Nobody except the driver of a green pickup truck knows who made the first obscene gesture on Interstate 270 yesterday morning.
But after an exchange of angry gestures with the truck's driver on the busy commuter route in Frederick County, a Pennsylvania man and woman in a Chrysler Sebring were killed in the crash that followed the apparent road rage incident. The pickup's driver has not been found.
The accident near Frederick occurred the same day AAA Mid-Atlantic released a survey showing that by a wide margin Maryland drivers consider aggressive drivers the biggest danger on the state's roads. It also occurred less than a week after Michael Razzio Simmons, 20, pleaded guilty in Bel Air to second-degree murder in a May 2006 incident that was apparently sparked by a road encounter.
According to the Maryland State Police, witnesses yesterday saw the driver and passenger of the Sebring convertible and the driver of the green pickup truck making obscene gestures at each other shortly after 8 a.m. about three miles south of Frederick on southbound I-270.
1st Sgt. Russ Newell, a state police spokesman, said that after the exchange, the driver of the pickup truck pulled into the lane in front of the Sebring and hit the brakes. The spokesman said the driver of the Sebring swerved, hit the guardrail and flipped over - throwing the two passengers through the open roof. They were pronounced dead at the scene.
Last night, State Police identified the driver as Christian M. Luciano, 28, and his passenger as Lindsay L. Bender, 25, both of Harrisburg, Pa. The victims were not wearing seatbelts, as required by Maryland law, Newell said.
A 2005 article in the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., said the pair had been charged there with criminal conspiracy in an apparently drug-related case. The disposition of those charges could not be learned last night.
State police say they do not normally check criminal records of deceased victims in traffic incidents. No drugs were found in the convertible, police said, and toxicology tests on the victims would be performed during autopsies.
Newell said the pickup truck driver, described as a white male wearing a baseball cap, left the scene. The spokesman said police were asking anyone who might have witnessed the events surrounding the crash for further information about the truck and its driver.
The crash forced the closure of most of southbound I-270, the main commuting route between Frederick and Washington, for about four hours, according to State Highway Administration spokeswoman Lora Rakowski. All lanes were not reopened until 12:15 p.m., she said.
Rakowski said that at the request of the state police, the highway agency used electronic message signs on northbound I-270 yesterday evening to urge motorists to call with information about the crash. She said the message signs would be used on southbound I-270 this morning.
The AAA survey released yesterday showed that 42 percent of Maryland motorists believe aggressive drivers are the greatest danger on the road. According to the poll, 23 percent identified distracted drivers as the biggest threat, while 19 percent called drunk drivers the top hazard.
If an investigation determines the driver of the pickup truck intentionally forced the Sebring off the road, the incident could fit the generally accepted definition of "road rage," which AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Averella called "the most extreme escalation" of aggressive driving.
"Road rage is uncontrolled anger that results in violence or threatened violence on the road; it is criminal behavior," said a 1999 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Averella said that the study found that 35 percent of road rage incidents involve the use of a motor vehicle as a weapon.
The AAA spokeswoman said that while road rage might be difficult to measure statistically, she believes it is a growing problem.
Using a less-strict definition than the AAA foundation's, a recent national survey by Nationwide Mutual Insurance found that 23 percent of all drivers ages 18 to 60 reported experiencing road rage. Among those ages 18 to 27, the figure was 30 percent.
Turning stereotypes on their head, the survey found that women were more likely to report exhibiting road rage than men - 25 percent, as opposed to 21 percent.
Police agencies warn that obscene gestures are commonly associated with violence on the roads.
"Almost nothing makes another driver angrier than an obscene gesture. Keep your hands on the wheel. Avoid making any gestures that might anger another driver, even 'harmless' expressions of irritation like shaking your head," the Dane County Sheriff's Office in Madison, Wis., warns on its Web site.
Maryland has no specific law against road rage, although acts committed while in that state can be prosecuted under criminal statutes, up to and including murder. Maryland does have an aggressive-driving law, which addresses drivers who commit multiple traffic offenses in combination.
An online search found several incidents in recent years where obscene gestures such as the extended middle finger became part of escalating hostilities leading to fatal accidents on U.S. roads.
In June 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported that a male motorist died in a head-on collision after trading obscene gestures with the driver of a car he was attempting to pass.
In August 1997, a 22-year-old woman died near St. Louis when an enraged male driver - irate after coffee spilled into his lap when her driving led him to brake suddenly - cut in front of her and jammed on his brakes. Witnesses said that before pulling in front of her and causing her to lose control of her car, he made an obscene gesture and threw the rest of his coffee at the woman.
He was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
In the Bel Air incident last May, Simmons stabbed 23-year-old Patrick John Walker, a recent college graduate, after an incident in which the defendant claimed that Walker cut him off while they were driving on Bond Street.
Simmons followed Walker several blocks. When the two men stopped, Simmons got out of the car with a knife in hand. Witnesses said they saw Simmons lean into Walker's car.
According to testimony, Walker emerged from the car bleeding from a neck wound. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
During his court appearance, at which he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, Simmons apologized to the Walker family for what he described as an accident.