Police say disengage, don’t escalate with aggressive drivers

Anyone who drives on a regular basis has seen it all before – many have probably even done it.

Hovering on the rear bumper of a slow-moving car. Blasting the high-beams in someone’s rear-view mirror after being cut off on the Interstate. Speeding erratically in between cars without so much as a flick of the turn signal.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines aggressive driving as “an individual commits a combination of moving traffic offenses so as to endanger other persons or property.”

A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that potentially aggressive actions such as tailgating, erratic lane changing or illegal passing are a factor in up to 56 percent of fatal crashes. A separate study examined more than 10,000 reported cases of road rage incidents over seven years, finding they resulted in at least 200 murders and more than 12,600 injury cases.

Last week, a York County trial was laced with allegations of aggressive driving on both sides of the case. A Rock Hill man was accused of tailgating a woman who was driving slowly, shining a bright light into her truck’s mirrors and pointing a gun at the driver and her son. The victim testified she started following the truck to get its tag number.

Jurors found the defendant, a former sheriff’s deputy, not guilty on charges of pointing and presenting a firearm and impersonating a police officer. During a recorded interview that was played in court, he told investigators he was frustrated with how slowly the truck was traveling, and became afraid after the victim started following him and laid on her horn for what he said was at least 10 seconds.

Officer Justin Cook, of the Rock Hill Police Traffic Enforcement Division, urges anyone who encounters an aggressive driver to disengage from the situation, first and foremost.

“If you can turn off the road and separate yourself from that, that’s ideal,” he said. “That’s not always the case though.”

If it’s not possible to disengage, Cook said, call law enforcement and be prepared to provide information about the other driver, their car, tag number and direction of travel.

“If you can stay on the phone with police, that’s important as well because it’s going to give the responding officers a better idea of where you are and where they (the other driver) are,” he said. “Instead of just saying, ‘I’m at this intersection or that intersection,’ and then five minutes go by – who knows where you’re going to be at that point?”

Similar action should be taken if you feel like you’re being followed, Cook said.

“Obviously, you don’t want to stop at your house,” he said. “If you need to keep driving to verify they’re following you, do that. If you have a good feeling you are being followed, it goes back to ‘call the police, stay on the phone with them, let them know where you are.’”

Another option is driving directly to a police department, fire department or other public place.

Cook advised against stopping, or confronting, an aggressive driver.

“They might have a gun, they might be under the influence of something and not in their right mind,” he said. “A lot of people have anger issues, especially from that kind of situation.”

Cook said police often get calls about road rage incidents during which one driver points a gun at another, which could result in a felony charge.

“You don’t know what the person in the other car is thinking,” he said. “If you point a gun at somebody just as a deterrent, they might see that and pull their own gun. It’s serious business at that point; that’s the kind of stuff that gets people killed.”

Retaliating against an aggressive driver could also have legal implications if law enforcement witnesses it.

“If the police do end up coming out, you don’t want to be looked at as the offender,” Cook said. “It might have started off innocent enough. It might have started off you were the one being followed, you did nothing wrong. But ultimately, when you get out of the car and confront them, the table’s turned and you can be looked at as the suspect at that point and get yourself arrested.”

Teddy Kulmala: 803-329-4082, @teddy_kulmala