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Classes Help Steer Angry Drivers to Better Behavior

July 25, 2001|PHUONG LY | WASHINGTON POST

Chris thinks he's a nice person, and most people who know him would agree. The 35-year-old business consultant is polite to strangers and speaks lovingly of his wife. He volunteers in his Arlington, Va., neighborhood, particularly on the traffic committee because he worries that speeding cars will hurt small children.

But get him into his Honda Prelude--especially when he's late for a meeting--and watch out.

His eyes narrow and his fists clench. Every car in front of him is an obstacle. Each narrow space is a way to slip through and speed ahead.

Twice, police caught Chris, who didn't want his last name used because he didn't want to be associated with bad attitudes. Then an Arlington traffic judge ordered him to take an anger management class, the latest response to what has become a cause celebre of the past several years.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that reckless driving causes about two-thirds of all fatal accidents.

Police agencies are stepping up enforcement. Nearly 42,000 citations were issued during two weeks of the Washington area's Smooth Operator program in May and June.

"We've got to look at changing their behavior and making the highways safer," said Deputy Chief John Haas of the Arlington County police.

And to do that, courts and safety advocates increasingly are turning to psychotherapy and awareness classes, though little data exists on their effectiveness.

In June, Arlington judges began ordering people to pay $150 for a 12-hour anger management class run by psychologist Steven Stosny. In the fall, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration will refer to Stosny repeat offenders--those with five points on their records--from Prince George's and Montgomery counties. In the District of Columbia, some drivers are sent to a class called "RoadRageous," which also is being used in other parts of the country.

Behavioral psychologist Frederick Marsteller said he expects that the small percentage of people who come with antisocial or borderline behavior won't benefit much. But most people will change their attitudes at least a little, said Marsteller, who lives near Atlanta and has done research on the effectiveness of drunken-driving and addiction programs for state courts.

"Most people aren't antisocial personalities and very commonly do things that they're just not paying attention to," Marsteller said. "If they realize the consequences, then they can change." He said changing aggressive drivers is probably easier than changing drunk drivers. Aggressive driving usually is a spontaneous reaction, whereas drunken driving involves more deep-seated problems such as alcoholism.

Like Chris, the nine people attending a Stosny class recently had at least one form of reckless driving citation. They did not think of themselves as bad drivers, but they asked not to be identified publicly to protect their reputations.

One man, 19, said other drivers were to blame for his on-the-road behavior. He wondered aloud: Why can't he just take down the tag numbers of people who tick him off, and beat them up later?

"I guess they're trying to make everyone conform to slow driving," said Chris. He said that he can look at maps and tune the radio while driving at or above the speed limit, and that it's not his fault other people can't.

"On the road, I look at things as obstacles. I'd like to be there in one second, but there are all these people in front of me and all these rules and the speed limit. You're just thinking that you're being attacked, like a squirrel in the corner."

Deep in a church basement in Arlington, Stosny led the group in a chant. It was supposed to help them stay calm, even if another motorist drives like a jerk.

"I forgive myself for feeling disregarded, unimportant, devalued and powerless when the driver cut me off," the seven men and two women repeated.

"I forgive myself for feeling disregarded, unimportant, devalued and powerless when the driver tailgated me."

Stosny teaches what he calls "Compassion Power."

He tells people that in getting angry, they're letting someone else control their emotions, that those who value themselves think their emotional well-being and safety are more important than tailgating the driver who just cut them off.

Stosny, who also teaches domestic abusers ordered to attend his classes, said similar therapy methods work on both groups because both blame their behavior on others.

"You're never going to see those people again. You don't see a person; you are dealing with a machine. It's just like a video game," Stosny said.

Social pressures through public ad campaigns also can help change attitudes, Marsteller said. Cases in point: anti-smoking and drunken-driving campaigns.

"As fewer people smoke cigarettes or drive stupidly, fewer will start and more will quit," Marsteller said. "Once people are given the information as to what's in their best interest, they will pursue it." Data on Stosny's classes are being collected, and the classes might be expanded.

During the last class session, Stosny asked students to think of a recent scenario in which they tried to do things differently.

Chris said that he is trying to slow down but that it's hard when he's running late. "I'm focusing on the fact that there are other people out there besides me," he said.

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