Relax, it’s Aspen … Now get out of my [expletive deleted] way!
October 31, 2007
Aspen is still a place where powder days trump billable hours and big-city problems like violent crime, and gangs are practically nonexistent.But the town is not immune to all urban diseases – road rage is on the rise.Characterized by any violent behavior in an automobile, “road rage” is a blanket term for everything from tailgating, weaving or cutting off other drivers to shouts, rude gestures, threats and even attacks, according to local law-enforcement officials.With increased traffic on Highway 82 and long waits during morning and evening rush hour in the bottleneck at the Entrance to Aspen, Colorado State Patrol officials report an increase in road-rage incidents. And local law-enforcement agents are becoming more vigilant.Raging on the Roaring Fork”[Highway] 82 is our No. 1 spot for road-rage calls,” said Sgt. David Kucera of the Colorado State Patrol, and the numbers are increasing.The state police dispatch center in Craig received 1,765 road-rage calls from January to September 2006. The Northwest Colorado district extends from Steamboat Springs to Mesa County and includes part of the Interstate 70 corridor, Highway 133 and Highway 82 as far as Aspen. Highway 82 boasts the most road-rage incidents of any highway in the district, Kucera said.And from January to September 2007, the number of road-rage calls districtwide increased by 21 percent to 2,134, Kucera said.Drivers cannot be charged with road rage, he added, but the term describes a range of offenses and types of behavior. Some road-rage incidents turn out to be drunk driving, Kucera said. Others result in charges for reckless driving, careless driving and criminal mischief.Police respond to some road-rage calls by writing tickets for aggressive driving, a total of 206 from January to October 2006 and 186 for the same period in 2007, Kucera said.
The prevalence of cell phones and the signs along Highway 82 asking people to “report road rage” might add to the number of calls, Kucera said. But he’s also convinced that there’s simply more overall anger on the road, that the calls reflect an increase in the number of frustrated drivers. Those SOVs in the HOVKim Vieira, a resident of Aspen Village, said she’s one of only a few who drive the speed limit along Highway 82.She is fed up with aggressive drivers hurtling down Highway 82, and said law-enforcement officials should do something about it.”They come right up to my bumper and they hang there, and they’re trying to push me,” Vieira said. “People are going crazy on the road. No one pays attention to the speed limits.”Vieira said a number of people have flipped her off, and she’s written several letters to the local newspapers calling for Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies to step up their patrols on Highway 82. Vieira believes the high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes on Highway 82 are at the root of the problem.”I don’t think the HOV lane works here,” Vieira said. “I understand it for large cities. Here it doesn’t work.”Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis agrees.Braudis said that frustration over high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane violators causes road-rage incidents along Highway 82.”There is an inordinate level of noncompliance with HOV. It’s becoming the prime reason for complaints,” Braudis said. “Our road-rage calls are coming from people who are observing cheaters.”Single-occupant vehicles illegally use the HOV lanes to pass long lines of cars backed up near Buttermilk Ski Area. And that’s where trouble often breaks out when frustrated drivers tailgate, drive aggressively and get into arguments, Braudis said.”The righteous people who follow the HOV [laws] are getting enraged when they see cars whiz by them in the HOV,” Braudis said. “Some people chase HOV offenders down and get out of the car and confront them.”
Most local road-rage incidents defuse or end up in simple arguments, Braudis said, adding that most locals are “too reasonable” to get into fistfights in traffic. But commuting in the Roaring Fork Valley is becoming a “corrosive experience,” with delays as long as an hour-and-a-half from Basalt to Aspen some days, the sheriff said.Peak frustrationsProsecuting road rage takes cooperation from citizens, Braudis said. When police aren’t present, sheriff’s deputies count on witnesses.”The caller has to be willing to identify the driver and appear in court,” Braudis said, but most witnesses who finger dangerous drivers say they aren’t willing to testify.Responding to recent complaints, Pitkin County deputies are patrolling Highway 82 for HOV offenders because so many are breaking the rules.Patrolling Highway 82 is an “elective” for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, Braudis said, adding, “We do it because the citizens deserve it and want it.”But even enforcing HOV might not have an effect, especially when the ticket is just $66 and costs no points on a driver’s license.”Sixty-six dollars is not a lot to some socioeconomic groups in Aspen,” Braudis said.Patrolling for HOV offenders is an experiment, Braudis said, and he’ll know from feedback in coming months whether it works.”I tell people to just slow down and let the other guy pass,” Braudis said. “My advice is chill out.”But road rage is a problem all across the state, Sgt. Kucera said. He remembers a call on Interstate 70 where a driver was tailgating. The lead driver purposely slammed on his brakes, causing an accident. Both drivers were ticketed, Kucera said.He also remembers cases where drivers were charged with assault for throwing things, but Kucera hasn’t heard of any traffic-related fistfights or assaults in the area.
“People who work upvalley have a tremendous commute, and tempers flare,” Kucera said.Sometimes a driver follows another too closely, drives too fast or makes unsafe lane changes and does not use a turn signal.”Those are the four major contributing factors,” Kucera said.Some road ragers react to slow-moving cars and people who have inadvertently delayed their progress, Kucera said.Kucera echoed Braudis’ frustrations over prosecuting road rage.When state officials receive a road-rage call, they sometimes catch the drivers in the act, Kucera said. More often, however, state patrol officers are spread far and wide across the Western Slope, and it’s up to citizen witnesses and local law agencies to prosecute road-rage cases.When police do not witness an incident, Kucera said they count on a reliable witness willing to testify.
Psychologyof rageRoad rage takes many forms, according to Bob Stark, a psychologist with Alpine Counseling in Glenwood Springs. Behaviors can range from violent confrontation and “brake jobs” – or cutting off other drivers – to obscene gestures and simple menacing looks.”It’s a way that a lot of people express frustration,” Stark said. “And they feel safe in doing that because they have a 3,000-pound vehicle around them.”Stark runs anger management programs, and suggested a number of techniques for managing rage, starting with basic breathing exercises or counting to 10.”Somebody that is just generally angry certainly is inclined to engage in aggressive behaviors,” Stark said.He teaches basic “cognitive skills” and ways to deal with basic frustration and anger by reframing a situation.”If somebody cuts me off in the roundabout, I have a choice of how I’m going to handle that,” Stark said. “I might talk myself into a rage and go run someone down.”People talk themselves into rage through a sort of spiral of negative thinking, Stark said. And the worst choice is to retaliate against another driver.”It’s actually a pretty dangerous behavior because you don’t know how the other person is going to respond,” Stark said. “You get into this tit-for-tat thing, and it ends up often times in a lethal incident.”Instead, Stark recommends drivers calm down, back off and get out of the way of another aggressive driver.”If someone is driving irresponsibly, don’t take it personally,” Stark said. “Let him go on his way.”Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.