U. S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

  DOT HS 808 705

April 1998





Detailed Findings

General Discussion

Specific Issues




List of Tables
1 Composition of Beltway Driver Groups
2 How Participants Use the Beltway
3 Perceived Causes of Beltway Crashes
4 Perceived Causes of Beltway Crashes - Commercial Drivers
5 Responses to Aggressiveness Screening Questions

List of Figures
1 Questionnaire Responses - General vs. Aggressive Drivers



Enforcement Issues

This topic was covered in detail in Groups 1, 2, 4 and 5, and all of the commercial driver groups. Relevant comments from Group 3 are included where appropriate

Adequacy of Law Enforcement Presence

In Group 1, five of the participants felt there was too little law enforcement presence on the Beltway. The remainder (6 people) felt the amount of law enforcement presence was just about right. Ensuing discussion revealed some dissatisfaction with the deployment of law enforcement. Several people mentioned that they did not believe it was effective when there were many law enforcement cars working the same area. They said they usually can sense that law enforcement is there by the way traffic ahead of them is behaving and they know that once they are past the pack of law enforcement cars they are home free. Most of the people in Group 2 also felt that there was not enough law enforcement presence on the Beltway. Group 3 was not asked.

Only three of the ten aggressive drivers in the Group 4 felt that there was not enough law enforcement on the Beltway. However, none thought there should be fewer. The rest accepted the moderator's observation that their silence must indicate that they know how to play the game with the existing amount of law enforcement presence. One woman said that she felt if there is a sufficient amount of law enforcement presence, there is a chance she could get caught and she avoids doing anything stupid.

Four of the ten aggressive drivers in Group 5, all women, felt that there was not enough law enforcement presence on the Beltway. However, none of the participants felt there was too much. One of the women who thought there should be more law enforcement remarked that there was a lot more law enforcement on the road around holidays and that really does reduce crashes and fatalities.

The majority of commercial drivers would like more law enforcement on the road. Although two of the six dump truck drivers said there are enough police out on the Beltway the rest believe there should be more. All agree that more stops should be made. In general, the dump truck driver felt that law enforcement is very tolerant, perhaps too tolerant to motivate people to respect the law. As professional drivers, they want to obey the rules but feel stupid obeying them when others flaunt them and get away with it. The van line drivers said they have noticed an increase in the amount of law enforcement presence on the Beltway but one said there still are not enough of them on the Maryland side.

Hazards of Law Enforcement Activity

Most Group 1 participants believe that law enforcement traffic stops on the Beltway create a hazard. They said it encourages "rubbernecking" and slows traffic to a crawl. One of the participants also mentioned that the shoulders on the Beltway are not very good for pulling people over. The officer sometimes needs to walk the side line of the roadway to get from the police car to the car they stopped. One suggestion was to use the law enforcement car's public address system to direct the car to pull off at the next exit rather than stopping them on the shoulder. Most of the group felt that the idea of turning the blue light off when a car is stopped on the side would increase, rather than decrease, the danger of law enforcement stops although a few thought it might be a good idea if the cars were well off the road.

Most of the drivers in Group 2 also acknowledged that law enforcement sometimes create a hazard when they pull people over, but just seeing a law enforcement car on the road, or on the side of the road, has an effect on aggressive drivers. One went so far as to suggest posting "dummy" law enforcement cars around the Beltway. This group clearly believed that the effect enforcement has on driver behavior more than offsets any hazards created by making stops.

Most of the aggressive drivers comprising Group 4 believe that law enforcement stops on the Beltway creates safety hazards. They pointed out that it slows down traffic and promotes a lot of rubbernecking. None would take the position, however, that making law enforcement stops is so dangerous that law enforcement officers ought to stop doing it. Asked if it would be less of a hazard if officers turned off the blue light after they were out of the travel lanes, the prevailing view in this group was that it would not make much difference.

