An encounter that resembled a scene out of WrestleMania before it turned deadly alongside Interstate 5 was all the more shocking due to the captive audience that witnessed it.
Tacoma-area commuters, stuck in weekday traffic shortly before 5 p.m. Feb. 8, saw a sport utility vehicle trap a motorcycle next to the concrete barrier on southbound I-5 in Milton. They watched as the male SUV driver angrily confronted the female motorcyclist, initiated a fight, absorbed a head butt, slammed her head against the barrier, dragged her to the ground and began to climb on top of her.
Then they watched as the 60-year-old Roy man took a bullet to the chest and died on the side of the freeway, cars passing like some kind of surreal funeral procession.
The 23-year-old motorcyclist cooperated with authorities and wasn’t arrested, and prosecutors recently decided not to charge her with a crime. It’s hard to challenge that finding. As a rule, firearms and road rage make a terrible combination, but in this case the woman was licensed to carry a concealed pistol and entitled to use it for self-defense.
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But few who drove the freeway that evening will soon forget the impulsive cause of that hours-long traffic jam. Nor should we.
“This is another reminder to everyone to keep a cool head on our roads,” Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said in a statement after the charging decision. “Nothing good is going to come from physically confronting another driver.”
That’s an understatement worthy of a dozen amens.
The reminder is particularly timely now. The risks of slowdown showdowns increase with spring and summer driving season, a time marked by pavement projects, road trips, warmer temperatures, hot heads and self-righteous motorists more apt to step out of their vehicles to make a point that doesn’t need making.
Relative to the rest of the country, Washington doesn’t rage too hysterically. A scorecard by the road-safety research group Drive Human lists us as the eighth-safest state when it comes to aggressive-driving habits and road-rage incidents. (For your vacation planning, the worst states are New York, South Carolina and Arkansas.)
And yet explosive traffic encounters have grown more common across all society; the Washington State Patrol attributes it to high-tempo lifestyles and the value we place on our ever-shrinking time, especially as Puget Sounders endure some of the nation’s worst gridlock.
AAA reported in 2016 that two-thirds of drivers believe aggressive driving has accelerated compared to three years earlier. Even worse, the number of U.S. road disputes in which someone brandished or fired a weapon more than doubled during that period, according to an analysis by the Trace, a gun-safety nonprofit. (Road rage resulted in 136 firearm deaths in that span.)
The last thing Washington needs is for drivers to grow jaded and for the behavior to become normative. A theory in criminology, known as the “broken windows theory,” holds that the more people are exposed to an anti-social environment, the more likely it is to be tolerated in the future.
Nowadays perhaps we should call it “broken windshields theory.”
Methods for avoiding road rage are laced with common sense but worth a mental checklist: Plan ahead and allow time for inevitable delays; listen to soothing music or podcasts; move over if someone is tailgating you; use a humble wave to defuse a tense situation; leave all one-finger gestures holstered at all times.
And by all means, don’t get desensitized to the rage.
What happened on the southbound shoulder of I-5 in February should never be anything less than shocking.