Program Soothes the Savage Driver

By Jack Wheat

The Miami Herald

Thursday, November 18, 1999 -- 

If you’re so aggressive on the mean streets of Miami that your road rudeness becomes a judicial issue, a dose of behavior modification therapy could be in your future.

 Miami-Dade is the nation’s first county to try aggressive driving classes for people who spend too much time in the company of police officers writing tickets, said Christopher Huffman, chief operating officer of the American Institute for Public Safety, the company that offers the course.

 The program is “RoadRageous,” a pilot project of the private AIPS and the 11th Judicial Circuit.

 In addition to assessing fines, Miami-Dade judges may now order repeat traffic offenders to attend an eight-hour class on how to curb antisocial behavior on the highways, said Chief Circuit Judge Joseph Farina.

 “I believe that aggressive driving is responsible for more accidents and injuries than any other negative driving activity,” Farina said. “We decided to take a proactive approach to this.”

 The American Institute for Public Safety hired a national expert on driver attitudes to design the course and another to evaluate it before Farina signed off on it three months ago.

 It wasn’t a minute too soon. Last spring, the National Highway Safety Administration ranked the Miami-Hialeah area’s death rate from aggressive driving as fifth in the nation.

“This problem with aggressive driving is actually serious statewide,” the judge said. The Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale metro areas were also in the national top 10.

 “About 100 percent of the time, driving in traffic is a stressful situation,” class instructor Mike Panzeca said. RoadRageous is for drivers who erratically dart in and out of traffic, run stop signs and red lights, pass stopped school buses and speed.

 In the first six weeks, 250 drivers attended classes.

 FHP WANTS LAW

Is it working? Too soon to tell, Farina said; it will probably take a year to see whether people in the classes have significantly fewer citations.

 Panzeca said multiple offenses are a good indicator that people in the course need to be there. “The average person gets tickets once every three years,” he said. Many more drivers need it, Farina said. But multiple offenses are the only indicator judges and traffic hearing officers can rely on, because there’s no such crime as “aggressive driving” in Florida – yet.

 The Florida Highway Patrol wants the Legislature to define aggressive driving, make it a crime and establish penalties. If that happens, courses such as RoadRageous could pop up statewide.

 The course is a turbocharged version of defensive-driving classes offered nationally for people with reasonably clean records who get tickets. If people opt to take those four-hour classes to brush up on their driving skills, their driving records do not collect points that could raise their insurance rates.

 The American Institute for Public Safety offers such courses in an improvisational comedy format. The eight-hour RoadRageous is more intensive mix of comedy, videotaped segments and psychology. Besides their fines, the tagged road warriors pay $65 for the class and devote a full day of their weekend to it.

 ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Panzeca, who spent 17 years as a behavioral therapist before becoming a professional standup comic four years ago, is one of the first two instructors.

 Getting participants to acknowledge they’re doing something wrong is the biggest challenge, Panzeca said.

 “I’ve had a lot of tickets,” a woman who was recently stopped for doing 55 in a 30mph zone said at a Sunday session in North Miami. “I don’t think I drive bad. I just get caught.”

 Others blamed the police, their new cars, or bosses who didn’t allow enough time for trips. One participant has collected 23 tickets this year. A young motorcyclist’s tally was 12 – “reckless driving, stuff like that,” he explained.

 “There are two kinds of drivers: morons and idiots,” Panzeca deadpanned – morons in the slow cars ahead and idiots zooming past you.

 The joke launched Panzeca’s theme: Anger toward fellow drivers escalates into grudge matches; even when it doesn’t lead to tickets or wrecks, it leaves the combatants angry long after they get to work or home. 

EASING FRUSTRATIONS

             Aggressive-driving course instructor Michael Panzeca offers a program any driver can follow to ease frustration on the road:

  • Be realistic about distances and traffic. Most drivers are running late and worried. Frantic lane changes and running red lights gains only two or three minutes in cross-town driving.

  • Check out your mental state when you get in the car. The drive will be frustrating, so be prepared for it. Listen to calming music. Lessen anxiety by making sure you have enough gas and that the car’s in good repair.

  • Give fellow drivers a break. Let them into traffic. Use your turn signals.  

  • Ignore rudeness in fellow drivers. “ Are you going to let somebody you’ve seen for a total of five seconds control your emotions?”

“People do things in their cars in traffic they would never do other wise,” Panzeca said. The common courtesy they routinely exhibit in bank lines and elevators is replaced by angry yelling and gesturing. The key to stopping angry driving is stopping the angry thinking, he said.