States plan summer crackdowns on aggressive driving © Dave & Les Jacobs/Getty Images

The Basics

Honk if you're an aggressive driver

Then again, you may want to keep a low profile this summer. Several states are cracking down on drivers who may view their rude, risky behavior as justified.

By Joseph B. White, The Wall Street Journal

If heavy traffic, like on the I-495 beltway in Maryland, leads you to drive aggressively, you could get snared by this summer's crackdowns.

You've seen that driver. Maybe you've been that driver. The one who zooms past the speed limit, weaves from lane to lane, tailgates and even runs a stop sign or two.

Maryland and several other states -- Pennsylvania, Virginia and Georgia among them -- are out to get these aggressive drivers, particularly during the summer. (See "Which are the worst states for tickets?")

Under a program called Smooth Operator, police in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia will conduct weeklong blitzes this summer, ticketing motorists who indulge in aggressive driving. In Maryland, for example, getting written up can cost a driver up to $500.

Last year, police officers in the state wrote 207,000 tickets for aggressive driving, says Vernon Betkey, head of the state's highway safety agency. The most recent crackdown started this month.

Does it work?

So, do drivers become less aggressive when they know the law is watching? Data from Maryland suggest that stepped-up enforcement hasn't turned the tide.

In 1999, the state attributed 3,113 crashes to aggressive driving, or about 3.2% of all crashes. In 2008, Maryland linked 6,111 crashes, or about 6.4% of all crashes to aggressive driving.

Other studies show mixed results. A 2004 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study of two aggressive-driving enforcement campaigns -- one in Tucson, Ariz., and the other in Indianapolis. In 2000, crashes linked to aggressive driving in Indianapolis actually increased 6% during a six-month federally subsidized program called Rub Out Aggressive Driving. But in Tucson, aggressive-driving offenses decreased 8% during a similar six-month program.

The NHTSA study's authors expressed bewilderment over the results, which measured speed and crashes attributable to aggressive driving.

"Why didn't the considerable efforts of both programs have greater inhibiting effects on driving behavior?" the study's authors asked. "It is possible that the programs were more effective than indicated by the data presented here, but our measures are insensitive to the change in driving behavior. Or, perhaps we expect too much."

Perhaps we do. As a transplanted Detroiter who drives occasionally on the highways and byways of the Washington metro area, I frequently find myself thinking about some aggressive behavior to speed my trip. Highways in the Washington-Baltimore corridor are among the nation's most congested. It is a local custom to drive the speed limit -- or even a bit slower -- while in the passing lane.

Of course, those people are obeying the law. But they are also obstructing people who choose to drive a little faster -- maybe they're late, or maybe they have adopted the "limit plus 5 mph" approach to obeying the posted speed signs.

Continued: Road rage is different

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