Law enforcement agencies in Utah say recent spikes in aggressive driving have made roadways less safe, contributing to a burst in fatalities and a greater incidence of road rage.
Data from Utah Highway Patrol shows a variety of bad driving behaviors have surged, including wrong-way driving, excessive speeding and a significantly higher number of pursuits involving drivers attempting to outrun police.
“The number of people willing to try to run from a police officer, which is an extremely dangerous behavior, has almost doubled over the last two years,” said UHP Col. Michael Rapich.
Aggressive driving has helped push the state’s deaths behind the wheel to record highs as Utah follows a nationwide trend for increased motorway fatalities and aggressive roadway behavior.
Authorities cite several factors for the flare-ups, including increased levels of anxiety, eroding respect for law enforcement and new driver habits developed as result of pandemic-related changes in traffic.
“It’s social unrest, the economy, this looming possible threat of war. It’s a weird kind of social-psychological phenomenon where people have just become almost angry,” said Melody Cutler, Unified Police Department public information officer, who cited an example of a driver brandishing an ax on a Utah roadway in April.
A chilling example of anti-social aggression is seen in the steady increase of drivers who brandish weapons. In 2021, UHP saw 42 brandishing cases, more than double the number in 2019.
Data from UHP shows the number of citations given to drivers speeding over 100 miles an hour bumped from 3,308 in 2018 up to 5,137 in 2020, and 4,697 in 2021, with citations this year already on track to surpass last year.
The total number of crashes involving aggressive driving rose to 856 in 2021 from 716 in 2018; drug and alcohol related fatal crashes along with wrong-way driving crashes have also risen in lockstep with a host of troublesome indicators.
Driving with ‘disinhibition’
Lisa G. Aspinwall, a professor of social psychology at the University of Utah, says aggressive driving behavior stems from what’s called “disinhibition,” a tendency people have to behave worse when allowed anonymity.
“Any situation where people are more anonymous, like someone who is driving with tinted windows, reduces the social cost of behaving aggressively,” said Aspinwall, who offers the workplace as a contrast.
“When you behave aggressively at work, it creates a toxic environment and people will treat you differently. But on the roadway, people may never see you again and they don’t know who you are, and then we can act in ways that will potentially harm others,” she said.
Aspinwall suggests that roadway disinhibition may be exacerbated from the social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During closures and lockdowns we became less used to taking other people into account and thinking of them as part of us,” she said. “When there is a communicable disease, we start seeing other people as disease vectors rather than human beings.”
In addition to the pandemic’s impact on how people relate to one another, it’s also believed to have influenced how people relate to roads themselves.
Cutler offers the theory that drivers became accustomed to wide open roads and shortened commutes during the pandemic. But as congestion returned, patience did not, leading to an increase in high risk maneuvers like reckless lane changing, tailgating and excessive speeding.
“People got used to nobody out on the roads. But now we’re back to normal and they still want to drive the way they were before,” Cutler said.
Additionally, aggressive responses are magnified when people are in heightened physiological states like those experienced by drivers while speeding, according to Aspinwall.
“There’s the increased physiological arousal that comes from driving fast, and that can actually energize violent behavior,” Aspinwall said.
That offers an explanation for why other forms of hostility — including domestic violence and violent crime — have risen in tandem with aggressive driving, according to Cutler. The society-wide upticks in stress as a result of the pandemic are stimulating negative physiological arousal.
“Even though we’re talking about this as a traffic issue, the reality is that it’s happening across the gamut of things we deal with. Domestic violence is up, and violent crime is up,” Cutler said.
Aspinwall said another factor is that driver’s see a favorable risk-to-reward ratio, where the benefits to driving aggressively — like tailgating to force vehicles out of the way — are easy to perceive but the risk is not.
Combining all this with the snowballing effect known as “social facilitation,” which makes drivers more likely to behave aggressively after seeing aggressive driving around them, underscores the challenges facing traffic officers.
Rapich says one way to reign in aggressive driving is through proactive enforcement, including the enforcement of minor violations like faulty headlights, turn signals, windshields and mirrors.
But UHP’s proactive enforcement policy stands in contrast to jurisdictions elsewhere.
Cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia have deprioritized minor violation enforcement partly due to concerns over racial bias and the risk of unnecessary escalation, which risk outcomes like that seen recently in Grand Rapids, Michigan, MI, where a man was shot by an officer following a traffic stop.
The Grand Rapids incident raises concerns about enforcement tactics and the state of relations between civilians and police — issues that have received attention in Utah and caused state leaders in recent years to redouble commitments to de-escalation techniques.
“Things can turn from a minor traffic violation to a criminal arrest or a significant use of force incident very quickly,” Rapich said. “We see emotionally charged responses and volatile responses, and knowing that, we teach de-escalation and verbal judo.”
Rapich see’s the enforcement of minor violations as a critical instrument in a larger strategy of improving roadway safety. It allows officers to engage with and educate drivers while also heightening police visibility, a factor with demonstrable impacts on roadway behavior.
“When drivers see a traffic stop with a trooper, the likelihood is they’re probably going to be driving much safer, and we’ve seen that over and over again. We can measure the success we have and a reduction in overall crashes, but specifically fatal crashes” in areas with active traffic stops, said Rapich, who says the principle is evident off roadways as well.
“Something as simple as red and blue lights in a particular neighborhood has a chilling effect on the criminal element in that area. It’s been shown to be effective in a lot of neighborhoods,” he said.
For that reason he said he believes moves by authorities elsewhere to deprioritize minor violation enforcements may be misguided.
Aspinwall said leaders could tackle aggressive driving preemptively through messaging and intervention methods that help drivers anticipate regret by personalizing potential consequences.
“We want to increase or restore individuation and self-focus, and have an approach that gets people to think about the emotional consequences of their actions without the action having to happen,” said Aspinwall, who cited an effective public campaign that reminded drivers to “Don’t be a Bleeper” on the road.
Humor, she said, “is a great way to break up the negative emotions that people feel while driving, whether it’s frustration, anxiety or impatience, and help disrupt and minimize aggressive behavior.”