Northern Virginia drivers are becoming more:

a) impatient.

b) disrespectful of people and laws.

c) aggressive.

d) dangerous.

The answer is all of the above, according to Fairfax County judges, police and court officials.

"It's scary," said General District Court Judge Stewart P. Davis. "I've seen more and more of it -- people getting out [of their vehicles] slapping each other, hitting each other. It's just getting more frequent . . . . People losing their cool."

"The fact is that the people are out fighting each other on the roads of Northern Virginia," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney David Field, who has prosecuted several of the cases.

What is driving people over the edge?

There are about as many theories as there are cars. But judges and law enforcement authorities say they believe that traffic is driving people a little crazy. Some said the behavioral change in drivers reflects the growing frustration over Northern Virginia's No. 1 problem.

And when the roadway warfare lands them in court, they seem out of their element, said Davis. "You're talking about people with responsible jobs . . . . These people aren't fighters. They're otherwise good people who lose it."

"All walks of life, top to bottom," agreed J. Conrad Waters Jr., the new chief judge of General District Court in Fairfax. "Fists. Words. Damaging of the property. One or both cars. There've been weapons used."

Instead of the old-fashioned methods of venting frustration -- fuming or yelling out the window -- some motorists are dueling with their cars, said Stephen M. Bennett, chief deputy clerk of the General District Court.

"Years ago, people would vent their feelings by gesturing with the middle finger," said Bennett. "That doesn't seem to do it anymore."

District Court Clerk Catharine K. Ratiner said there has been a surge in the number of assault cases. Although the court does not keep specific figures on highway incidents, Ratiner said she has noticed at least two or three major cases each week. Such cases would have been rare several years ago, she said.

Judges cited the recent case of the impatient woman who thought the driver in front of her was moving too slowly, and then proceeded to step out of her car and punch the driver in the face at the first red light. They also noted the case of the driver who bumped the car ahead of him three times because the other driver would not change lanes.

The freeway fighter, a close cousin of the red-light runner whose habits have prompted crackdowns in the Washington area, does not always get physical, however. Sometimes he or she just leans on the horn a little longer or simply ignores the rules of the road, law enforcement officers said.

Virginia state Trooper R. Cofer, a 12-year veteran, said that in past years it was only an occasional impatient driver who would use the shoulder to escape traffic congestion. Now, it is not unusual to see a whole line of traffic driving down the shoulder, Cofer said, adding, "They'll get mad at us for stopping them from getting where they're going."

Fairfax County Police Officer Perry L. Knicely, who works the Tysons Corner area, said an increasing number of people seem to be fighting traffic charges in court.

Knicely has noticed other forms of aggression in the concrete combat zone. "I can't tell you the times I get calls to go to a house [from someone] reporting another driver."

Judge Davis says that is what amazes him the most: The number of cases where there has been no accident, no contact between cars at all, but where an irate motorist tries to swear out a warrant for a stranger's arrest.

Judges, police and other observers are quick to offer a range of theories for the increasing hostility on the highways:

"Maybe it has something to do with people not getting satisfaction from what they do all day long," said Ratiner. They battle the traffic to get to an unfulfilling job in the morning, she said, and then they battle it back home in the evening.

"It's an urban situation here," said Judge Waters. "It's very, very congested. People are under a lot of pressure, and they're in a hurry . . . . It's just how you manifest your frustration."

"Every American truly believes that he is the world's finest driver," said Robert F. Horan Jr., Fairfax County commonwealth's attorney. "And the flip side of that coin is that everybody else is a bad driver." Horan said it would be a "psychologist's delight" to examine the "churning insides of American drivers."

Angela Burke, a clinical psychologist at North Texas State University, has studied traffic safety and has noticed a big difference in manners on the highway. Burke said people feel anonymous when they climb into their cars -- in their own little world.

"People kind of feel that they are not readily identifiable," said Burke. "They don't have to be polite and sweet to strangers."

General District Court Judge Richard T. Horan and his fellow judges said motorists should think twice before they challenge the Volvo or the Honda or the Ford. You never know who or what is inside, they said. Some motorists are carrying weapons -- including stun guns, firearms, tire irons, fists, feet -- the judges said.

All point to a worst-case scenario that occurred in 1971 involving a Navy lieutenant commander and his family who were traveling on Columbia Pike toward Annandale, returning home from the Fourth of July fireworks display on the Mall.

A car began tailgating the family, then passed their car and cut them off, according to prosecutor Horan.

The lieutenant commander leaped out of his car at a nearby stoplight and began scolding the driver of the other vehicle, said Horan.

The occupants of the car climbed out, beat the Navy officer and his eldest son, and then fatally shot both in the head, said Horan.

"It's frightening," said Ratiner. "If I see someone on the highway make a face, I'll just let him."