Police Home In on Aggressive Drivers Again

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006

Speeders, tailgaters and red-light runners -- you're on notice. The Smooth Operator program wants to snare you this summer.

Targeting aggressive driving, Smooth Operator is a public safety campaign featuring four week-long waves of increased traffic enforcement on the region's interstates and other highways. The roving crackdown involves 90 police agencies in Virginia, Maryland, the District and -- starting this year -- Pennsylvania. The first wave of increased enforcement was in May; the second began Sunday and ends tomorrow.

"It's hot out here today," said Fairfax County police Capt. Jesse Bowman, standing in the broiling sun yesterday for an interagency news conference near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. "But it's going to get a lot hotter for aggressive drivers in Virginia."

Vehicle patrols increase during heightened enforcement waves, police said, and officers are redeployed to target areas where accidents and moving violations occur most.

Smooth Operator defines aggressive driving "as a combination of unsafe and unlawful driving actions which demonstrate a conscious and willful disregard for safety." Since the program's inception in 1997, police say, they've issued 1.5 million citations for aggressive driving.

A broad array of moving violations count toward that figure, though -- including speeding, changing lanes improperly and failing to stop at a stop sign. Some participating agencies, such as the Prince William County police, count the failure to use seat belts or child safety seats in tallying up yearly citations for aggressive driving.

Aggressive driving is not to be confused with road rage -- violent driver confrontations that police say are often precipitated by incidents of aggressive driver behavior. Still, aggressive driving is a more common, pernicious phenomenon, resulting in two-thirds of all highway deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In a transportation poll by AAA Mid-Atlantic in 2003, eight out of 10 motorists said aggressive drivers were "a greater danger than terrorists."

The region's rapid growth and heavily congested roads have also led to worsening driver behavior, according to police. Bowman likens driving in Fairfax to a "cattle stampede" and says the county has more than 100 accidents a day.

Agencies participating in the Smooth Operator program consider it a success, though its impact is difficult to gauge. Fifty-five percent of the region's drivers report that aggressive driving is getting worse, according to a survey conducted for Smooth Operator by Riter Research Inc., and 39 percent have seen no difference.

"The motoring public is aware of the program, and they support it," said Lt. C.D. Miller of the Maryland State Police. "Hopefully, it'll lead to more voluntary compliance."

Two more waves of increased regional enforcement are scheduled for July 23 to 29 and Aug. 27 to Sept. 9. Radio and television ads about the program are targeted at men 18 to 34, the population group with the biggest penchant for aggressive driving. Smooth Operator's advertising blitz also partly hopes to offset the impact of such films as "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" that glorify illegal street racing.

Justin Arab, a 25-year-old from Virginia Beach who's just moved to Woodbridge, agreed that the summer blockbuster was likely to inspire imitators. Arab said that he's a reformed aggressive driver and enforcement campaigns such as Smooth Operator give him pause. "It makes you think about not losing your license," he said.

Rush hours tend to bring out the worst in the region's drivers, said Francisco Vasquez, 40, of Wheaton. "People need to leave earlier for work. Then they wouldn't race so much," he said.

Lisa Smith, 46, a Fredericksburg resident who delivers fruit all over the region and racks up more than 1,000 miles a week on her vehicle. "I deal with the results of aggressive driving every day in the form of accidents and unnecessary delays," she.

"People drive as if they want to be there yesterday," Smith said, "and our roads are not equipped to handle all these problems."

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