Several members of Group 5, including both men and women, acknowledged that law enforcement stops on the Beltway during rush hours is a cause of some crashes, and the rest of the group seemed to agree. Asked whether the increased hazard caused by law enforcement activity during rush hour is offset by other safety benefits, the first reaction was, "What would police enforce during rush hours? It certainly would not be speeding." Another participant argued that there is a need to enforce against aggressive behavior like cutting people off and "shouldering." He continued, "I'll bet there is not one of us who does not get a feeling of satisfaction when a cop pulls off a guy who has shouldered past us." One of the Group 5 participants said that it is always rush hour on the Beltway. Her position is that law enforcement is needed on the Beltway and if they are going to be kept from making stops during rush hour, there will be no law enforcement. One of the men said that he thinks there is too little enforcement at night when, without fail, he always sees two or three cars blasting past him at 90 to 100 miles an hour.

Most truck drivers acknowledge that law enforcement activity is the cause of some crashes. In general, however, they think the hazards caused by enforcement presence does not compare with the problems encountered without them. The Roadway Express drivers believe that law enforcement activity definitely does cause crashes, if not directly, as a result of rubbernecking and increased congestion. One of the ways law enforcement could improve the situation would be to insist that the cars they pull over get completely to the right edge of the shoulder so the law enforcement car can create the pocket needed for the officer's safety and still be out of the travel lane. The North American drivers suggested that there should be less enforcement at choke points like the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and more patrol cars rolling where they can better enforce aggressive driving.

Support For Increased Enforcement Funding

Group 1 (the only group asked) was generally supportive of increased funding for law enforcement on the Beltway. However, several members said they were not for it if it meant that there would be more law enforcement giving tickets for going 65.

Enforcement Priorities

When directly asked what kinds of violations should be given highest priority, Group 1 responded with aggressive driving. Asked what specific violations they associate with aggressive driving, the group said improper lane changing, tailgating and excessive speed. Once again, one of the women in the group said that law enforcement ought to be able to arrest people who were shouting at each other, making rude gestures and generally behaving like jerks. Again, the driver with the second highest aggressiveness score responded that law enforcement cannot and should not arrest people for rudeness, only for breaking laws. One member of this group also said that law enforcement should enforce minimum speed laws.

The second group, like the first, listed dangerous driving behaviors as the kinds of violations they felt should get higher priority. Specifically, excessive lane changes, cutting people off, tailgating and sudden braking for no reason.

Even the aggressive drivers that comprised Group 4 said that excessive lane changing and excessive speed should have higher enforcement priorities. The aggressive driver who mentioned speed qualified it by saying he means speeds he thinks are excessive, 75 miles per hour or higher. One of the moderately aggressive men said he thinks law enforcement should go after drivers who are acting in a menacing way. Their violations might not be any different than those committed by less aggressive drivers, but these are the ones who should be stopped. Another moderately aggressive participant agreed. He said that law enforcement should target people who are trying to squeeze into spaces that are too small just to get ahead of someone else and drivers who take it upon themselves to punish someone else by doing something dangerous at 65 miles per hour. One of the women went on to say that drivers who behave that way are a lot more dangerous than people who are going 15 miles an hour over the limit.

Asked what violations should get higher priority for enforcement, the first person in Group 5 responded DWI. Her reasoning was that even though it is not one of the major causes of Beltway crashes, it often results in fatalities. One of the men thought that more emphasis should be placed on arresting drivers who are not paying attention. There was some discussion, and some dissension, about whether talking on a cell phone should be among the distractions that should be cause for a stop. The group came around to the conclusion that drivers should not be stopped for doing something other than paying attention to driving, only if it resulted in losing control of the vehicle. One said there should be more enforcement of the child restraint laws. Everyone else agreed. Another Group 5 member said there should be more enforcement of seat belt laws. The moderator asked how many members of the group wear their belts all of the time. All but two indicated they did.

