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Answer Man: The Image of a Bad Driver

By John Kelly
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page C11

J ust what is the "aggressive driver imaging" that signs on the Beltway warn us about? Don't you think highway PR people should find a different word from "aggressive" to describe unsafe driving? In business, being aggressive is considered a GOOD thing. I can just see the tailgating CEO saying to himself or herself, "Yeah, I'm aggressive, and darn proud of it!"

How about signs that instead warn "Beware Stupid Drivers"? Or better yet, if it would fit: "Beware of Selfish Drivers Who'll Kill You and Your Kids in an Attempt to Shave Five Minutes Off Their Commute, Which Won't Work Anyway."

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Dot Lin, Bethesda

I was always very proud of our Maryland state line signs that read, "Maryland Welcomes You -- Please Drive Gently." It made me feel good to come back into the state of Maryland and know I was getting closer to home. Now I've noticed that some of the signs do not say "Please Drive Gently." Why not?

Christi Parnell, Aquasco

Gentleness. Aggression. Two sides of the same coin, each called for in different situations: brushing a child's hair vs. rooting out a brutal homegrown insurgency, say.

"We do a poll every year, and aggressive driving continues to be the number one thing that our members say that they believe most endangers their highway safety," said AAA Mid-Atlantic's Lon Anderson.

But what is aggressive driving, anyway? Answer Man thinks most of us would agree that -- as was once famously said about obscenity -- you know it when you see it.

Maryland goes further than that, articulating a specific definition for aggressive driving. It is driving in a manner that includes any three things from this list: running a red light; cutting off other vehicles; tailgating; passing on the right; ignoring lane markings; failure to yield right-of-way; exceeding the speed limit.

The penalty for aggressive driving in Maryland is $355, plus five points on your license. (Virginia also targets aggressive drivers but doesn't have a separate definition for the offense, including it under the all-purpose "reckless driving.")

So where does the "imaging" come in? It's a program started in 1997, said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse of the Maryland State Police, in which an unmarked police vehicle snaps a photo of your license plate. The plate is run through a computer, and the registration holder is sent a letter explaining that the vehicle was being operated in an unsafe (nay, an aggressive) manner.

Said Sgt. Rouse: "It's kind of like a Big Brother scenario: You're being watched."

Does it work? Hard to say.

It certainly made aggressive driving resonate with the public. A survey of 1,000 people before and after the program started revealed that awareness of the "aggressive driving problem" increased from 19 percent to 54 percent.


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