 Forty percent of rural communities in this country aren’t served at all by public transit. And, for millions more, service is too infrequent to be convenient.

Many incidents of road rage reported in newspapers reflect the anxiety the drivers felt about completing the seemingly endless errands of modern life. "These trips ‘set the odometer reeling,’" as author Jane Holtz Kay observes: "A bottle of milk, a tube of toothpaste, a Little League game, taking grandma to the hospital or junior for eye glasses spin the miles. The ministuff of life clogs the nation’s roads." About two-thirds of the nation’s trips are for errands and recreation.8

One recent case reported in the newspaper involved a woman racing to drop her child at school. She drove on the sidewalk to avoid a traffic tie-up. She told a police officer who tried to stop her that "I don’t have time for this" and ended up dragging the police officer down the sidewalk because she refused to stop.9 One solution to this woman’s problem would be for communities to provide safe places for children to walk to school so they don’t have to be driven everywhere. Only 10 percent of American children now walk to school.

Another possible source of frustration may be the disconnect between driving expectations and daily reality. Automobiles traditionally represent speed, convenience, and freedom, yet driving today in the United States actually requires a high level of cooperation and patience. Many automobile advertisements feature powerful cars and sport utility vehicles gliding along beautiful, deserted country roads, a condition few American motorists experience daily. Others create the impression that their vehicle will lift owners above the daily grind on the highway, although no cars on the market today are actually capable of doing so.

While cars are touted as the owners’ "home away from home," they can also start to feel like a trap. One reason sport utility vehicles may be so popular is that people feel they need a "tank" to protect them on the road. Drivers caught in traffic see no way out and in most cases they can’t even consider that next time, they’ll take the train.


The Surface Transportation Policy Project is a nationwide network of more than 800 organizations, including planners, community development organizations, and advocacy groups, devoted to improving the nation’s transportation system.

Copyright © 1996-2014, Surface Transportation Policy Project
1707 L St., NW Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20036 
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