Passive drivers not the problem

The Baltimore Sun

In response to a column last week about aggressive driving, a couple of my readers introduced me to a new concept: "passive-aggressive" driving.

They have a point. Such behavior is certainly out there. There are motorists who doggedly cling to their lanes and refuse to yield even when another driver is signaling a plea to merge. And there are those who stubbornly obstruct others.

"A person who stakes out the left lane and has 20 cars lined up behind and none in front might well be expected to move over. Perhaps you have not encountered any of those, but my guess is that they precipitate more irritation and trouble than a driver who is going modestly over the speed limit," wrote Tom Maze of Baltimore, a psychologist. Maze said he would love to see a couple of columns on "the on-going recognition that passive-aggressive is part of aggressive."

Larry Swerdlin of Owings Mills wrote that he believes "the root cause of aggressive behavior is not aggressive driving but passive aggressive driving -- failing to move to the right from a left lane of a multi-lane highway when someone behind wants to pass and/or you are not actually passing another vehicle. Because slower moving traffic often refuses to yield to cars wishing to pass, those faster-moving cars are forced to bob and weave from lane to lane."

Much of what Maze and Swerdlin say is indisputable. Swerdlin, in particular, makes a valid point that no motorist should take it upon himself or herself to be the traffic regulator of the left lane. That, he notes correctly, is a job for the police.

I part company from these gentlemen, however, on the suggestion that passive-aggressive drivers are somehow responsible for turning other motorists into actively aggressive maniacs.

Faster-moving cars are not "forced" to bob and weave by slower-moving cars. Faster-driving people choose to bob and weave because they reject the rational alternative of slowing down and waiting for the opportunity to safely pass. Likewise, if someone drives in an actively aggressive way, it's that person's choice -- not the passive guy's fault.

When it comes to writing laws, outlawing "passive-aggressive" driving would be even more futile than writing tickets under the current aggressive-driving statute. How do you define "passive" in a way that is clear to judges?

Instead of trying to get inside drivers' heads, it's more effective to target specific actions that create an imminent danger. Were you the guy on a cell phone who was driving along Interstate 95 at 45 mph last week as traffic stacked up behind you? Let's give you an $80, one-point ticket for "impeding normal and reasonable traffic movement" -- but triple the penalties for doing it while chattering away.

Dirk Nordling of Sykesville objected to my approval of Virginia's law that defines exceeding the speed limit by 20 mph or more -- or driving 80 mph anywhere -- as reckless driving.

"None of us like aggressive drivers, but let's be reasonable here. There is a huge difference between driving 80 mph on I-81 in southern Virginia and driving 80 mph down a residential street. Commuter traffic on I-70 runs at 80 mph frequently and safely. You have to admit that making 20 over the limit or 80 mph anytime, anywhere, subject to a jail term, as you say Virginia does, is just plain crazy. I'm thankful I don't live in that state."

Traffic on I-70 may frequently run at 80 mph but never in my experience safely. I-81 is filled with tractor-trailers. They should all go 80? Sounds pretty reckless to me. As for jail, I doubt many first-time offenders get slammer time, but it's a sweet deterrent for repeat scofflaws.

What's "just plain crazy" is what we've lived with far too long: 40,000-plus highway deaths in the U.S. each year and 600-plus in Maryland. The only way to bring those numbers down is to banish "zoom-zoom-zoom" to Joe Camel's desert.

Lest it seem we do nothing more than argue with readers, I excerpt this e-mail from J.W. Lippincott of Baltimore.

One of my first -- and continuing -- impressions of this area is how quickly and aggressively people drive on local highways. I regularly use the Baltimore Beltway and the Jones Falls Expressway and rarely find anyone obeying the speed limit. In fact, most drivers appear to exceed the speed limit by at least 10 miles per hour. Drivers weave in and out of lanes to pass without using turn signals or adhering to the rule of passing only to the left. Most do not leave enough distance between themselves and the vehicle in front of them.

The problem of speeding and aggressive driving is especially severe during the morning rush hour and it isn't limited to cars. Tractor-trailers, dump trucks, pick-up trucks, are just as bad, if not worse. (My wife was nearly killed by a speeding tractor-trailer a year or so ago.) I have never seen such a disregard for the law in any of the places I have lived.

The solution to the problem is greater enforcement of the law. I rarely see police cruise the highway or park on the side of the road. Speed traps are few and far between. When I lived in The Netherlands, I was impressed by the frequent and routine use of speed cameras to limit speeding and to stop drivers from going through red lights. It worked! The arguments that speed cameras are a step in the direction of Big Brother or simply a revenue generator are nonsense; they are a proven way to slow drivers down, prevent crashes, and keep people from being hurt or killed.

I couldn't have said it better, J.W. You bucking for my job?

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