A state of road rage
Recent Victorian crime statistics show an increase in the number of road rage offences, so why are people reacting so excessively from behind the wheel?PT4M17S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2g73a 620 349 March 16, 2013
When 3700 Australian drivers were surveyed by AAMI in 2012 about their experiences with road rage, 13 per cent said they had been deliberately forced off the road by another driver. The car insurer conducted the same survey in 2011 and the figure was 10 per cent.
Last financial year Victoria Police logged 212 road rage-related assaults in their database - a startling 42 per cent jump on reported incidents in 2010-11 and easily the highest figure in the past five years.
Clearly Australians are getting angrier behind the wheel, their anger more often becoming violent. Less clear is what is being done to reverse the trend.
Michelle Ferlazzo was confronted in Carlton after she beeped a man waiting at a green traffic light. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer
No government agency has taken direct responsibility for dealing with the growing problem of road rage. VicRoads and the Transport Accident Commission say it is essentially a police matter, and Victoria Police treat road rage as a form of assault or property damage.
Earlier this month, Paul was driving along Punt Road when another motorist merged into his path without looking. The attack that followed left Paul too afraid to publish his surname for fear of being attacked again.
Paul blew his horn to let the driver know he'd just cut him off. It was the trigger for a frightening attack that rapidly developed from physical intimidation to actual blows.
Andrew Clarke had a car drive straight at him while he was on his scooter. Photo: Pat Scala
''I beeped and that, I thought, was the end of that. Unfortunately this fellow had other intentions and tried to ram me several times,'' Paul says.
The aggrieved motorist then manoeuvred his car directly in front of Paul's, slammed on the brakes and got out of his car.
Buckled into a convertible car with its top down, Paul was a sitting duck. The driver took a swing at his face, which Paul blocked, and then unleashed a string of obscenities.
''Every possible outcome flipped through my mind at that point; how do I escape, do I ram his car, can I ram the car behind me boxing me in, do I swerve into oncoming traffic?''
More verbal abuse followed before the man strode back to his car and drove away. Paul took note of his vehicle number plate and immediately reported the incident to police.
Brian Negus, the RACV's general manager of public policy, is staggered by the increase in the number of road rage-type offences being prosecuted by police.
He says there has to be more ''mutual respect'' and tolerance on the road; some people's personalities change behind the wheel of the car or truck or on a bike, where they become more aggressive and consider abusing people to be acceptable.
''It is almost like a Jekyll and Hyde syndrome,'' he says.
David Cuff has been teaching Melburnians how to be better drivers, and to drive defensively, for almost 20 years. The manager of John Bowe Driving in Glen Iris says every day he sees virtually every example of bad driving there is and puts it down to a combination of poor training and bad attitudes.
''I think Australians generally are very average drivers,'' Cuff says. ''From driving in Europe and the US, we're more aggressive generally and we're less skilled.''
Being a better driver is as much about attitude as skill, Cuff says. One of the things his school teaches is acceptance that other drivers will make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes will involve cutting you off, slowing you down, even tailgating.
Cuff says people's attitude towards others changes while they are driving. Two people whose trolleys collide in a supermarket aisle will apologise and go their separate ways. But behind the wheel, those same two people might be more likely to respond aggressively.
In Cuff's opinion, taking another's bad driving personally is the first mistake and often the spark that leads to road rage.
He says if someone does something ''dumb'', rather than getting upset about it you should accept that they made a mistake.
''You may have done it yourself, pulled out and suddenly there is a car beside you that you haven't seen. You haven't done it on purpose, so if someone does that, instead of getting frustrated and blasting them, think they probably haven't got their mirrors set correctly to cure blind spots.''
Cuff's view that road rage can be avoided by simply being courteous and forgiving of another's incompetent or inconsiderate driving echoes the findings of a major state parliamentary inquiry into road rage in 2005.
The inquiry report was described at the time as ''the most extensive analysis into the subject of road violence undertaken in Australia and … anywhere in the world''.
The seven-member inquiry report on violence associated with motor vehicle use, which was co-written by the state's new police minister Kim Wells in 2005, made a dozen recommendations on teaching drivers to avoid conflict, including launching a campaign to encourage greater courtesy. But a courtesy campaign never eventuated.
Following the report's release, VicRoads published a handbook for learner drivers called Road to Solo Driving.
James Holgate, VicRoads' director of vehicle and road use policy, says the handbook provides information about sharing the road safely, co-operating with other motorists, and dealing with aggressive drivers. It also gives advice about ''keeping your cool in the car'', including tips on how best to respond to mistakes by other drivers that don't involve road rage.
