Road Rage and You
A MO Look at Staying Alive in the Jungle.
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"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.
"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."
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."
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:
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.
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.