Measure the True Dimensions of the Problem

Measure the True Dimensions of the Problem

Measure the True Dimensions of the Problem
Measure the True Dimensions of the Problem

The analysis proceeds by estimating the frequency of occur- rence of this sort of incident and examining the victim– offender interaction in order to draw evidence-based portraits of the typical aggressors and their usual targets, and of the amount of harm done.

Unfortunately, chilling accounts often were laced with hyperbole and sensationalism. Consequently, heated discus- sions erupted about whether fears were out of proportion to actual threats. Investigations that attempted to estimate the actual toll that road rage imposed on motorists adopted definitions that were way too broad: media coverage, and even some of the earliest research undertakings, character- ized road rage as synonymous with extremely aggressive driving habits that embodied hostility toward other motor- ists. Part of the continuum included noncriminal acts, such as screaming curses out the window, making threatening or obscene gestures, flashing headlights on and off, honking horns repeatedly, weaving in and out of traffic, cutting others off, tailgating in a way that resembles stalking, and getting out of the vehicle to argue face-to-face. From the targeted motorist’s point of view, as well as from a police and traffic safety perspective, this inclusive definition that ran- ged from trivial to life-threatening actions seemed to make sense, in terms of recognizing all the different dimensions of an infuriating and ominous encounter. But from the stand- point of both criminology and victimology, the definition should be much more restrictive and exclude insults and

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implied threats as well as bad driving maneuvers that at most result in summonses for moving violations in traffic court. A more limited and precise definition of road rage would count only those interpersonal conflicts that are matters for the criminal justice system to resolve: outbreaks of violence in which either one of the drivers—or one of the passengers—intentionally or recklessly injures or kills another driver, passenger, cyclist, or even a pedestrian, or damages a vehicle on purpose; or uses the vehicle to make a serious attempt to do harm to another party embroiled in the fracas (see Smart and Mann, 2002). A driver who is threat- ened can be considered a victim of harassment, and if a gun is pointed, the crime becomes “menacing.” If a shot is fired, an assault with a deadly weapon has taken place. One difficult methodological decision confronting researchers is whether to include or exclude incidents in which the two warring parties were not complete strangers. For example, some car chases are really extensions of ongoing quarrels that fall under the category of “domestic violence” (Mizell, 1997). Upon investigation, other clashes could turn out to be drive- by shootings involving members of warring street gangs or competing drug-dealing crews. But putting these exceptional cases aside, road rage generally constitutes a type of physical attack perpetrated by a stranger in a vehicle who approaches a victim just by chance in an anonymous public space—a street or highway (Roberts and Indermaur, 2005).

Criminologists zero in on the perpetrators’ possible mental problems, anger and aggression, drug and alcohol use, and risk-taking propensities while victimologists focus on the characteristics of the injured parties and how they respond to the incidents. Both sets of researchers seek to discover how often punishable acts of road rage break out. Not all cases are considered newsworthy by editors and journalists, so schol- arly studies must be based on access to “official sources of data”: the arrest records of police departments and the tran- scripts of court proceedings, perhaps supplemented by the files of insurance companies. However, descriptions of the events leading up to the confrontation may be fragmentary or incomplete, or the versions of who did what to whom could be completely one-sided. Furthermore, just as with media coverage, official statistics present an underestimate. Some criminal acts that could lead to arrest and prosecution go unreported because the authorities were not notified by either party or by eyewitnesses. On the other hand, accounts from unofficial sources could yield overestimates because the working definition of road rage used by the general public and the media has expanded far beyond the original narrower

notion of violence on wheels. Other unofficial sources of data, including the findings of surveys, that ask motorists if they were ever subjected to or eyewitnesses to road rage may be cluttered with huge numbers of judgmental interpreta- tions about incidents that would not wind up in the criminal justice system. For example, using a broad definition, an annual survey estimated that the most afflicted cities in 2009 were New York, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Atlanta; far fewer incidents reportedly took place in Portland, Cleveland, Sacramento, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh (AP, 2009).

Several websites that welcome postings by motorists infuriated by encounters with inconsiderate, rude, careless, or just plain inept drivers also use a definition that is too vague and inclusive. Overly broad definitions tend to gener- ate exaggerated estimates. The prevalence rate of ever experiencing, perpetrating, or witnessing road rage can approach 100 percent if the database includes motorists’ complaints about drivers who suddenly cut in front of them, honked incessantly, braked hard without warning, swerved dangerously, hurled insults, or even forced them on to the shoulder. These experiences might be unnerving and insult- ing, and some might be violations of traffic ordinances, but as merely subjective and undocumented accusations, they don’t rise to the level of criminal matters, so the aggrieved parties are not genuine “victims” of physical violence or deliberate property destruction.

The task for scholarly researchers is to sort through this collection of media and police reports about aggres- sive and reckless driving and focus on the incidents of intentional collisions, assaults, shootings, and even murders. For example, a comprehensive review of over 10,000 records of events that took place from 1990 through 1996 yielded an estimate of over 200 deaths and about 12,600 injuries directly attributable to road rage, or about 1,500 casualties a year resulting from collisions arising from dangerously aggressive driving (see Mizell, 1997; and Garase, 2006). On the other hand, as real as the threat may be, criminal acts of road rage seems to be a relatively infrequent event, statistically speaking, at least according to self-report surveys of drivers (Roberts and Indermaur, 2005). Pedestrians and cyclists felt the most vulnerable; believed that they were specifically targeted; suffered more physically and mentally; and were more likely to alter their behavior after the incidents, according to a survey of a small sample of self-identified victims (Cavacuiti et al., 2013).



