Road rage has become a tremendous growth industry. The media have gone manic over this "epidemic" of the highways. And let's face it, the public is taken with it, too.
Consider the rash of stories on road rage in just the last 12 months or so. "Road Warriors: Aggressive Drivers Turn Freeways Into Free-For-Alls," screamed a headline in the Chicago Tribune.
"Armed with everything from firearms to Perrier bottles to pepper spray and eggs," the text began, "America's drivers are taking frustrations out on each other in startling numbers."
Newsweek warned, "Road Rage: We're Driven to Destruction." And Time declared, "It's high noon on the country's streets and highways. This is road recklessness, auto anarchy, an epidemic of wanton carmanship."
But headlines notwithstanding, there was not - there is not - the least statistical or other scientific evidence of more aggressive driving on our nation's roads. In fact, accident, fatality and injury rates have been edging down. This "epidemic" is nothing but a media invention, inspired primarily by a catchy alliteration: road rage.
The term, and the alleged epidemic, were quickly popularized by lobbying groups, politicians, opportunistic therapists, even the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Their support: A highly flawed survey commissioned by the American Automobile Association from a fellow named Louis Mizell, who specializes in writing books that scare the hell out of people, such as "Target U.S.A." and "Street Sense for Parents: Keeping Your Child Safe in a Violent World."
Mizell gave AAA what it wanted -a report claiming that aggressive driving rose by about 60% from '90 to '96. But his "database" comprised a pitifully small number of newspapers, police reports and insurance company records that can be read in any number of ways.
How small? During those six years, Mizell found 218 deaths directly attributable to "road rage" during a time when 290,000 Americans died from vehicular accidents.
In the hands of professional pollsters, this would be a ridiculously small sample. But Mizell didn't even factor in statistical significance. In short, his "study" was worthless; yet it's the best the road-rage racket has to offer, leading one former congressional aide to declare: Road rage is "a national disaster. . . . It's making our roads some of the most dangerous places in the country."
Really? "Road rage" was first coined in '88. For a while, newspapers used the term no more than a few times a year. But by last year it was used over 4,000 times; this year, the trend suggests it will be used about 7,000 times.
Yet from '87 to '97, the number of deaths per million-vehicle- miles driven dropped by almost one-third. Passenger car crashes fell by 40%. For both categories, these are the lowest they've been since the government began keeping records.
America's roads become safer by the year. Reading the newspaper has become more hazardous. At first, "road rage" meant one driver acting against another. But by last year it had come to include a Washington, D.C., bicyclist who shot the driver of a car who ran into him, and a Scottish couple who threatened a driver with a knife after his BMW ran over their dog.
In fact, "road rage" now requires neither a road nor rage. One paper published a story about developing pristine land under the headline "Road Rage Has Taken Toll on Wilderness." USA Today discussed people angry about their insurance premiums under the headline "Drivers Feel 'Road Rage' Over High Insurance Rates."
Like any other fabricated epidemic, the more you tell people it's there, the more they see it. Tailgating used to be called tailgating. Now it's road rage. The New York Daily News assures us that using a car phone is road rage. Saying "Hi, honey, I love you; be home soon" is now no different than bowling over bicyclists with your Buick.
The problem with this faux epidemic is the distraction from real road problems. In recent years Americans have waged a fairly successful campaign against drunken driving. Deaths related to drunken driving have plummeted.
But a poll in March '97, commissioned by AAA Potomac, showed that 48% of those surveyed identified "aggressive drivers" as their chief concern, whereas only 28% identified drunken drivers. What happens to the drunken- driving campaigns now that road rage has become our greatest fear?
Michael Fumento is a science adviser to the Atlantic Legal Foundation. His article, "Road Rage Versus Reality," appeared in the August issue of The Atlantic.
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