The anonymity of cars gives rude drivers nerve Research: Universities around the country examine why motorists act aggressively, and sometimes violently, on the road.


IT WAS the second day of kindergarten for Intrepid's daughter this week. On the way to school, we encountered a driver who raced through a red light on Harford Road and Chesterfield Avenue nearly 10 seconds after it changed -- only to stop at a second red light.

As we approached the other car, your Intrepid One looked at the driver and pointed to the light -- prompting an obscene hand gesture and its verbal equivalent from the other driver. All this perplexed the 4-year-old as she witnessed a strange welcome to the real world.

Aggressive drivers are not limited to Northeast Baltimore. They bare teeth and gesture wildly everywhere. They are a budding subject for intellectuals at places such as Baylor University in Waco, Texas, the University of Michigan in and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

"The thing about the automobile is that it gives you anonymity," said Patricia F. Waller, director of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, which studies commuter issues.

"If your name were in big letters on the side of the car, it would be different," she said. "There are studies that show if people think if a situation is truly anonymous, they will do things like remove tires from an abandoned car. It's a very powerful force."

Police agree.

"People get behind the wheel of the car and they lose their identity and become somebody entirely different," said Maj. Bert Shirey of Baltimore's Northeastern District. "There are situations where people jump out of a car and shoot each other. What provokes that kind of reaction? The pressures of society, I guess."

The American Automobile Association of Maryland advises drivers to avoid angry commuters on the road. Most of the suggestions are biblical in nature, rooted in the golden rule and the admonition to turn the other cheek.

At the top of the list are: Stay out of their way, drive defensively and do not insist on your right of way. AAA also warns that "more motorists than ever carry guns inside their vehicles."

Being patient at the wheel while you're being persecuted by a fellow driver is "really the prudent thing to do," said Dr. Robert A. Baron, a professor at the Lally School of Management and Technology at Rensselaer, who has studied human aggression.

"There are dangerous people out there," Baron said. "It used to be that if they gave you the finger and you gave it back, it could go to a fistfight at worst. Now, they could pull a gun out and shoot you or pull out a knife and disembowel you."

Lord have mercy.

Safety experts at AAA advocate a passive approach to dealing with such conflicts.

But there's hope: The Maryland State Police recently declared their year-old crackdown on aggressive drivers a success based on a 14 percent reduction in highway fatality rates so far this year from last year's statistics.

They define obnoxious wheelsters as those who follow too closely, make unsafe lane changes, speed or are negligent at the wheel (such as running a red light). They also urge drivers with car phones to dial #77 to reach a state police patrol car and report such bad drivers.

Utility poles are too close for comfort near Falls Road

A reader recently asked Intrepid to investigate a series of utility poles that line Padonia Road as it nears the Falls Road intersection. It seems the poles are so close to the road that in places they "display battle scars" of bumper boo-boos.

"As a new resident of the area, it seems to me that some of the poles are just inches away from the roadside," faxed the concerned commuter, who did not reveal a name. "This is a well-traveled road that is not lighted and is narrow with at least one sharp, very dangerous sharp turn."

Intrepid visited the area last week with a trusty tape measure and found that in certain places the poles are less than 5 inches from the narrow, curvy, two-lane road. At certain spots, drivers must slow down -- way below the posted 30 mph limit -- to navigate their way safely.

This is the place in the Greenspring Valley where the dense Mays Chapel burbs meet the county's rustic, plush cornfields.

But with a shopping center going up less than two miles from the perilous Padonia poles, many in the area worry about increased traffic and driver safety.

Baltimore County traffic inspectors pledged last week to inspect the poles and their proximity to the road, said Mark Gonce, traffic inspection supervisor for the county's Bureau of Traffic Engineering.

Stay tuned.

Ticket office hours changed at the J. Hatem bridge

The ticket office at the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge has changed its operating hours to 7: 30 a.m. through 4 p.m. That's the place where commuters may buy decals for the bridge that crosses the Susquehanna River on Route 40 between Havre de Grace and Perryville. Look out for the new alignment of 39th Street in the city's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood. City traffic engineers decided to reshape the curvy road, which could surprise some drivers rounding the bend from North Charles Street. Don't jump the new curb -- which was formerly the road.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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