Normative Behavior

Road rage didn’t used to be normal

The era of road rage in the Washington, DC area. and really the nation, even though Los Angeles and New York also had high-profile road rage cases near the same time, began in April 1996 when two yayhoos got into an eight mile-long duel above 70 mph northbound on the northern section of the George Washington Parkway. There was swerving, cut-offs, middle fingers and then a tragic turn: One car contacted the other at high speed and both went off the roadway, across the median and into southbound traffic.

One driver was killed instantly as his car broke apart in contact with an oncoming vehicle, that driver was also killed instantly. A 500-lb chunk of the median-crosser’s vehicle broke off and collided with the windshield of a southbound minivan, fatally injuring the female driver, but not killing her before she could understand what was happening.

The surviving driver, a 26-year old IT tech, got a 10.5-year sentence for manslaughter and a host of other crimes. The defendant appealed under grounds that the federal judge who imposed the sentence (since the Parkway is federal land, it was a federal crime and the jury was not responsible for sentencing) improperly departed from federal sentencing guidelines upward by fifteen levels. In their appeal, the defendants’ attorneys (it is an interesting read) argued, ok so some upward departure may be justified because blah blah but seriously bro, fifteen levels? The appellate court agreed and vacated the sentence…

… Which was immediately reinstalled by the sentencing judge at the exact same length, 10.5 years. In her new decision, the judge admitted difficulty in finding a proper justification for the original sentence for the simple reason that federal sentencing guidelines did not anticipate this type of crime. Putting each thing into its own container (speeding, reckless driving, endangerment, involuntary manslaughter, etc) resulted in a collection of smaller sentences that added up to no more than four years’ incarceration. In her re-sentencing, the judge found the new grounds called for by the appellate judges, and reiterated her basic position:

This is a new class of crime that the courts have not heretofore anticipated. And as such, current sentencing guidelines do not reflect the egregious nature of reckless behavior and disregard for life behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. And if the courts don’t get tough fast, precedents will be set that devalue life over transit and divorce outcomes from personal responsibility.

The crime captured news cycles in the DC area and around the country for months, generating no doubt hundreds of thousands of phone calls from concerned parents (like mine) to young drivers (like me, in fact I was the same age as the surviving duelist), reminding them to stay calm and in control behind the wheel and not to get messed up with other drivers when they piss you off.

Despite having been a rock band roadie for three years earlier in the decade, driving almost 60,000 miles in a rented truck in 1994 alone, this story was the first time I thought of the roads a lethal place, just to be.


Five years later, the nation, or at least the DC area, had gotten over its shock at the concept of road rage. The area was still exploding in population and the western suburbs, out in western Fairfax and Loudon counties, were implementing ‘smart growth’ strategies that essentially entailed restricting homesites to an acre or more. While this seemed a good strategy at the time for the purpose of combating infill and urban-style density in traditionally pastoral country, what it actually did was simply hasten the western expansion of DC suburbs; the average commute was getting longer every year because the western ‘burbs had artificially low capacity.

Rude behavior from other drivers was now the norm on the Beltway and area highways. Maybe it was always that way and I was simply growing up to realize the world around me, it sure seemed as though being on the roads in the DC area was a lot harder and consumed a lot more time as the decade of the 90’s wore into the 2000’s. An episode from 2001 crystallized the change in normative behaviors on the road from the previous decade, in the process showing me what it really means to be judged by your peers:

On July 4, 2001, a 53 year-old National Symphony Orchestra violinist was heading home from rehearsing the big Independence Day concert on the National Mall, I recall from contemporaneous reporting that the musician was heading home between performances, while the links I dug up today indicated he ‘was excused’ from the performance. No matter.

As the violinist merged from the Beltway to I-66 westbound, he got into an altercation with a 46 year-old driver with assault priors. What happened to foment the conflict is largely irrelevant, as there were no witnesses before the two drivers entered I-66, and only one of the drivers survived.

As the two drivers went west on I-66, the other driver jacked in front of the violinist at least twice, slamming brakes and stopping short. The second time, the violinist swerved left into the median to avoid hitting the other driver, his car flipped and he was killed. The other driver fled the scene but witnesses followed him long enough to get the plate and call it in to police. According to police testimony the offending driver told the arresting officer that he wanted to ‘teach that guy a lesson.’

