Interstate 95 winds past Main Street Station in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)
We’ve been a cantankerous, rude, anxious bunch over the past 2 1/2 years, ever since the pandemic consumed us. That’s understandable – and not exactly news.
What is news, and dangerous for anyone driving along highways in Virginia, are the number of shootings and other road-rage incidents plaguing those trips. We’re taking our personal traumas and stress out on anyone who gets within striking distance.
This is all part of the nastiness and assault – on service employees, health-care workers and everyday folks – that exploded after March 2020. Family members of coronavirus patients threatened doctors and nurses. Violent airline passengers punched or otherwise attacked attendants and ticket agents as the latter tried to enforce rules, often involving masks. School board meetings became textbook displays of ugliness.
My part of the state, Hampton Roads, suffered three nighttime shootings on local highways last week. No one was killed, but the Virginia State Police reported injuries. Earlier this month, a shooting on I-95 in Richmond left a man seriously hurt and his car riddled with bullets.
Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the State Police, told me there has been a steady increase in freeway shootings over the past few years, from 47 in 2018 to 74 last year.
Since the start of 2022, State Police have reported 34 interstate shootings in the commonwealth, she said by email. The carnage included one slaying on Interstate 85 in Dinwiddie County in mid-April. Raeqwon C. Hinton, a 25-year-old Petersburg resident and music producer, died in the early morning shooting.
Sgt. Michelle Anaya, spokeswoman for the agency’s Chesapeake Division, told The Virginian-Pilot she didn’t think the Hampton Roads freeway shootings were connected. She instead attributed them to an uptick in aggressive driving since the COVID-19 lockdown.
“It is very common now for troopers to pull people over for speeding in triple digits,” she told The Pilot. “In the past, every once in a while you’d get someone speeding over 100; now it’s three to four tickets a day for someone speeding between 100 and 130.”
I’m amazed the speeders were even able to control their cars. They certainly didn’t care about anyone else who was on the road.
Among the shootings last week was one on I-264 in Portsmouth the night of July 6. A dark sedan pulled alongside the driver of another car and someone began firing. The driver who was shot at lost control, and his car ran off the roadway into the tree line at an off ramp, police said. The male victim suffered non-life threatening injuries.
As I write this, no one had been arrested in the three Hampton Roads shootings.
What is accelerating so much enmity and violence, often for strangers? An article in The Atlantic this year suggested stress; increased consumption of alcohol and abuse of drugs; and lingering isolation.
Scott Debb, assistant professor of psychology at Norfolk State University, said being cut off suddenly in traffic or nearly avoiding an accident can trigger a fight-or-flight response in motorists. “Some people can calm down. There’s no immediate threat,” Debb told me. “Some people don’t do so great with that.”
That’s an understatement.
The aggrieved can honk horns, raise the middle-finger salute, or spew venom at other people on the roadways. They’ll pursue other cars or slow down in front of them.
Debb said that since COVID-19, “People are in a differ mindset because of this global, shared” crisis. Add onto that the increasing political polarization, he added, and we’re rife for interpersonal conflict.
Bryan Porter is a psychology professor and associate dean of Old Dominion University’s Graduate School, and he’s studied driving safety for years. I’ve interviewed him plenty of times, often about red-light running.
“When a recession occurs, roadway fatalities go down,” he told me Wednesday. COVID started that way, too. But what made COVID so surprising is the fatality rate “went up, not down.”
He contends that motorists should fear road rage less than other factors affecting safety. For example, seat-belt use in Virginia last year was just 81.7 percent, the lowest rate since 2016. (Porter is paid to collect the state data.)
Put your phone down, Porter also advised: “Distracted driving is the next roadway pandemic. It’s a significant crash factor. It’s pernicious.”
Freeway shootings or intentional crashes aren’t new, obviously. I covered a road-rage slaying more than 30 years ago in Detroit. A teen riding with the 16-year-old victim on a city freeway said he didn’t know why the guys in the other car pulled alongside; one person then fired several shots, killing Raymond Brown.
Yet, such incidents often draw outsized attention because they can be horrendous.
I’m thinking of the 6-year-old boy shot dead in California last year after his mother, Joanna Cloonan, flipped off a couple in another car. Her gesture came after the couple cut off Cloonan’s car. Police later arrested a man and woman in the slaying.
Now is the time for defensive driving. For obeying speed limits, keeping our middle digits to ourselves, and merging with reason.
We’ve all been through a lot. We’ve had family members die. We’ve lost jobs.
Let’s chill the heck out when behind the wheel. And give wide berth to those who won’t.
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