Thursday, March 12, 2009

Road Rage and You

A Guide to Surviving the Urban Jungle on Two Wheels

I originally wrote this story for in 2006, but have reposted it here for my friends at the Bay Area Riders Forum. Would it kill you to click on an ad or two here? All proceeds will go to Gabe's Foundation for Babys, Puppies and Kittens.

But as this charioteer lurched over towards me
I struck him in my rage...
He was paid back, and more!
Swinging my club in this right hand I knocked him
Out of his car, and he rolled on the ground.
I killed him.... I killed them all.
- Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, 430 BC

You're on your brand new Super Moto bike and you want to go for a ride. You call up your friend, and you meet for coffee. You talk about your new KTM and how fast and fun it is, how it will give you an edge over the plodding, inattentive masses in their Volvos, rental cars and SUVs.

You roar around the car on the shoulder of the road, scream a few choice obscenities at the girls and do a wheelie around the bend.
You head out to the beach, the thumper's motor roaring in your ears and the cool salty air filling your lungs. As you come up to a stop sign, two young women in a sedan hesitate in front of you, looking at the water. You honk at them, and one of them waves a saucy middle finger at you.

Something snaps inside the reptilian core of your brain stem. You roar around the car on the shoulder of the road, scream a few choice obscenities at the girls and do a wheelie around the bend. Panting, you start to grin a little bit as you wait for your friend at the next stoplight when a guy in a pick-up truck suddenly pulls up next to you...

"Hey, that was my daughter in that car you were yelling at. Why don't you chill out?" he yells.

"F--k you!" you respond, startled. You take off after giving his door a well-placed kick with your steel-toed motocross boot. You gun the throttle, but he was already on the gas and his truck swerves towards you.

What happens next? Maybe the guy in the truck purposely swerves and hits you, knocking you off your bike and crushing your body beneath three tons of angry metal. Maybe your rear tire slips on something and you lowside underneath the truck. Maybe you escape unharmed.

Whatever happens, you've been involved in a road-rage incident. And when a car and a motorcycle are involved in a crash caused by road-rage, it doesn't matter who was right or wrong, or if the car driver deliberately tried to make the motorcyclist crash, because the end result is usually the same: a killed or injured biker.

"Road Rage" is not a legal, medical or scientific term. Instead, it is a term used in the news media to describe "a range of anti-social behaviors and/or acts of aggression which occur on the road", according to a 1999 Australian study. Such behaviors can include speeding, swerving, cutting off other drivers, running stop signs and other traffic signals, to extreme acts like ramming other vehicles, getting out of the vehicle to physically fight, or using firearms to settle "disputes". According to a 1998 study by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), six out of 10 drivers felt personally threatened by another road user in their past year of driving.If you think road rage is any threatening display of aggression, then road rage is a rampant epidemic that touches everybody who uses public roads. According to a 1998 study by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), six out of 10 drivers felt personally threatened by another road user in their past year of driving. However, only one or two percent of drivers from a 2002 study reported either getting out of their vehicles to assault or argue with another driver or attempting to hit another driver or vehicle with their vehicle. These incidents rarely result in injury or death, but when they do, they receive much attention from the media.

On Christmas Eve, 1999, an Oakland, CA motorcyclist named Julius Long was riding his brand-new KTM Duke II near Ocean Beach in San Francisco when he had some kind of verbal altercation with a pair of women in a car. The father of one of the women, a Pacific Bell employee named Gerald Bowen, saw the incident from the cab of his pickup truck and followed Long so he could tell Long what was what. When he caught up to Long, the 49 year-old biker started screaming at him and kicking his door, according to Bowen and other witnesses.