Six months later, the other driver was convicted of manslaughter and hit-and-run, state prosecutors had asked the jury for the maximum sentence, 20 years. After two and a half hours of deliberation on the sentence, the jury came back with a verdict: 3.5 years. The judge, prosecution and family of the deceased were stunned.


Ok, so what is the point of all this? In the five years from the first major road rage death on the highway in 1996 to that 2001 case, society had come back to accept dangerous behaviors and the potential for lethal outcomes as normal in the course of transit. Reading through the jurors’ statements (those that would offer a statement), one sees common threads:

“It was just a very emotional situation for everybody.”

“We decided together [3.5 years] seemed to be the best result.”

“This was a tragic accident., although one that could be avoided.”

“The three eyewitnesses were key for the prosecution.”

These are statements made by people, peers of the accused, that reflect a social acceptance of the defendant’s behavior, and a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ mentality. The missus (then girlfriend) and I imagined what the jury deliberations must have been like:

“Well, I mean it’s bad and all but we all make mistakes.”

“We should not assume the defendant was not provoked.”

“He may have been rude, but he never meant to kill the guy.”

These are the types of conversations we have, external in polite society and internally, when we justify bad or risky behavior. The law makes statements about what is and is not acceptable in society, but norms determine the relevance of the law to the governed. Guy deliberately chases down another driver and causes his death intentionally, or at the very least by gross negligence resulting from very illegal behavior. Courts determine this is worth 20 years of the defendant’s life, but his peers shrug and say, well can’t give him nothing, so let’s just go 18%, and call it a day and hope we get a good jury when it’s our turn.


And that brings us to the grand finale: The AAA 2015 Traffic Safety Culture Index. From there, you can read the whole report (very worthwhile), see a PPT slideshow or get the the executive summary of facts. Here are the ones that are jumping out at me:

* 87% of drivers have engaged in at least one risky behavior behind the wheel in the past 30 days.

* 94% of drivers think running a red light is unacceptable, but 39% admit having done it in the past 30 days.

* 89% of drivers think speeding in a residential neighborhood is bad, and 74% of drivers think speeding on highways is bad, but 45% admit having gone 10 or more miles an hour over the speed limit in the past 30 days. Further, 65% of drivers oppose speed cameras on the highways, while 54% oppose them in residential neighborhoods.

* 81% of drivers think texting/emailing/using the phone while driving is “completely unacceptable,” but 45% admit to having read something on their phone while driving and 31% admit to having typed out something in the past 30 days.

* An interesting and interrelated series of stats: 69% of drivers say hand-held phone use is unacceptable, but 63% say hands-free is acceptable. 88% of drivers want to ban texting behind the wheel, but only 42% want a total ban on device use (hand-held or hands-free).

* As far as age cuts, younger drivers are more likely to admit engaging in risky behaviors, more likely to say those behaviors are socially acceptable, and less likely to support laws against those behaviors.

I recommend you read this report in full.

What does all this have to do with road rage, or for that matter road sharing, my cause celebre? It reflects a societal attitude I have often written on, that the laws don’t matter when they cannot be enforced uniformly. What matters is society’s regard for those laws. A three-foot passing law or may-use-full-lane signage do not mean anything if society does not view them as normative.

No one wants to die because another driver caused them to, whether by road rage or by using a phone behind the wheel. That is pretty self-evident and I don’t need a poll for that. What society’s acceptance of road rage and persistent ‘do as I say not as I do’ attitude toward dangerous driving tell us is that we have accepted these risks as part of the cost of doing business. As such, society is not going to do a lot to fix the problem, and if you happen to get killed or seriously injured as a result of one of these behaviors, the outcome values the cause over the effects.

Unless and until powerful people with nothing to gain and everything to lose champion the cause of safe roads, nothing can change.



The 1996 GW Parkway road rage case:

Appellate judges overturn the GW Parkway road rage conviction:

Federal judge imposes identical sentence after initial sentence is overturned:

Guilty verdict for July 4, 2001 road rage incident:

3.5 years for July 4, 2001 road rage incident:

A WaPo 2005 retrospective on a decade of road rage in the DC area:

Inset from the above piece, detailing a few of the higher-profile cases:

About Ben Folsom

Ben Folsom is a founding member of the Bike Commuter Cabal, a worldwide group of transport cyclists dedicated to protecting the rights of all road users and to encouraging people everywhere to ride more. Ben and his bikes live with his family in Alexandria, Virginia.