Summary Report Aggressive Driving and the Law May 1999

Executive Summary


DAY 1 :


Appendix I

Appendix II


Technical Presentations

Moderator: Philip Recht, J.D., Deputy Administrator, NHTSA
Panelists: Richard Compton, Science Advisor, NHTSA
John Lacey, Principal Scientist, Mid-America Research Institute, Inc.
Janet Goehring, Senior Policy Specialist, National Conference of State Legislatures
Chuck Peltier, Division Chief, Traffic Law Enforcement, NHTSA

Philip Recht, NHTSA
Mr. Recht remarked on the good turnout for the conference and thanked all participants for their involvement. He reviewed the six topical areas that they would address in the breakout sessions as follows: (1) statutory approaches, (2) applied technology, (3) charging decisions, (4) sentencing strategies, (5) community leadership, and (6) enforcement strategies. He expressed his eagerness to hear participants' recommendations on these issues following the breakout discussions, then proceeded to introduce the technical panel members, whose presentations are summarized below.

NHTSA Survey Results
Richard Compton, NHTSA
Mr. Compton provided summary highlights of NHTSA's public opinion survey on aggressive driving, conducted for NHTSA by a national survey firm. The main points of his overhead presentation are summarized below.

  • What the driving public thinks. The survey sought to elicit a view of a wide range of unsafe driving behaviors, laws, and enforcement of laws. It also sought to obtain aggressive driver characteristics, demographics, and opinions for addressing this problem.

  • Rating of driving behaviors. The "top" aggressive driving behaviors identified by respondents included the following: passing a stopped school bus (95 percent had observed this behavior), racing another driver, and driving through stop signs and red lights.

  • Public attitudes telling. Only 14 percent of those surveyed felt it was "extremely dangerous" to drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. Younger drivers consistently felt particular aggressive driving behaviors to be less dangerous than did older drivers. And only 6 percent of respondents thought driving was safer today, with results varying by age and gender. (Males believe it is less dangerous to drive today than do females.)

  • Why is driving more dangerous today? Several factors were identified among those surveyed: carelessness of drivers, increase in congestion, and increase in the speed limit. About 30 percent of respondents said they felt their safety was threatened in the last month, while 67 percent felt this threat during the last year. Weaving, tailgating, distracted drivers, and unsafe lane changes were some of the unsafe behaviors identified.

  • Speeding is consequential. Only 3 percent of respondents said that speeding was not a threat to themselves or their families. Only 6 percent said they rarely see cars traveling at unsafe speeds. The majority of those surveyed (52 percent) said it was "very important" to do something about speeding. Ninety-eight percent of respondents thought it "important" that something be done to reduce speeding and unsafe driving.

  • Riding with unsafe drivers. Fifty-six percent of 16-20 year olds said they had driven with unsafe drivers, while 13 percent of those over 65 years old gave that response.

  • Why are people driving aggressively? Some of the reasons given by those surveyed include the following: people being in a hurry; congestion; careless and inconsiderate drivers; and angry, frustrated, and hostile drivers.

  • Self-report responses surprising. Fifty percent of those surveyed said they had driven recklessly, had sped, and/or engaged in other unsafe or illegal driving behaviors. More than twice the number of men as women said they had driven while affected by alcohol. In fact, men consistently engaged in substantially more unsafe driving behaviors than did women.

  • Likely effectiveness of measures to reduce aggressive driving. Those surveyed ranked the following countermeasures, in order, as most likely to reduce aggressive and unsafe driving behaviors: (1) more police assigned to traffic control, (2) more frequent ticketing of traffic violations, (3) higher fines, and (4) increased insurance costs.

  • Acceptability to public. The following measures, in rank order, were identified as likely to have the greatest public acceptance: (1) awareness raising, (2) increased ticketing, (3) encouraging people to say something to drivers whom they believe to be driving aggressively, and (4) more law enforcement in traffic control.

  • Conclusions. Major conclusions from the survey included the following:
    - Many people admit to driving illegally or unsafely for many reasons.
    - The problem of aggressive and unsafe driving reflects clear gender and age factors.
    - Increased police enforcement was rated "Number 1," both for effectiveness and as a measure acceptable to the public to reduce unsafe and illegal driving.

Research Report on Focus Groups
John Lacey, Mid-America Research Institute, Inc.
Mr. Lacey reported on the research results from focus groups, organized in preparation for the present symposium. Participants included individuals charged with apprehending, prosecuting, and sanctioning offenders, as well as those who defend persons arrested for aggressive driving offenses. Six focus groups were held, one composed of judges, two of prosecutors, one of public defenders and defense attorneys, and two composed of police supervisors and officers in the field. Mr. Lacey stressed that these groups did not represent a lot of people and did not presume to offer definitive answers; they merely provide a sampling of opinions from the various fields that have different levels of involvement with aggressive driving. His remarks are summarized below:

  • Composition of focus groups. The groups' composition was as follows:
    - The judges group included a superior court associate justice; the chief judge and five associate judges from a district court; the chief judge, two associate justices, and the master court administrator from family court; along with the governor's highway safety representative from Rhode Island.
    - Participants in the public defender/defense attorney focus group held in Massachusetts included five public defenders, two private defense attorneys, and one clinical instructor.
    - Participants in the two police focus groups held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in conjunction with the annual convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), included officers serving on the technical advisory panel to the drug evaluation and classification program who conduct day-to-day traffic law enforcement, as well as police management personnel--all representing agencies from across the country.
    - The prosecutor focus groups included prosecutors from across the country who were attending a course in Leesburg, Virginia, on prosecuting vehicular homicide--and included both faculty and students at that course.