What followed is the subject of debate. Long pulled away and Bowen followed him. According to Bowen, Long pulled ahead of his truck and then lost control of the KTM, which dumped him under the truck, killing him. Other witnesses say Bowen intentionally hit Long's bike. Bowen blames Long's aggressive attitude and what he believes is a dangerous, highly-strung bike that is ready to spit off an unwary rider at any moment: In a phone interview Bowen told me that Long's bike was a "260cc Duke II: it's very unpredictable, fast and top-heavy, not advised even for experienced riders". Whatever happened, Bowen maintains it was completely Long's fault, even though he tearfully apologized to Long's wife in court and said he felt "immense responsibility."

Bowen was arrested and eventually pled nolo contendre (no contest, which works like a guilty plea but doesn't admit guilt for the purposes of future civil lawsuits) to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. The San Mateo County court gave him a reduced nine-month sentence in county jail. After six years, Bowen is still sad Long died; "I still think about Mr. Long every time I drive by [that spot]", but does not feel his actions were to blame.
This is the stretch of Skyline Boulevard in Daly City where Julius Long was killed.

Bowen told me he said that because he was in a situation where the motorcyclist died, even if it was all Long's fault, as 58 year-old Bowen was an avid motorcycle racer and enthusiast and had only sold his last Harley about five years before he killed Long. In Bowen's view, the relationship between cars and motorcycles in a crowded urban setting like the Bay Area is an adversarial one that will lead to death or injury of motorcyclists; "I had a Harley, [but] you couldn't settle back and relax ...I didn't like to defend myself riding down the road." Now Bowen sees "motorcyclists cutting through traffic, smashing mirrors..."

Bowen maintains he was framed by over-zealous San Mateo prosecutors, but my call to Deputy San Mateo District Attorney Kathleen Rodgers revealed anything but a zealot. "I don't like motorcycles: I think they're dangerous", Rodgers said when I told her who I worked for. Rodgers had been assigned the case from another DA and was not a homicide prosecutor. The DA's office in San Mateo county, like most DAs, just wanted a fast conviction.

The Long killing is eerily reminiscent of another killing that occurred just 50 miles away in 2004. Rick Stern, a 55 year-old Harley rider from Monte Rio, Calif., was riding along Bohemian Highway, a meandering, two-lane road that winds its way through the redwood forests of Sonoma County. It has some annoyingly long double-yellow line zones, especially if you're on a motorcycle and stuck behind tourists or other slow-movers. Stern passed a Ford Explorer driven by 48 year-old Mark Fournier, a man who has admitted to having "anger issues" and who has been described by his doctor as having "a hair trigger". Fournier gunned the motor of his SUV, passed Stern, and then attempted to teach him "a little bit of a lesson" by hitting his brakes.

Stern skidded 111 feet before he hit the Explorer. He died of massive chest injuries in a helicopter on his way to the hospital. Fournier admitted to authorities he passed Stern and purposely hit his brakes ten months after the crash. Fournier's trial for vehicular manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, and assault with a deadly weapon is scheduled for May, 2006.

Another biker was killed last year in Delaware when 40 year-old Joseph August was riding with a friend near Hartly, Del. August and his buddy were cut off by a Chevy Suburban driven by 27 year-old Willis Miller. August and the friend followed Miller about 100 feet down the road, parked their bikes and confronted him. In the ensuing argument, they yelled and screamed at each other, and one of them damaged Miller's rear-view mirror. Then they got back on their bikes and took off.

Smart has noticed what may be a link between perpetrators of road-rage incidents and what psychiatrists call "explosive personality disorder" (EPD).Miller, who had been drinking heavily earlier that day, turned his truck around and took off after the two men, hitting speeds up to 80 mph. When he did catch up, he hit the bikes from behind, shoving August off the road and making the other rider crash 300 feet further up the road. August died from internal bleeding. Miller tried to hide at first but turned himself in and pled guilty to manslaughter earlier this year.

What turns ordinary motorists into killers of motorcyclists, pedestrians, and other motorists? Although there isn't as much scientific research as you'd expect, many researchers worldwide have done some work in this field. Dr. Reginald Smart, who works with the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, has analyzed road-rage incidents from thousands of surveys, interviews and studies.