The kinds of violations the truck drivers think should get more attention are also primarily those associated with aggressive driving, especially cutting in and out between lanes and crossing three or four lanes at a time. The North American Van Lines drivers said there should be fewer stops for minor things like expired stickers and equipment violations on the Beltway. One of the drivers said they can do that on city streets where it is less dangerous and disruptive.


The people in Group 1 leaned generally toward harsher sanctions. Some suggested lowering the number of points at which a license is suspended. However, one participant remarked that sometimes drivers get a lot of points on local streets when they live in localities with overzealous law enforcement officers who make a lot of arrests for minor violations. He was not so sure that lowering the number of points at which a driver would be suspended was really a good idea. Some of the people in the group seemed to be more inclined toward giving more points for violations on the Beltway than on local streets but support for this idea was not universal.

Group 2 had some trouble grappling with the question of whether points and penalties should be increased on some kinds of violations because most of the group did not know what they are. The most aggressive in the group, definitely teasing, said, "None of us has ever received a ticket." Another group member said, "Yeah, right."

Like Group 2, Group 4 initially did not know how to answer when asked if they felt the sanctions for certain kinds of violations should be increased. They also claimed that they did not know what the fines and points were. They were educated by the most aggressive woman in the group who evidently had a great deal of familiarity with traffic courts. A woman who had previously said that the fines for speeding should be higher stuck with her position. One of the men said that fines for aggressive types of behavior should be higher than for speeding. Another suggested that points should be doubled for each successive violation so the system would be harsher on habitual violators. One of the problems, according to a couple of people in the group, is that courts are too soft on habitual violators who claim hardship and get a restricted license.

One of the men in Group 5 said that Virginia should make its sentences for drunk driving as tough as Maryland's. He said that most first offenders in Virginia get a slap on the wrist if there was no injury. In Maryland, all drunk drivers must attend a lengthy and time consuming series of classes and he thinks that really has an impact.

Speed Limit

Most of the people in Group 1 felt that 55 is too slow a speed to drive the Beltway except in congested areas and the curvy sections in the northwestern quadrant. Most felt that many sections could be safely driven at speeds higher than 55. The group was deeply split on the issue of how much tolerance law enforcement should give for driving faster than the posted limit. One member (again the second most aggressive driver) argued that the limits should be higher and law enforcement should give no tolerance. That way everyone would know the rules and there would be less speed differential between cars. He thinks the problem with the Beltway is that every person has his own interpretation of the rules. However, the prevailing view of the group seemed to be that 55 is an appropriate speed to be posted as a limit and that ten miles per hour is an appropriate tolerance.

Every member of Group 2 raised his or her hand when asked if the 55 mph speed limit on the Beltway is too low. However, one of the participants said he was not so sure his hand should be raised because he was concerned that if they made it 65, most people would drive 75. The conversation flowed naturally to a discussion about how much margin law enforcement allows over the posted limit. Some felt the limit should mean what it says. Others like, and count on, a 10 mph cushion. It was clear that most members of the group like to drive the Beltway at 65 if conditions permit it. All members of the group said that 75 is too fast for the Beltway. About half think 70 is too fast.

Most of the more aggressive drivers in Group 5 regularly drive the Beltway at 65 to 70 when conditions permit. None of them claimed to drive at the speed limit but none admitted to driving more than 70 either. Seven of the ten people in this group would like to see the limit raised to 65. Those who did not want the limit raised said that everyone would drive 75 and more lives would be lost. A couple who favor a higher limit disputed that. Their contention was that most people will not drive at speeds they think are dangerous. They think that few people believe they are safe going much over 70 on the Beltway and those are the same people who are driving at unreasonable speeds now.

One member of Group 5 suggested different speed limits for each lane, so every driver could find a lane that fit his level of comfort. Another group member jokingly said it would not work, though, because slow drivers never stay in the right lane even though there are signs all over the place asking them to do so.

Many of the truck drivers did not think that speed is a major problem on the Beltway. For example, some of the moving van drivers contended that traffic is under the speed limit when the road is congested and runs only between 60 and 70 when it is clear. They do not believe these speeds are especially hazardous. However, many support the 55 mile an hour speed limit, subscribing to the theory that people always run about ten miles an hour over the limit.