  • Focus group method. Mr. Lacey described the format of the focus groups as 10 people or fewer sitting around the table talking. Major topics included the definition of aggressive driving, data collection, the need for statutes, related factors, sentencing options, issues around enforcement and the relationship of advanced technology, and the role of public infrastructure.

  • On definition. Most focus group participants distinguished between aggressive driving and road rage.

  • Need for statutes. Focus group members said with one voice that legislation already exists to encompass aggressive driving violations and that the tools and the case law exist as well.

  • Related factors. Most participants chose not to link impaired and aggressive driving, Mr. Lacey reported. Poor roadway designs, congestion, and poor time management were cited as contributing factors to people choosing to drive aggressively.

  • Sentencing. The general opinion emerging from the focus groups of judges and prosecutors was that nothing special was required to expand sentencing options, as options already exist. District attorneys and police were less confident, however, on the sentences imposed. A treatment program to address aggressive driving characteristics was thought to be a good idea.

  • Advanced technology/enforcement. Focus group recommendations called for a combination of unmarked (technology) and marked (enforcement) vehicles to address the aggressive driving problem. Police officers voiced the need for a command emphasis on enforcement that is communicated to officers.

  • Public information and education. Focus group participants felt that only the highest quality materials should be developed when it comes to aggressive driving PI&E campaigns.

  • Conclusions. The following general conclusions emerged from the focus group discussions:
    - Confusion exists about what aggressive driving is, except among law enforcement.
    - No hard data exist about the aggressive driving problem or its variance regionally. It is important to know the extent of the problem before devising solutions for it.
    - PI&E campaigns can be effective if materials are of high quality.
    - Increasing enforcement or the public perception of it was the "Number 1" recommendation of focus group participants. A command emphasis on enforcement must be communicated by management to police officers.

Aggressive Driving Overview and Background
Janet Goehring, National Conference of State Legislatures
Ms. Goehring summarized state legislative activities aimed at curbing aggressive driving, beginning by describing the two divergent views generally held by state legislators: (1) that no new legislation is needed, or (2) that laws are needed to close the gap and to account for the special seriousness of aggressive driving offenses. Her remarks are summarized below:

  • What happened last year. Last year, 9 states introduced a combination of 26 bills on aggressive driving; 4 states have bills pending this year. Most of these bills attempt to define aggressive driving offenses and establish penalties for them. Some states have specified characteristics of aggressive drivers, with those convicted of the offense facing certain additional penalties, such as mandatory educational classes or loss of license for repeat offenders similar to drunk or impaired driving sanctions.

  • How to define aggressive driving. Many states get hung up on the issue of how to define aggressive driving. This difficulty has led to the death of some bills for being perceived as legally too problematic to define and implement.

  • Some bills specified intent. Some bills introduced last year did propose very specific intent as part of an aggressive driving definition. Another approach was to address aggressive driving through driver education courses. The state of Virginia passed legislation that required school driver education programs to include instruction on aggressive driving (effective 3/13/98).

  • Other options adopted by states. State legislators adopted other options to address aggressive driving, including 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.

Enforcement Strategies for Aggressive Driving
Chuck Peltier, NHTSA
Mr. Peltier began by stressing the need to understand the dilemma faced by law enforcement administrators today. To illustrate, he noted that in the coming months, conferences will be held on such important justice issues as juvenile crime, domestic violence, and community-oriented policing. The public must consider the pressing social issues faced by police and law enforcement officers forced to deal with everything from warring families and fatherless kids to expectations they will counsel juveniles on drugs. We ask police officers to do many things in addition to their routine duties of responding to calls for service and writing traffic tickets. Mr. Peltier said more police officers are needed to respond to issues of the day, because if the violating public does not believe it will get caught, it will go on violating the law. The remainder of Mr. Peltier's remarks are summarized in the following section.

  • Paradigm shift in law enforcement. The shift that law enforcement needs to embrace is to make traffic safety the business of every police officer, that is, to take a decentralized approach that makes everyone in a metropolitan police department responsible for conducting the business of traffic safety. Mr. Peltier felt this was an important shift that needed to take place, adding that traffic safety should also be a part of community policing efforts.

  • Specific aggressive driving focus needed. Mr. Peltier felt states needed to place a specific focus on aggressive driving. Currently, 24 states have 37 aggressive driving programs 2, and information continues to be gathered on them. These programs vary in resources and techniques.

  • Various enforcement techniques used. State programs to combat aggressive driving use a variety of techniques: unmarked cars, motorcycles, aircraft, unmarked decoy vehicles, nontraditional vehicles, and automated enforcement.

  • Elements of a successful promotional program. Using the media is vital to the success of an aggressive driving program, as it was with the seatbelt wearing campaign. Additional elements to consider in developing an aggressive driving program--as described in materials distributed at the conference--had to do with getting the word out, assessing one's own knowledge of the problem, enlisting grassroots support, and coping with congestion.

2 Figure is current as of May 18, 1999

Audience Questions
Following the technical presentations, panel members answered participant questions, summarized below.

Q. Are there any examples of prosecutions in Arizona under the new aggressive driving statute?
A. Three criteria must be met for an aggressive driving violation under the Arizona law: there must be a speeding violation together with two or more other violations that present a demonstrated threat to another person or vehicle. If an offender meets those requirements, s/he gets charged only with the aggressive driving offense. Some of the charges, particularly those not caught on camera, are being thrown out by judges for lack of law enforcement proof.