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Study on aggressive driving doesn’t tell the whole story

SHARE Study on aggressive driving doesn’t tell the whole story

Three people were slashed on New York City subways during one day last week, all in unrelated incidents. In one, a 29-year-old woman was cut in the face because she refused to give money to some homeless women on the D train. On another train, a man was attacked by a gang of nearly 20 youths, and a 14-year-old boy was attacked by a group of teens on yet another train.

In Toronto last week, doctors worked hard to save the life of a man who was attacked by two men on a bus. As many as 20 passengers, and the driver, watched the beating without trying to help.Meanwhile, in Buffalo, N.Y., a man got on a Metro Bus, told everyone he had a gun in his pocket and went up and down the aisle stealing watches, jewelry and cash, all while telling the driver to keep the bus moving.

I share these stories because sometimes it helps to put the news in perspective. And if ever a story cried out for some perspective, it is the one that emerged from Washington last week on "aggressive driving." The Surface Transportation Policy Project, a coalition of mostly environmental groups, said Utah ranks 17th in the nation for aggressive driving, which it distinguishes from "road rage" only in that no guns were involved.

Not surprisingly, other Western states and cities ranked high. Phoenix, Las Vegas and Dallas all made the top 10. Wyoming, Idaho and Arizona were found to be worse than Utah. All of these states have wide open spaces and relatively few mass transit systems.

But 17 is pretty bad. Anyone casually looking at the survey would think life here is a cauldron of urban madness. How else to explain that we have more angry, frustrated drivers than New York or Massachusetts?

I don't intend to quibble with the study's findings, although they seem a bit of a stretch. The study's researchers looked at only auto accidents that involved speeding, tailgating, failing to yield, weaving in and out of traffic, passing on the right and improper lane changes. These may be tell-tale signs that someone is angry. They also may be signs of people not paying attention or not being properly trained.

Not everyone who speeds or changes lanes recklessly is in a rage. The study tries to reach into the minds of people and understand why they did what they did, which is preposterous. The only reasonable conclusion the study demonstrates is that states with the highest percentage of drivers tend to have the most accidents, an interesting fact that ought to be filed under "duh."

Nor am I opposed to mass transit. I ride the bus to work almost every day, and I look forward to the day when TRAX is up and running.

My real concern is that experts are looking too much at symptoms and not enough at the real disease itself. "Aggressive driving," like "road rage," is little more than a late-'90s euphemism for criminal behavior, and criminal behavior won't go away by adding more buses.

Here are some of the study's recommendations: Cities and states should provide more mass transit; planners should design communities where stores and offices are convenient to homes, so no one would need a car; and transportation officials should build roads that subconsciously urge drivers to slow down and use caution.

No doubt, these things would reduce the stress inherent in getting from one place to another. But driving is only one type of stress encountered by modern urban dwellers. As the first three paragraphs of this column demonstrate, other stresses sometimes lead people to do horrible things on mass transit systems, as well.

Incidentally, those incidents in New York City, Toronto and Buffalo were only a few of the ones deemed shocking enough to make it in newspapers last week. What are we to call this phenomenon? Transit rage?

The problem isn't so much that life is stressful. It is that some people aren't programmed with a moral code that tells them how to react to that stress -- a code that keeps them from treating others with disrespect.

By now, people along the Wasatch Front know a thing or two about the frustrations of driving. Most of us have been detoured, re-routed and spun in circles so many times during the past two years that we have learned to always keep a compass and a full tank of gas for any cross-town trip.

But very few of us have responded to that stress by doing reckless and crazy things that put others in danger.

The subtle implication of this and other studies is that we humans can't help our primal urges. Reduce the stress, play soft music and we'll calm down and be nice.

That may work in a zoo. Humans, however, ought to have a little more control over what they do.