Slow Vehicles

About half of Group 1 believes slow vehicles are a major hazard on the Beltway. There was mixed reaction in the group as to whether there should be a minimum speed limit and the extent to which it should be enforced.

A few people in Group 2 said that the minimum speeds should be enforced more. There was disagreement in the group about what the minimum speed limit is on the Beltway. The lowest guess was 40. The most aggressive driver in the group said, "I thought it was 55." It is hard to tell whether she meant it or was just teasing.

There was a real discussion in Group 5 about whether people who drive too slow are as much a danger as people who drive too fast. Although all but a few members of the group believe that slow drivers are as great a hazard as speeders, a dissenter said that they do not cause as many fatal crashes as the speeders. One of the women, who happened to be fairly low on the aggressiveness scale, argued that it is slow drivers who clog up the lanes and create the conditions that motivate other drivers to engage in risky lane changes to get by them. The lone crusader in the group said that a car going 45 in the right lane is not as great a problem as a car going 55 in the left lane. All felt there should be some kind of minimum speed limit on the Beltway but they could not agree what it should be.

Commercial drivers in all groups mentioned slow drivers as a safety problem (particularly when they block up passing lanes) but they were reluctant to recommend enforcement of minimum speed laws. Part of the reason was a realization that they sometimes are the slow vehicles that people complain about. They admit that heavily laden trucks have difficulty coming up to speed when merging into Beltway traffic from short, uphill on ramps.

Occupant Protection

Group 1 did not understand the term "primary seat belt law." When it was explained that law enforcement can stop cars for a violation of the seat belt law, there was a great deal of opposition to it. All of the people in the group claimed that they always wear their belts but most were opposed to enabling law enforcement to stop people who did not use their belts. The debate on this issue was more spirited than any that preceded it. Those against argued that people who do not wear their belts are not hurting anyone but themselves and that enforcement of seat belt laws just takes resources away from other concerns that are more important.

All but one member of Group 2 agreed that failure to wear seat belts should be a stopping violation in all states. The dissenter obviously was not a seat belt user and gave several reasons why he believed not wearing a seat belt was safer than wearing one.

Half of the aggressive drivers in Group 5 were in favor of making failure to wear seat belts a stopping offense everywhere. One of the dissenters said that he thinks failure to wear a seat belt is one of those violations that does not justify the hazard caused by the act of making the stop. He reasoned that the violator is not endangering anyone but himself. One of the pro seat belt people volunteered that she always wears a belt herself and would not move her car if a passenger is not buckled up. She said she is legally responsible for the safety of her passengers and will not assume liability for them if they do not buckle up. A few people in the group were shocked to learn that they had liability for unbuckled passengers and felt it was not fair because it was the passenger's decision that caused the problem.

Most commercial drivers believe in seat belts and have no problem with making failure to wear seat belts a stopping violation, but the North American Van Lines drivers also think it is one of those minor violations that does not justify pulling someone over on the Beltway. They said that failure to wear seat belts does not cause crashes. This is not the case with people who engage in dangerous driving behavior and that is who law enforcement should be stopping.

Awareness of Smooth Operator Project

Several members of Group 1 were aware of the current enforcement campaign against aggressive drivers. Those who were aware of it heard about it on TV news programs. None of the people in this group knew the name of the program -- Smooth Operator.

As previously noted, a member of Group 2 mentioned Smooth Operator by name when discussing possible solutions to the aggressive driver problem. Most of the members of this group were in favor of activities like this one.

Only three people in Group 3 were aware of the current enforcement campaign against aggressive driving. None of them had ever heard the name, although one said she remembered a public service announcement on TV with a policeman dressed as a Road Warrior.

When the moderator asked how many in Group 4 were aware of the current enforcement effort against aggressive driving, seven of ten raised their hands. However, none of them knew the name of the campaign. Several said they recognized the name Smooth Operator when the moderator said it.