In AAMI's latest road rage survey, 38 per cent of drivers admitted to making rude gestures at others for bad or dangerous driving and 19 per cent said they had deliberately tailgated other motorists for the same reason.
On the other side of the aggressive driver's ledger, 70 per cent said they had been subjected to rude gestures and 55 per cent said they had been tailgated. Twenty-nine per cent said they had been followed by another motorist after a heated exchange and 4 per cent said they had been physically assaulted.
Musician Greg Williams was driving east on the West Gate Freeway, at about 100km/h. He was in the outside lane, looking for a break in traffic to move into the left-hand lane and take the next exit, when a man in a 4WD began tailgating him. ''He was just really aggressive, and right up my arse, and so I motioned to him to back off and he didn't, he kept on tailgating me and I didn't think it was safe to change lanes,'' Williams says.
When the 4WD roared past him in the inside lane, Williams ''flipped him the bird'' - something he soon regretted. The driver suddenly got in behind him, followed him off the next exit and bashed him at the next set of lights.
''He came straight up to the side of my car, opened my door and started punching me through the open door,'' Williams says. ''I was pinned in the car and he was just pummelling me.''
Williams drove himself to hospital and was treated for facial fractures. His attacker was charged with assault. He submitted a written apology to the court and was not convicted. Williams still cannot feel his face properly.
''I remember being anxious driving for a year afterwards, and in the immediate aftermath I was convinced he was going to find me and come and beat me up in my house,'' he says.
Driving behaviour experts say violent road rage is not a traffic problem but one of criminality. The 2005 parliamentary inquiry found that most perpetrators of on-road violence were young men, reflecting young men's place as the biggest perpetrators of other violent crimes.
''In Australia it seems that perpetrators often punch or kick their victims or use their vehicles as a weapon to run over their victim,'' the inquiry found.
It rejected the term ''road rage'' to describe driving-related acts of violence between strangers, arguing that while the term was widely understood, it was also too amorphous.
The Transport Accident Commission carefully considered all the recommendations of the inquiry but found no sound evidence to show that a public education campaign would reduce the incidence of road rage.
Elizabeth Waller, the TAC's road safety manager, says efforts are being made in Victoria to curb road rage.
''The government is addressing road rage with new measures such as fines for tailgating and the successful Roads to Respect campaign. The TAC supports that work by focusing on key contributors to death on the state's roads, including distractions, speeding and drink and drug driving.''
AAMI's driver survey found 88 per cent of respondents in Melbourne believed drivers were becoming more aggressive. Of those, 84 per cent said increasing congestion was contributing to that increased aggression.
Andrew Clarke was riding his scooter on King Street in peak hour, using his vehicle's small size to move between cars to the front of the queue of traffic at each intersection.
''This bloke got incredibly upset with that,'' Clarke says. ''When the lights went green, he scooted around the outside of me and then started squeezing me towards the cars that were beside me.''
At the next red light,Clarke again threaded his way through the stationary traffic. Enraged, the driver ''drove straight into me'', Clarke says.
AAMI's corporate affairs manager Reuben Aitchison says the company's latest annual road rage surveys show increasing aggression on the road, and a high degree of intolerance of other drivers. The survey reveals ''a massive disconnect'' between what people considered appropriate behaviour on the road and how they actually conduct themselves behind the wheel.
''If you ask people what the best response is if someone does something rude or dangerous on the road, about 85 per cent say you should just wave an apology and drive on, even if it's not your fault,'' Aitchison says. ''In reality that doesn't happen. About 47 per cent have verbally abused another driver in response to rude or dangerous driving.''
About 54 per cent said they had been verbally abused by another driver.
Michelle Ferlazzo was driving to the city on a Saturday night this month to pick up a friend when an encounter with an angry young man left her shaken.
Ferlazzo tooted the car in front of her at the corner of Royal Parade and Grattan Street in Carlton after it failed to take off when the light changed.
The driver, a young P-plater, let loose a stream of foul-mouthed abuse.
''He started yelling at me across his passenger. 'What do you think you're doing you f------ bitch? The lights were green for two seconds. What's your f------ problem?'''
Given so many of us are behind the wheel, it should not be so difficult to be more understanding, Aitchison says.
''There are tens of thousands of people on the road at the same time as us, we're all just trying to get somewhere, all trying to find a gap we can get into … and we all tend to just take it personally and think it's directed at us. But you've got to take a step back and look at the big picture.
''It's going to slow you down maybe three seconds and it's nothing personal.''