Summary Report Aggressive Driving and the Law May 1999

Executive Summary




Appendix I

Appendix II



On January 22-23, 1999, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) brought together an array of public safety, legal, and adjudication representatives to discuss traffic safety, specifically the problems associated with aggressive driving. Participants included prosecutors, district court judges, law enforcement and emergency personnel, district and states attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, safety advocates and activists, researchers, and government policy and state public safety personnel. The symposium sought to derive action steps toward solving the problem of aggressive driving as approached from six different perspectives: (1) statutory approaches, (2) applied technology, (3) charging decisions, (4) sentencing strategies, (5) community leadership, and (6) enforcement strategies. These six categories served as topic areas for framing participant discussions and resulting recommendations developed in breakout sessions.

In addition to breakout sessions, plenary sessions featured remarks by the Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez, FHWA Administrator Kenneth Wykle, and a victim of an aggressive driving collision. Paper presenters reported on the results of preconference focus groups and provided background and overview information on the problem of aggressive driving. Panel presentations focused on the issues, research, and approaches of other driving-related organizations.

The Problem
According to a NHTSA survey on aggressive driving attitudes and behaviors (released at the conference), more than 60 percent of drivers see unsafe driving by others, including speeding, as a major personal threat to themselves and their families. More than half admitted themselves to driving aggressively on occasion. Although there is not one standard, accepted definition of aggressive driving, NHTSA currently defines it as "the operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger persons or property"--a traffic and not a criminal offense like road rage. It can include a range of less serious offenses, such as reckless driving, and does not necessarily require willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others, according to NHTSA. Examples include speeding or driving too fast for conditions, improper lane changing, and improper passing. Some common characteristics of the aggressive driver include the following:

  • They are high-risk drivers, more likely to drink and drive, speed, or drive unbelted.

  • Their vehicle provides anonymity, allowing them to take out their frustrations on other drivers.

  • Their frustration levels are high, concern for other motorists, low.

  • They consider vehicles as objects and fail to consider the human element involved; therefore, they seldom consider the consequences of their actions.

  • They run stop signs, disobey red lights, speed, tailgate, weave in and out of traffic, pass on the right, make unsafe lane changes, flash their lights, blow their horns, or make hand and facial gestures.

Enforcement Programs and Laws to Curb Aggressive Driving
As of May 1999, 24 states, the District of Columbia, and Ontario, Canada, have been identified as having active aggressive driving programs aimed at reducing the types of violations an aggressive driver is liable to commit, e.g., speeding, following too closely, improperly changing lanes and passing, and failing to obey traffic signals or to yield the right-of-way. These programs vary in resources and techniques.

While California's "Smooth Operator" program, begun in 1988, was probably the first aggressive driving program in the country, Arizona's legislature was the first to pass a law specifically addressing aggressive driving. The bill, enacted May 26, 1998, requires that violators simultaneously commit a speeding offense and at least two reckless driving offenses before they can be charged. Such violations include failing to obey traffic control devices, overtaking and passing another vehicle on the right by driving off the pavement or main travel portion of the roadway, making unsafe lane changes, following too closely, or failing to yield the right-of-way. Virginia passed a law in March 1998 requiring driver education programs offered through the school system to include aggressive driving instruction.

In 1998, 9 states introduced a total of 26 aggressive driving bills, only 2 of which--the Arizona aggressive driving bill and the Virginia driver education requirement--were enacted. Four states have bills pending this year. Most of these bills attempt to define aggressive driving offenses and establish penalties for them. Some specify characteristics of aggressive drivers, or give those convicted of the offense certain additional penalties, such as mandatory educational classes or loss of their licenses for repeat offenses--similar to impaired driving sanctions. Other options adopted by state legislators to address aggressive driving include the following: improving funding of prosecutorial efforts, increasing fines and penalties, developing state education programs about aggressive driving, emphasizing seatbelt laws, and legislating traffic camera radar devices.

The Solution
A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Aggressive Driving Team, jointly staffed by NHTSA, FHWA, and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) representatives, will develop recommendations for a coordinated departmental aggressive driving program. The program will seek to provide guidance, technical assistance, and support on aggressive driving-related issues to NHTSA and FHWA field offices, state and local governments, and to the team's many public and private partners. Initiatives will include programs involving enforcement, education, x, traffic engineering, crash analysis, and behavioral research. Efforts will continue to identify and document the pervasiveness, nature, and scope of aggressive driving behavior and its associated consequences.

NHTSA's aggressive driving work plan includes the development of innovative and effective countermeasures and enforcement strategies. Public information and education (PI&E) is another important component of these efforts, as methods, strategies, and programs are developed to inform the public, law enforcement agencies, engineers, and the judiciary of the potential dangers of aggressive driving and the steps being taken to reduce its occurrence and consequences. NHTSA will also continue to hold meetings and other events, such as the present Aggressive Driving Symposium, to bring together all the stakeholders involved to discuss effective legal and other strategies.