January 9, 1998
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Aggressive Driving: Is There a Solution?
Duane A. Thompson
Analyst in Transportation Safety
Science, Technology, and Medicine
Courtesy on the highway has long been punctuated with a flaring of tempers and
the needless exchange of obscene gestures. Although any aggression detracts from the
demanding full-time job of defensive driving, these episodes usually passed without
altercation. But many drivers now use their cars as weapons, or even worse, carry
firearms on America’s highways, purportedly for defense against aggressive drivers.
Unfortunately, there appear to be few options to address this growing issue short of
enacting and enforcing much more punitive measures to remind all operators that
driving is a privilege, not a right. States, with the help of federal agencies, have offered
insights on how to identify aggressive drivers and avoid them. Pending federal
legislation (re-authorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act,
section 402) provides for cost sharing of countermeasures to address this pressing
Aggressive driving is not new. In the 1950's, younger drivers played “chicken” by
aiming their cars at each other to see which one would swerve first to avoid a collision.
Within the last few years, however, aggressive driving has escalated, has involved older
drivers, and has taken on new and deadlier proportions. For example, about one year ago,
the Washington, D. C. community was stunned by the behavior of two drivers on the
George Washington Parkway during morning rush hour. In an attempt to race and outmaneuver each other on the highway, the two vehicles caused a four-car collision
resulting in the needless deaths of three people. Although the surviving driver was
sentenced to prison, he admitted no culpability during the trial. Other horror stories
include exchanges of gunfire between drivers, and drivers using their vehicles as battering
rams against other cars and pedestrians.
There are no accurate statistics on episodes of aggressive driving. Many pass
unnoticed except for the drivers involved, do not result in traffic citations, and do not
cause vehicle crashes, death, or injury. But the agency responsible for tracking these
incidents (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)) claims that
aggressive driving has become one of the more pressing highway-safety issues. Before
the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, House Committee on Transportation and
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Infrastructure, Dr. Ricardo Martinez, director of NHTSA, testified that, during 1996,
41,907 people died and over three million more were injured in police-reported crashes.
The agency estimated that about one-third of these crashes and about two-thirds of the
resulting fatalities can be attributed to behavior associated with aggressive driving.1
What Causes Aggressive Driving
Aggressive driving can be traced to a number of factors. The automobile appears to
have become an instrument for more people, who might otherwise act courteously, to
engage in this potentially lethal behavior. Automobiles can act as a “great equalizer” of
all types of people.
Also, the highways are becoming more congested, which, in turn, is generating more
confrontations among drivers and stretching their patience. In his testimony, Dr. Martinez
stated that, since 1987, the number of miles of roads in the United States has increased
only one percent while the number of vehicle miles driven has increased by 35 percent.
Finally, there appears to be a correlation between aggression on the road and the
consumption of alcohol or other controlled substances.
What Is Being Done
NHTSA has addressed aggressive driving on several fronts by: (1) cooperating with
the states to synchronize traffic signals and eliminate backups and irritating congestion;
(2) cooperating on other programs to monitor traffic flow and devise technologies to
move traffic more efficiently; (3) encouraging stiff penalties for aggressive driving where
it can be clearly identified; (4) promoting the reduction of “blood alcohol concentration”
limit (defining intoxication) from 0.1% to 0.08%; and (5) launching a public awareness
program to help responsible drivers identify aggressive drivers and avoid confrontation.2
The agency has also asked for re-authorization of section 402 of the Intermodal
Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). Section 402 is designed, through cost
sharing, to encourage countermeasures for aggressive and other undesirable driving. For
example, the program was used in part to fund ($100,000) the “smooth operator” initiative
for suburban Washington, D.C. In addition to educating the public, NHTSA, through the
402 program, is assisting other states in identifying aggressive drivers, largely by using
unmarked surveillance vehicles on the highways. At least one other state, New York, is
participating in a surveillance program.
Statement of the Honorable Ricardo Martinez, M.D., Administrator, National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration before the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation of the House
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, July 17, 1997, available at
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, Are
You An Aggressive Driver or a Smooth Operator, available at: