Cracking down on reckless drivers

"The vehicles they drive might vary, but the behavior aggressive drivers exhibit is a stressful constant that rattles other motorists and creates a domino effect of ill will on the freeways.Law enforcement personnel in Kitsap County have heard countless complaints about reckless motorists. In response, they’ve put in service an unmarked, inconspicuous vehicle driven by a trooper whose job is to find aggressive drivers and stop them. “Kitsap County State Patrol is currently embarking on an aggressive ‘drive friendly’ campaign,” said Trooper Glen Tyrrell, spokesman for the state patrol.Trooper Steve Gardner drives the unmarked vehicle from South Kitsap County near the Pierce County line through the Gorst curves to Bremerton watching for aggressive drivers. The state patrol has identified the area extending 10 miles around Gorst as a strategic zone — an area where troopers respond to the highest number of collisions. “Mostly, we get improper lane changes — people squeezing into where they can’t fit — and following too close,” Gardner said.The drive-friendly campaign is intended to target four goals: reducing drunk driving, reducing speed-related collisions, boosting seat belt use and decreasing the incidence of road rage and aggressive driving.To combat a growing, statewide aggressive driving problem, the State Patrol and the Washington Traffic Safety Commission in the late 1990s teamed up to create the Aggressive Driver Apprehension Team. The State Patrol’s Bremerton office rotates troopers into aggressive driver patrol duty, with one trooper serving on the team at a time.Both entities contribute funding and keep track of data to determine where problem areas are and how to quell them. “ADAT was created to address the citizen calls for stricter enforcement of road laws,” Tyrrell said.Aggressive driving usually manifests itself in congested areas where speeds vary from just at the speed limit to 10 or 20 miles per hour over it.An impatient driver gets stuck behind someone driving the speed limit and tailgates to make a point, accelerating right up onto someone’s bumper and riding there. The aggressive driver speeds, swerves around people and cuts them off, generally making driving miserable for everybody else stuck in the same traffic.Troopers who pull people over for aggressive driving document the incidents, coding and recording them in a database from which law enforcement personnel can collate and compare traffic and collision information.Following an aggressive driver call or stop, the State Patrol will send written notification of the infraction to the driver’s residence. If they’re close enough, troopers might drop by in person. The point, Tyrrell said, is to emphasize to people that police take aggressive driving seriously.Typically, drivers stopped for aggressive driving are cited for a litany of traffic infractions, including negligent or reckless driving, failing to use turn signals, speeding, driving illegally in the high-occupancy vehicle lane and failing to wear a seat belt. Fines are expensive to create a significant emotional event — and financial impact — to help people realize the importance of obeying road rules.There is a subtle distinction between aggressive driving and road rage.Aggressive driving is simply driving in such a way that could endanger other drivers or property. Aggressive driving usually involves speeding or driving too fast for conditions, tailgating, passing and cutting other motorists off. There needn’t be another motorist on the road for an act of aggressive driving to occur. Flying around the curves on a winding rural road, paying little heed to center or fog lines, for example, would be considered aggressive driving.Road rage, on the other hand, does involve another driver and is often the product of someone’s aggressive driving. The state patrol defines road rage as deliberate, violent behavior in response to a real or perceived act of aggression from another driver.On the road April 13, Gardner scanned the freeway several car lengths ahead, trying to determine if someone was being harangued by an impatient driver. Frequently, he pointed to clusters of cars behind a slower vehicle, all following too closely. Drivers following a slower car periodically veer over the fog line to see what the holdup is. As soon as another lane opens up, many swerve into it without signaling to barrel past the slower driver. When they do, Gardner charges in behind them, activating his lights to pull them to the side of the road.Reactions to the unmarked car vary. “Some are really upset because it’s unmarked. They don’t feel the State Patrol should be that sneaky,” he said. “Another guy said, ‘You got me.’ ”Gardner said he prefers to warn rather than cite, though he does what’s necessary to make people understand. “I use the least amount of enforcement necessary to get the point across. Some people, nothing gets the points across except a ticket; it’s money out of their wallet. But if I can get the point across with just talking, that’s what I’d rather do.“I hate people’s negative perception of police officers and I think a lot of times we bring it on ourselves. I try to leave a good impression,” he added.In his unmarked vehicle, Gardner said he has been the victim of aggressive driving. “I had a guy yesterday who was riding me so close, all I could see was his face,” he said.Heading eastbound on Highway 16, he pointed out a vehicle swerving out of the gore — the triangular buffer zone at on- and off-ramps that essentially allows on-coming drivers to adjust their speeds to the traffic — onto the highway behind a semi traveling in the lane closest to the ramp. “He probably thought that semi should have let him in,” Gardner said. “He waited until the end of the merge, didn’t signal and cut in right behind the truck.”He spotted a black BMW farther along following another driver too closely, then changing lanes without a signal before finally getting around the slower motorists and speeding away. He clocked the woman at 70 miles per hour and pulled her over. He gave her a warning and let her go. “She knew what she was doing,” he said. “She was daydreaming, driving to work.”After turning around just before the Pierce County line, Gardner fell in behind a white, older-model pickup truck heading westbound on Highway 16. The driver failed to slow through the Burley-Olalla intersection speed zone and had to hit his brakes to slow enough to allow another motorist to cross the intersection. The driver continued accelerating out of the speed zone up to 70 miles per hour, switched into the right lane behind someone driving too slow, then switched back to the left lane. Gardner pulled him over and gave him a warning.“Most of the following too close stuff would be avoided if people would just get to the right,” Gardner said. “There is a law in the state of Washington that you have to stay in the right lane except to pass.”But people have a natural tendency to dig in their heels if they feel bullied. If they’re driving the speed limit or a little faster in the left lane —commonly referred to as the “fast lane” — and someone behind them is practically climbing their bumper, flashing their lights and swerving over the fog line, they have a tendency to slow down to the speed limit and hold their ground.Which is the precisely the type of tense scenario that leads to acts of road rage.Gardner accelerated to catch up to a white, dual-rear-tire pick-up truck that was tailgating and speeding. The driver tailed a smaller white sedan before getting around and speeding through a 50-mile-per-hour zone. When Gardner pulled him over, the driver said the stop was “a wakeup call.”A few minutes later, Gardner pulled over a red pickup truck for speeding and following too closely. That driver was given a warning for the traffic infractions, but cited for failing to wear a seat belt. The Washington State Patrol adopted a zero-tolerance policy for failure to wear seat belts about a year ago. “We’re finding that a lot of minor property damage accidents are turning into injury collisions because people aren’t wearing a seat belt,” he said. While he finished up recording the data for a stop, a dispatcher radioed that a motorist had called in an aggressive driver heading northbound on State Route 3 through Gorst. Gardner let it go. Because there are so many acts of aggressive driving a day, he said, troopers have to choose their battles. Still, he races from incident to incident. Four hours pass like one as he pulls over motorist after motorist for committing slews of traffic infractions on their hurried way through increasing congestion. Tyrrell said little has changed on Kitsap County roads but the number of drivers. “We’ve always had these people,” he said. “There’s just more congestion.”Aggressive drivers keep Gardner hopping, particularly since he’s the only trooper currently patrolling for aggressive drivers. Every couple of months, troopers rotate the job.He said he would like to see the Aggressive Driver Apprehension Team grow to help address the increasing need. “I would like it to,” he said, accelerating to catch up to a speeding black Jeep. “I would like to see our department buy more everyday-looking vehicles, but, in the state of Washington, they like to see us.” "

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