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About a month ago, I was driving behind a big truck on a major east-west thoroughfare in south Denver. Because I don’t like being unable to see around the vehicle in front of me, I flicked on my blinker and eased into the right lane. Almost immediately after I settled in my new lane, the truck shifted over, once again in front of me, blocking my view. I parried with my blinker, checked both rearview and driver-side mirrors, and moved back to the left lane again.
In terms of driving etiquette, it was a perfectly safe move. It was also legal, and so I didn’t think anything of it, until I saw a large pickup truck bearing down on me. He got right up on my bumper and was banging his hands on his steering wheel and screaming like a baseball manager who was looking to get ejected. We got to a red light, and he continued his histrionics. It would have been comical—where was he going in such a rush?! And would he have gotten there faster if he’d just been in front of me?! Would he not have gotten stuck at this red light?!—had it not been so disconcerting.
If you’ve been on the road lately in the Mile High City, you may have experienced something akin to this. You might have had someone tailgate you while yelling at you. You may have had someone pull up beside you, slow down, and give you a nasty glare or the middle finger. You may have been crossing the street as a pedestrian with a walk sign, only to have a car peel out after you’ve passed it, as if somehow, by legally crossing the street, you’d inconvenienced them. You may have been on I-70 or I-25 and seen cars racing and weaving in and out of traffic, like they were in the Fast & Furious. You may have been on the highway and watched a car cross three or four lanes to get to an exit. I have seen all of these things in recent months.
Some of this may not come as a surprise. People drove less during the pandemic, and the roads were often blissfully free of vehicles. So perhaps an increase in traffic combined with people who have been mostly isolated for more than a year is a reasonable explanation for some of this behavior, according to Samuel Cole, traffic safety communications manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). People are frustrated; people might not have been behind the wheel much over the past 16 months; and everything—everything—seems just a little bit harder than it was before the pandemic.
But you might be surprised to learn that Colorado had a road rage problem before COVID-19. A Fox31/KDVR article from May of this year notes, “According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2018 Colorado ranked as the second deadliest state per capita for road rage incidents.” The second deadliest state in the nation. That statistic should give you pause: It’s both scary and somewhat confounding, especially given the laid back nature of Colorado’s populace. As Cole puts it, “It begs the question of overall civility in our society. Is that something that’s going by the wayside?”
Cole tells the story of his colleague, Tamara Rollison, a CDOT communications manager, who not long ago went for a hike in the mountains. The folks on the trail were friendly and courteous, but when Rollison got in her car to head back home, things changed. While driving on a winding, rocky, dirt road, Rollison was tailgated by a vehicle. The driver, a male, passed Rollison with his window rolled down, and angrily yelled at her. He then sped off, only to pass another car on the four-wheel-drive road, which had steep embankments. Rollison’s time in Colorado’s wilderness could not have been more different from the experience she had once she got behind the wheel of her car.
She’s not alone. Indeed, the Colorado State Patrol (CSP) gets roughly 80,000 calls related to road rage each year. That means the question is when, not if, you’ll experience someone losing it behind the wheel.
That spurred the CSP to produce a podcast episode this past spring about road rage in which it identified the three best ways to try to avoid angering other motorists. The first is to not drive in the left lane on the highway; it is legally a passing lane, so you shouldn’t camp out there driving 60 mph, lest you have someone pull up on your rear bumper and start screaming obscenities at you. The second is to alternate cars when merging into the same lane, which keeps traffic flowing and cuts down on road rage. The third, of course, is not to follow too close to the car in front of you. Not only is it extremely dangerous, but it also really makes people very, very mad.
Cole says he spends a lot of time thinking about how to deal with those irate drivers. He posts information about it on CDOT’s social media channels. He also puts up reminders on the digital message boards you frequently see on Colorado highways, such as “Get cut off—shake it off” and “Anger leads to danger—stay calm.”
Those sentiments are shared by those who work at CSP. “We hope that [people experiencing road rage] can go be adults and diffuse their anger and frustration in a healthy way,” says Sergeant Blake White of CSP, “like going and working out, listening to classical music, and breathing. But sometimes these adults don’t have that in them, and they let it out in unhealthy ways. Sometimes that manifests as road rage. But, again, does that matter [to you]? No. Let that person continue, and let it roll off your back. We can move past this.”
(Read More: What Denver’s Traffic Looked Like More Than a Century Ago)