Smart has noticed what may be a link between perpetrators of road-rage incidents and what psychiatrists call "explosive personality disorder" (EPD). He theorizes that this "disorder may be more prevalent among road rage perpetrators," although he admits that no studies have correlated it with people who have injured or killed other motorists during an instance of road rage.

There are two distinct categories of road-rage incidents and road-ragers. The first is common; you've either had it done to you or done it to some hapless schlubb on the road yourself sometime. Smart calls it "verbal" road-rage; driving aggressively, passing somebody closely or cutting them off, flipping somebody off or screaming and yelling. We've all done it, or if you're especially saintly, at least had it done to you.

The second category is more serious. "Dangerous" or "frequent" road-ragers differentiate themselves from their more casual brothers by actually acting on the rage they feel. "That's what we're concerned with" said Dr. Smart in a phone interview. These are people who report having a road-rage incident more than six to 10 times a year. They have "psychiatric problems, short fuses, things bother them that wouldn't bother most people." Acting out can range from getting out of their cars to confront other road users to brandishing -- and using -- weapons like guns, bats, tire irons, knives or even their cars and trucks. This behavior is correlated with a psychiatric condition known as "explosive personality disorder", which is marked by the subject suddenly exhibiting violent, destructive behavior.

How does this affect motorcyclists? Smart acknowledges there is little research about motorcyclists and road-rage, either as victims or perpetrators. He says that motorcycles "just don't come into view, but maybe they should." However, there is an interesting link between high-performance sportscars and road rage, which is germane because almost every motorcycle on the road is, by automotive standards, a high-performance vehicle.

Such vehicle drivers engage in mild road-rage incidents like weaving in and out of traffic, speeding and cutting off other drivers more frequently than drivers of slower vehicles. However, the incidents of severe road-rage behavior are much more prevalent among commercial truck drivers. Men far outnumber women in all kinds of road-rage, and younger men are far more likely to engage in risky, dangerous, aggressive behavior. Motorcyclists probably engage in aggressive, obnoxious driving habits more than other road users, but are no more likely than anybody else to escalate that aggression into something truly dangerous. How big a problem is road-rage, really? If we're talking about burly truckers exiting their rigs to punch out old ladies or toss their poodles into traffic, it's not really a big problem. True violence and destruction happens so infrequently that when it does, it's usually national news. However, if you define it as aggressive driving in general, then it's a huge problem. According to the NHTSA, 30 percent of fatal traffic accidents in 2004 were somehow speed-related, if not directly caused by what we would call severe road-rage. That's 13,000 people killed and by extrapolation, 800,000 injured annually and billions and billions of dollars in property damage, medical bills and lost productivity. That's like 9/11 happening every 12 weeks, except we have nobody to bomb to make us feel better. What can be done?

Like every social problem, there are two schools of thought. The first school consists of what legal scholars call "retributionists". They believe that harsh legal penalties will keep people's behavior in check and let victims and families taste the sweet sensation of revenge. However, when reviewing what happens in the legal cases of road-rage incidents, it seems the prosecutors often fail to even ask that the full force of the law be visited upon the perpetrator.

"I think murder is an inappropriate charge for what we know as road rage. [In] a lot of road-rage incidents, the perpetrator did not in fact intend to kill the other person...they intended to `teach them a lesson', they intended to bump them...I asked Ian Kelley, an up-and-coming San Francisco Bay Area criminal defense attorney, about what the legal system could do to damp down the seeming epidemic of road rage. I was surprised to find out that road-rage crimes are by their very definition, difficult to seriously penalize someone for.