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B O X 1.5 (Continued)

Road rage needs to be operationalized (precisely defined so that it can be measured) in a restrictive manner to include only incidents in which one driver knowingly injures or kills another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian or uses a vehicle as a weapon to attack someone or something. Then criminologists could focus their attention on the defendants who get arrested and prosecuted for their angry outbursts, by asking questions like: Do people who pick fights when driving also start altercations in everyday life? Do they drive as they live? Do these hyperaggressive drivers differ demographically and socially from average motorists? Psychologically oriented criminologists could ask whether these belligerent drivers are burdened with pent up anger, poor impulse control, short fuses, and hair triggers that reflect deep-seated personality problems (and maybe even mental disorders) that make them a danger to themselves and anyone who strays into their path. These emotional disturbances might include an obses- sion with minimizing travel time to the point of always being in a great rush; a need to try to come in first in a highly competitive environment; a tendency to perceive the driving mistakes of others as personal attacks on themselves or their vehicles; and even a sense that they need to punish others to teach others a lesson to improve their driving skills (see Ayar, 2006).

But these issues about the presumed shortcomings of offenders are not the immediate focus of victim-centered investigations, which seek to expand and balance out the inquiry into the hostile encounter by paying close attention to the injured party and to the behaviors of both individuals during their confrontation. The victim–offender interaction must be carefully reconstructed. Two strikingly different possibilities arise. The first scenario is that road rage casual- ties were innocent travelers who were cruising along and just minding their own business when they were randomly tar- geted by belligerent drivers. This image of a routine activity being interrupted “out of the blue” by senseless violence is especially chilling because automobile travel unavoidably brings strangers from very different social backgrounds into close proximity as they attempt to share the road with one another. Road rage is a serious problem that must be addressed immediately if ordinary motorists can become embroiled in a feud without warning; if some hothead’s wrath can be vented on anyone who is unlucky enough to gets in his way; and if any motorist—just like getting into a collision—can find himself under attack at anytime.

But the alternative scenario paints an entirely different picture: that the injured party was a violence-prone individ- ual himself. He was spoiling for a fight and was easily inflamed and incited into action. These mutual combatants overreacted to each other’s overtures. The initial event was misperceived as embodying a hostile intent, and this pre- sumed threat was countered with an inappropriately bellicose response, thereby escalating the incident to the point of bloodshed or a crash. The misbehavior of the victim can be as important a catalyst in this interaction as the aggressive actions of the assailant. In essence, offenders and victims “find each other” as they interact within a vast pool of fellow drivers. The question arises, in what proportion of cases are the injured parties not totally innocent victims? How often do those who get wounded or killed share some degree of responsibility with the complete strangers who attacked them? Presumably, the violations of traffic laws would not have spiraled into a criminal matter were it not for the vic- tim’s inadvertent triggering of the aggressive driver’s violent response; or worse yet, the victim’s furious overreaction to the offender’s bad driving led to the next round of escalating hostilities. Researchers who examine the victim–offender interaction can provide estimates of the percent of cases in which victims are totally innocent of any incitement to vio- lence, and the remaining percent in which those who wind up hurt are partially at fault for triggering the aggressive driver’s illegal response.

Media accounts portray road rage victims as tending to be young males in their twenties and thirties (Asbridge, Smart, and Mann, 2003). Some researchers who have studied both parties suggest that they have uncovered situations that illustrate the principle of homogamy: that both offen- ders and victims share a great deal in common, socially and demographically (according to surveys about aggressive driving that asked about lesser skirmishes in addition to violent episodes). The picture they have painted from their data is that the two persons caught up in the confrontation tend to closely resemble each other. Both usually are males; often in their twenties and thirties; generally of lower socioeconomic status; frequently with drug and drinking problems; perhaps exhibiting a “macho” personality; some- times driving around in a high-performance vehicle or sports car with tinted windows; and most disturbingly, all too often going around armed with guns (see Asbridge et al., 2003, 2006; Roberts and Indermaur, 2008; Hemenway, Vriniotis, and Miller, 2006; and Fierro, Morales, and Alvarez, 2011).

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Copyright 2016 Cengage Learning. All Rights Reserved. May not be copied, scanned, or duplicated, in whole or in part. WCN 02-200-203

These angry young men, who have poor impulse control and a propensity to get into fights while trying to share the road, seem to be one and the same as those who spend a lot of time away from home and get into brawls on street corners and in bars. Additional studies that derive profiles of both parties from police files and court proceedings could settle this question about the possibility of homogamy. The research hypotheses would be that both the offenders and their victims would tend to be low-income, young, urban males, rather than females, older persons, suburbanites or rural residents, and more affluent people (Asbridge et al., 2003). Furthermore, those whose routine activities involve a great deal of driving may have more opportunities to become embroiled in confrontations (Asbridge and Butters, 2013).

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