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Aggressive driving on the rise, police say


They're out on the road every day, riding bumpers, switching lanes, blowing past red lights and stop signs: the drivers who seem to think their time is more precious than your safety.

And their numbers seem to be increasing in Maryland, with deadly results.

Authorities still are investigating the cause of Thursday's morning rush hour accident at a bus stop in Woodlawn, where a car jumped the curb and killed five people, including four children age 8 and younger.

But state police say that drivers here seem to be getting more aggressive, less courteous and less attentive. That, they say, has fueled a 24 percent increase in highway fatalities this year, compared to the same period in 1994. There were 373 highway deaths between Jan. 1 and July 20 in 1995, compared with 301 for the same period last year.

"Our studies show a dramatic increase in failing to keep right of center, following too closely and improper lane changing" cited as the primary cause of fatal accidents, said 1st Sgt. Michael J. Fischer of the Maryland State Police.

At the same time, he said, the number of fatal accidents caused by speeding has remained steady or declined slightly. Other agencies paint a similar picture.

The State Highway Administration has reported that, from 1974 to 1992, the percentage of all accidents caused by reckless or inattentive driving rose from 29 percent to 43 percent.

Col. David B. Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, launched "Operation Aggressive Driver" over the Memorial Day weekend, directing patrol officers to target tailgaters, lane jumpers and other in-your-face motorists. He credited the program with slowing the rise in fatal accidents in the past two months.

Offensive driving is on the upswing, he said, and he links it to a decline in civility in society as a whole.

"There's an emphasis on immediate gratification, on 'You're in my way, and I'll move you,' " he said. "That can occur on the street corner with a gun, that can occur on a highway with a car."

Many drivers see the same thing.

"People are driving more aggressively," said Gary Padussis, 39, a former airline pilot and now a vice president with a Baltimore brokerage firm. "They will tailgate me, they will cut me off."

At Falls and Padonia roads in Timonium yesterday morning, a woman driving a Mercedes pulled up on Mr. Padussis' left at a stoplight.

"When the light turned green, she just went ahead and turned right," zooming across his path before he accelerated, he said. ,, "It was amazing."

Diane Baker, office manager in Washington for Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, said she commutes on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to avoid the trucks and dodge-'em car traffic along Interstate 95 between Baltimore and Washington.

Even that route can resemble a motor speedway during rush hour. "It's hard to go 55 on the parkway, even in the slow lane," Ms. Baker said.

Robert S. Chirinko, a professor of economics at Emory University in Atlanta, contends that drivers may be more careless because their cars are safer.

Dr. Chirinko said motorists may figure that they are less likely to have an accident because of anti-lock brakes, advanced suspension systems, radial tires and other innovations that improved the handling of automobiles.

Even if they do have an accident, they know they have seat belts and air bags and collapsible steering columns to protect them.

"The kind of machines that people are driving now allow them to drive more aggressively," said Dr. Chirinko, one of the authors of a 1993 study of four decades of accident data.

Drivers also may flout traffic laws because enforcement has declined.

Over a three-year period from July 1, 1990 to June 30, 1993, the number of traffic tickets written in Maryland plummeted from 1,160,473 to 830,000 -- a 28 percent decline.

The reason?

Police agencies say they shifted personnel and resources away from enforcing traffic laws and into efforts to reduce violent crime and drug trafficking.

The same trend occurred nationwide, police say.

Other factors also could be at work.

Increasing traffic congestion may be raising frustration levels on the highway. As people commute longer, they may hope to compensate by weaving around slower traffic.

Sitting behind the wheel gives a driver a "false confidence," said Dr. Jack Vaeth, a psychiatrist at The Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. "You're protected. You're encased. There's a sense of invincibility."

And a sense of power.

"Being in a car for many people may be the only place they are in control," he said.

People are working longer, fearing they might be laid off, Dr. Vaeth said. Anxiety and overwork can generate stress. Driving, Dr. Vaeth said, can become an outlet for that stress.

"There's a great deal of pressure on people out there nowadays," said Thomas Owens, 42, a courier who drives a van around all day for the state Department of General Services.

Mr. Owens routinely sees people running stops signs and red lights.

"They've got to get where they're going to in a hurry," he said. As a result, he said, "people aren't as courteous anymore. And by not being courteous, they're not being cautious as well."

Leonard Evans, principal research scientist in the automotive safety research department of General Motors, said he thinks that, over the long term, American drivers have become less pushy and more considerate. He pointed to a steady decline in fatalities per passenger mile driven, on a nationwide basis, since the 1920s.

"People who perceive aggressive driving in the United States would get a bit of an eye opener if they drove in India," he said. "Since ancient times people have confidently observed the human race going down the drain. We somehow haven't managed to get there yet."

Calcutta may be worse, but Baltimore still is bad.

Mr. Owens, the state courier, said the problem is a simple question of manners.

"If you're not used to receiving courtesy, you're not likely to give courtesy," he said. "Everybody just gets ruder. What do you call it? The 'trickle down' theory."

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