The problem is that "heat of passion crimes are not deemed as morally blameworthy in the same way as deliberated and planned homicides are", according to 36 year-old Long Island transplant Kelley. In general, a "heat of passion" defense negates the intentional aspect of many crimes; the rage itself makes it impossible for a person to think clearly. That makes it impossible to murder someone, since murder is by definition an intentional act. The red fog clouds your mind and lessens the ability to act rationally, reducing murder to vehicular manslaughter, negligent homicide, or some other crime that does not require specific intent.

Kelley goes on to explain: "I think murder is an inappropriate charge for what we know as road rage. [In] a lot of road-rage incidents, the perpetrator did not in fact intend to kill the other person...they intended to `teach them a lesson', they intended to bump them...just to flip them out a little. They acted with a reckless disregard for the well-being of another, but it's no different than driving with a reckless disregard if they are impaired by alcohol, drugs, age, or whatever."

Another problem is that many in the general public--including prosecutors, juries and judges--just don't "understand motorcycles just don't fall over...they think that motorcycles are dangerous, tipsy instrumentalities. The driver will say that `I didn't mean to hit him, I just swerved and he fell over.'" In other words, many people assume a motorcycle will crash easily in a straight line, which is what Bowen claimed happened to Long. Even when multiple witnesses--even the driver himself--describe the road-raging driver tapping, bumping, or hitting the brakes and causing a crash, proof of an intentional act to actually kill the motorcyclist still isn't certain beyond the "shadow of doubt" the law requires to prove a defendant guilty of murder. Because motorcycles seem so "tipsy", maybe the motorcyclist himself caused the crash, not the road-raging driver who might never have actually contacted the motorcycle. Therefore, most district attorneys will seek a lesser charge than murder to be positive of securing a conviction in a road-rage case.

Does this mean killing a motorcyclist is basically a crime without the severe penalties a non-vehicle based killer would get? From my research, I would say yes; I found no cases of a defendant being convicted of murder for killing a motorcyclist with his vehicle. Our common-law legal system, which treats murder and other homicide crimes the same way it has for hundreds of years, cannot punish moto-killers. In Kelley's words, "The way to teach people to act with more deliberation is from education from when they're young, not from increasingly penalizing them. The very nature of what the crime is suggests that penalizing it more won't help anything, because people are not thinking about penalties at the moment they're acting. In fact, they're not thinking about anything."

Another component to "Justice for All" is to include motorcyclist awareness as part of each state's driver-education program.Before you accuse him of being a mamby-pamby bleeding heart, consider that requiring more education of motorists in general is always a good thing. Even the most John Birch-worshipping GPTB in our MO peanut gallery acknowledges this fact. The American Motorcyclist Association also agrees. AMA Spokesman Tom Lindsay acknowledges that "any motorcyclist killed by a willful act is something that should anger all citizens. Regardless of how, it still has the same result: a dead motorcyclist. We can't bring back a dead rider, but we can make sure the system has the ability or the option to adequately punish motorists who injure or kill other motorists." However, the AMA does not sponsor or endorse any legislation that specifically targets the killers of motorcyclists. Instead, they have a multi-faceted program known as "Justice For All" that promotes safe driving through awareness and education. It will take time, according to Lindsay: "what needs to change are the laws state by state. It's a process, not an event." There's no single magic piece of legislation that will change things; rather, a combination of education, legislation and public awareness will make things safer for all road users.

On the legislative side, the AMA is working in all 50 states to increase penalties "for those who commit manslaughter with a motor vehicle" and increase "fines and driver's license suspensions on drivers who commit traffic offenses that injure or kill others." The legislation doesn't differentiate from those who kill motorcyclists from those who kill any other road user; it's easier for the general public to support broader legislation than that which only protects one group. The AMA website for "Justice for All" claims to have enacted pieces of this legislation in four states but needs the help of motorcyclists in the other 46. (Hint, hint: join the AMA!)