Awareness of the current enforcement effort against aggressive driving was the same among the Group 5 aggressive drivers as those in Group 4, seven of ten. Several participants were aware that it was called Smooth Operator. The driving behaviors they associated with aggressive driving included speed, tailgating, "shouldering" and cutting others off. All but a few of the members of the group admitted that at times they were aggressive drivers. They continued, without prompting, to discuss why they drive aggressively. One young woman said she views driving as a competitive sport. Another woman said she gets aggressive when she is short on time and does not have the patience to wait. Others get angry at other drivers and want to teach them a lesson.

About half of the North American drivers knew about the aggressive driver enforcement wave that was going on when the session was held. Several had noticed more law enforcement out on the Beltway in the prior week. However, none had ever heard the name Smooth Operator. They said that campaigns like this do some good, at least while law enforcement is visible.

Reaction to Proposed Video Imaging Project

The proposed Maryland aggressive driver video imaging project was appealing to Group 1 which had "invented" it independently when asked to come up with solutions to the problem. However, the idea of mailing tickets to the registered owners of cars being driven aggressively triggered some reservations. One woman said she felt it would be more effective as a deterrent if drivers were stopped shortly after the violation was observed. Others felt it would be unfair to give the vehicle owner a ticket if someone else was driving the car, and some felt that law enforcement would have trouble getting convictions in court for this reason.

There was general agreement in Group 2 that it would be a good idea to use video images from cameras along the Beltway to ticket aggressive drivers. There were two or three people in the group who felt it was too invasive. Since the group was more strongly against aggressive driving than speed, some indicated that using cameras for aggressive driving enforcement would be OK but they would not want them used for speed enforcement and did not think photo radar was a good idea. This group did not discuss the issue of sending the ticket to the registered owner of the vehicle rather than the driver.

Initially, the proposal for video imaging of aggressive drivers seemed like a good idea to a few members of Group 4. Then, someone mentioned that they disagreed with tickets being sent to registered owners of the vehicles. There was a great deal of discussion about whether such a ticket could or should hold up in court. Finally, the most aggressive male who had not spoken since he asked the group if they were crazy for suggesting more law enforcement said, "This just goes over the top. We have enough big brother already." One of the women said that she disagreed.

The idea of using the Maryland highway surveillance system to detect aggressive drivers and send them tickets in the mail also came up spontaneously in Group 5 as they discussed possible solutions to the problem of unsafe lane changing. There was a great deal of discussion about whether such tickets would hold up in court since they would be sent to the registered owner, not the driver. It was as if the people in the room were rehearsing their righteous indignation against the time they would need to spend in court. One said that he thought it was not fair because out of town drivers would be likely to get off free. Another felt he should not be held responsible if someone borrowed his car. Yet another said the punishment does no good unless it immediately follows the violation, suggesting that law enforcement should stop the drivers observed on camera, solving both the driver identity problem and making punishment instant. In the end, four group members were in favor of the idea. The rest did not like it, but all thought it would be a very effective deterrent.

The Maryland aggressive driver video imaging proposal sounded like a very good idea to the truck drivers at North American Van lines. They thought, however, that there might be a problem making the tickets stick if drivers of the vehicles could not be identified. The terminal manager said that he would not have a problem with the idea of the company getting tickets because they know who is driving, and they would take action. However, he said it could be unfair to the owner of a vehicle that is stolen.

Radar Detectors

Only two people in Group 4 (which was the only group asked) felt that Maryland should enact a radar detector ban like Virginia's. They happened to be the two women at the low end of the aggressiveness scale. None of the group members would admit to having a radar detector but one man said he used to have one. He does not use it any more because it is more trouble than it is worth. He said he was driving down the highway at 70 thinking he was safe because he had the detector on when he was caught by VASCAR. No one in the group had an objection to law enforcement using drone radar to slow down people who have detectors.