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Inland Empire Leads in Fatal Road Rage

Safety: Survey indicates that sprawl of suburbs and long commutes lead to dangerously aggressive driving.

March 09, 1999|LARRY GORDON and TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Rage and frustration among long-distance commuters in the Riverside-San Bernardino area turn into roadway death at a higher rate than in any other major metropolitan region in the nation, according to a new study of dangerously aggressive driving.

The sprawl of suburbs and the relative lack of mass transit in the Riverside-San Bernardino area trigger deadly speeding, tailgating and red-light jumping at a rate more than double that in the region consisting of Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to the report released Monday by the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

"We've always dealt with aggressive driving by telling drivers to calm down, but this study shows that aggressive driving may have more to do with where you live than how you feel," said Gloria Ohland, Southern California director of the Washington-based nonprofit organization.

Her group was founded in 1991 to strongly advocate better mass transit and to urge that jobs, housing and shopping be put closer together. It has close ties to prominent environmental organizations.

Riverside County Supervisor Tom Mullen painted a scenario of why some constituents, many of whom move there for affordable housing, drive so aggressively.

"Your family is 40 miles away, and you're driving one or two hours to get home after putting in 8 to 12 hours on the job, and you're tired and hungry, and you're worried about getting your kids to soccer or keeping the appointment with your child's teacher, or you just want to spend some quality time with your family. You're stuck in traffic," he said.

Nationwide, the 10 large metropolitan areas suffering the most fatalities from aggressive driving are mainly in the burgeoning Sun Belt and "are typically marked by many sprawling subdivisions and office parks that can only be reached by high-speed arterials, which are more dangerous for drivers as well as more frustrating for residents," the report said.

Not surprisingly, big cities with the lowest death rates connected to road rage tend to be older, more compact areas--such as Boston, New York and Minneapolis--with well-developed mass transit systems and street grids that are friendlier to pedestrians and bicycles.

The study, which was based on federal data, excluded auto deaths involving drugs or alcohol use and the relatively few, but widely publicized, road rage attacks involving weapons or beatings. It included accidents caused by speeding at more than 80 mph, as well as by tailgating, failing to yield, weaving, passing on the right, making improper lane changes and running stop signs and red lights.

The study found no significant increase in the numbers of such fatal accidents nationwide, but documented sharp regional differences.

Among 37 metropolitan areas of more than 1 million residents, the Riverside-San Bernardino region ranked first in the rate of deaths per 100,000 people caused by aggressive driving. The area's 178 such deaths in 1996, the most recent year for which statistics are available, translated into a rate of 13.4 per 100,000 people. The metropolitan area of Los Angeles and Orange counties combined recorded 728 deaths caused by aggressive driving that year, but its death rate of 6.0 ranked 15th in the listing. San Diego County, with 5.9, was 16th.

CHP Officer Randy Threet, who has been patrolling southern Riverside County for 11 years, said that many people who moved to the Inland Empire in recent years kept their jobs in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Speeders take advantage of less congested roads near home before or after they face the inevitable traffic jams closer to work.

"They open it up to make up for lost time. Everyone's doing 85 or 90 and it's a joke with officers that you're being really cheesy if you give someone a ticket for doing less than 80," he said.

Ironically, the slower, more congested freeways in Los Angeles and Orange counties may make driving there safer than in the Riverside-San Bernardino area, officials suggested. Crashes at slower speeds tend to be less deadly.

"The only reason we aren't ranked higher is because no one can get moving fast enough," said Gary Hausdorfer, chairman of NewTrac, a private transportation solutions group in Orange County.

Motorists throughout Southern California are reporting less frustration about their commutes in recent years, according to a survey by the Southern California Assn. of Governments. That may be because of increased use of carpool lanes and commuter trains and the human tendency to adjust to tough circumstances, said Cheryl Collier, the association's manager of Ride Share services.

"It's a funny thing here," she said. "People adapt to their commute."

The Metrolink commuter rail lines to San Bernardino and Riverside have shown strong growth since they began in 1993. In December 1998, the two lines served 252,789 passengers, an 85% increase over five years, officials reported.

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