Another component to "Justice for All" is to include motorcyclist awareness as part of each state's driver-education program. A major component of this awareness campaign is a module the AMA lobbies to be included in all state's driver's training programs called "Motorcyclists Matter" that alerts prospective drivers about sharing the road with motorcyclists. I asked Lindsay if it talked about how road-rage affects motorcyclists; he told me that the AMA assumes "all training includes admonitions not to use a vehicle as a weapon. We reinforce that we are vulnerable to other road users."

Yes, we are. No matter how tough and invincible you think you are, no matter how fast your bike is or how skilled you are, no bike on earth can stand up to a 3,000 pound car. The problem happens when a motorcyclist somehow triggers a severe road-rager--someone who lets his road-rage turn violent--with their mild, garden-variety road-rage that almost everybody exhibits. As Dr. Smart says, "in some cases victims turn into perpetrators [of violent assault or other crimes, and]...someone who starts as a perpetrator may become a victim."

Telling a road-raging rider to chill out is easy for me to say now, sitting in front of a computer. However, the reality, out on the road with adrenaline coursing through your veins and the feel of a 100 hp machine between your legs is something else. The monster awakens deep in your cerebral cortex and makes you do crazy things. Just remember this; there are other monsters slumbering out there too, waiting for some crazy guy with loud pipes to wake them up. Do you want to do battle like a pair of middle-aged Komodo dragons? Is it worth it?

One road-rage death affected my life. Julius Long was a friend of mine; we drove for the same taxicab company in San Francisco. I bought a motorcycle from him and we used to go riding together. It's easy for me to say that Julius made a bad decision, tangling with a psycho redneck in a pickup truck, but it's not that clear. I could have made the same choices; in fact, I often have. I've kicked my share of car doors and broken a mirror or two (I think). But I'm going to think more about how I interact with other road users from now on. I hope you do, too.

Taming the Monster: How to Avoid Road Rage.

Most of this advice will seem pretty obvious, but what's obvious to you, Mr. educated college-degree 21st Century man, will not seem so obvious to that primeval Neanderthal that dwells just a few millimeters below your ironically hip "Twisted Sister" concert T-shirt. The next time things start getting hot between you and another road user--whether you're in your car or on your bike--run a few of these through your conscious mind.

If you are raging:
Think of what you're doing. Would you do it if your mother, wife, daughter or girlfriend were watching? Is this something that would be appropriate if you were in a crowded elevator or in a crowd at an airport? Keep a laminated picture of your kids or other loved ones on your dashboard or gas tank. If you knew the person in the other vehicle, would you be acting this way? You might actually know him!

If you can't get away (you might be on something slow like a moped or a Harley), let them get in front of you and then pull over. Let them go!

If you're confronted by a rager:

If you're on your bike, get very, very far away from them. Don't assume you outran them. Keep checking behind you for a long, long time. If you see a police officer get their attention. Nothing chills a road-rager like a black-and-white. If you can't get away (you might be on something slow like a moped or a Harley), let them get in front of you and then pull over. Let them go! If they come after you, find a crowd of people or a brightly lit area. If you're on a bike you are more vulnerable to them when you're moving. If they do corner you and they get out of their car they might start talking about damaging your bike or hurting you. Stay seated on your bike and keep them talking, but don't antagonize them; often times when they stop talking it's because they have a weapon of some kind. In some states (like Arizona), over 10 percent of motorists are armed some or all of the time, and alarmingly (but maybe not surprisingly), serious road-ragers are much more likely to be armed. If they do pull out a weapon you should revert to my people's ancient martial arts technique of screaming and begging for your life. It's not very noble, but at least you'll be alive to feel the shame and humiliation. If you are in a car or truck, don't get out of the vehicle. This will escalate the situation and increase the chances of it ending badly. Maybe he'll kick your ass (or worse) or you'll kick his; in either case you're either going to the hospital or jail (or both; cops don't really care who "started it"). Both places are like hangovers from single-malt scotch; expensive and not much fun.
Maybe he'll kick your ass (or worse) or you'll kick his; in either case you're either going to the hospital or jail.

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