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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Road Rage

Air Date: Week of

A recent study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, an anti-sprawl lobbying group in Washington, D.C., concludes that the lack of transportation alternatives contributes to aggressive driving. Steve Curwood talks with the executive director of the group, Roy Kienitz.


CURWOOD: Each year in the US more than 20,000 people are killed by reckless drivers. Many people have speculated on what causes aggressive driving, and often traffic congestion gets blamed. But in a recent study, crowded roadways and fatally aggressive driving were not linked. The study was conducted by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, an anti-sprawl lobbying group in Washington, DC. Executive Director Roy Kienitz says road rage is misunderstood.

KIENITZ: When you say aggressive driving, what people think of is: face turning red, pounding on the steering wheel, hitting the horn, and then doing something crazy. What we're finding is that a large number of the terrible accidents that lead to death are not caused by that so much. What they are caused by is the small aggressive incidents. Is: I'm in a hurry, I'm going to follow too close. This person in front of me is going too slow; I'm just going to zip around him on the right even though they might not see me doing it. It's not that there are these evil people out here who are doing it. This is one of these things where it's all of us. And if you put people in a system which doesn't allow them to get what they need, which is they have to drive 45 minutes every morning, the traffic is terrible, they're trying to get to home on time, and they just cut corners, that's really the type of thing that unfortunately leads to a lot of this.

CURWOOD: Now, you found that Boston has the lowest aggressive driving death rate in the country. I've got to admit, I'm surprised about this one. The Living on Earth studios are just across the river from Boston and drivers around here, I think they pride themselves on being the worst in the nation. I mean, how could Boston drivers be the safest?

KIENITZ: It's not because they're the nicest drivers. Everybody who knows Boston knows that it has a reputation for, let's say, some creative driving habits (Curwood laughs). But the city is built in such a way that that doesn't lead to the terrible consequences that it leads to in other places. There's a lot of people who are getting to work without being in their car, because they can walk, they can ride their bike, they can take public transportation. And the people who are in their cars are driving in a system which is much more oriented around the sharing the road space. And it's not only 60- and 70-mile an hour freeways and high-speed arterials in which one small mistake can lead to terrible consequences.

CURWOOD: Now, what did the cities with the most deadly aggressive drivers have in common?

KIENITZ: A total lack of alternatives to driving. I mean, these are places like Riverside, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Tampa, Florida. These are places where the car is king, where there's very little in the way of opportunity to walk, no sidewalks in half the communities, no place to walk to that's within a reasonable distance, and very little in the way of public transportation service. And that, of all the different factors we tested to try to explain the huge variation between cities, that is the one that had really the largest effect on the ultimate outcome.

CURWOOD: Isn't it part of the reason that places with better transit systems have fewer auto deaths simply because residents spend less time driving?

KIENITZ: Well, that's interesting. We looked at that question. Residents of the Boston area drive about 12% less than the average resident in the US. And that's because both people who just aren't in their cars because of public transit, and also because trip distances are shorter because it's a less sprawling, sort of more centralized community. But the aggressive driving death rate is 60% lower. A part of it is explained by simply fewer people on the road. But it's much more than that; it's really a structural thing about the nature of the community, that it promotes safe behavior.

CURWOOD: Now, even in Boston, where public transportation is pretty ample, most commuters, they do choose to drive. Why do you suppose that is?

KIENITZ: Well, we're swimming against the tide here to some degree. The budget for automobile advertising just on television and radio is more than the budget of every public transportation system in the United States put together. The more people who are sold on the freedom of the car, then the roads are more crowded. There's more demand to build new roads. The more new roads you build, there's more demand to build new subdivisions at the end of the new road. The more people live in the new subdivision, the harder it is to get them to do something else and use some other forms of transportation. And we've been going through this vicious cycle now for 50 years. There's a lot of places that are starting to go back in the other direction and realize the value of the older communities, core downtowns, there's a lot more development going there. So, I really see room for optimism here. But we're swimming against a very strong tide.

CURWOOD: Roy Kienitz is Executive Director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. Thanks for joining us.

KIENITZ: Thank you, Steve. It was my pleasure.



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