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Polite Light Becomes Latest Idea in Fighting Road Rage - 2003-06-27


With adjustable seats, soundproof interiors, CD players, televisions, and cellular phones, cars are virtually comfortable enough to live in. But when it comes to safety, driving experts say many people are at risk while driving. They speed, they do not signal turns, and some drivers even take their frustration out on other drivers. Experts believe that forms of violent fury on the road are increasing, but so are the ideas to combat it. The latest idea in fighting road rage is a polite light.

It might be just a moment of tailgating, or it might start when a driver cuts another off the road, then suddenly it escalates into a war on the freeway. The media call it 'road rage' where shouting and cursing are not unusual.

Psychology research associate at Virginia Tech Chris Dula says that with more vehicles and more congested roads, drivers seem to be under more pressure. Yet Mr. Dula says drivers' aggressive behavior existed even before cars were invented. "I found a reference to it in a letter from Lord Byron to Thomas Moore in 1817," he says. "The reference was about a horse and carriage conflict where the two got into a shouting match between each other."

Mr. Dula says road rage as a term has recently caught on and it is more of a popular notion than it is a scientific term. "We see reference to road rage in scientific literature but it is very difficult to say what exactly road rage is. Basically most people understand it as an incident of extreme violent and angry outburst. It often can be confused with aggressive driving and risky driving. But road rage as a term has been around for at least 15 years," he says.

Researchers say that some people, who seem to be quite composed most of the time, behave aggressively when they get into their cars. Mr. Dula says the vehicle itself serves as a catalyst to transform those people into angry drivers. He says there are several reasons for that. "One is that the vehicle is used as a method to get from one place to another, so if you are in a hurry and anybody gets in your way, you are more likely to get upset. We also have a kind of comfort zone around us. So if somebody comes in that comfort zone, people take offense to an extent that makes them angry and maybe want to retaliate. And with the fact that you have a bit of anonymity in the vehicle that most people do not really think that the license plates are identifying them," he says. "With this kind of anonymity people are more likely to behave aggressively."

Researcher Chris Dula says a combination of risk driving and negative emotions creates the possibility of road rage. To fight road rage and help drivers communicate in a courteous way, two university professors have developed a communication system called a 'Polite light' or 'Courtesy Flash.' Jerry Bearsley teaches self defense at Radford University, in Radford, Virginia and Scott Geller teaches psychology at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Professor Geller, who has spent 20 years studying the habits of aggressive drivers, suggests placing the thumb-sized "Polite Light" in the rear window. "It is a little green light to put in the back of your car and there is a button you push and you can make it flash once, twice or three times. It is a simple code; one flash for 'please', two flashes for 'thank you', three flashes for 'I am sorry.' If you flash it four times, it means call 911 [the emergency number]."

Professor Geller and a group of his students have been testing the device for several months in a rural local community in Southwest Virginia. "In Christiansburg, we have seven billboards advertising courteous communication. We have sandwich boards on 20 intersections, which tell drivers what the code is. Over 100 actually have the flash in their vehicles. The idea is first for seeing how easy it is for people in Christiansburg to use the code," he says. "And we are doing a phone survey to see do people know the code. So far, very interestingly, people know the code. People enjoy flashing positive statements. They feel better. They feel in control."

Psychology professor Geller believes that the polite light idea works because it reduces negative emotions felt between drivers. He notes that drivers in South Africa have developed a similar technique. "I traveled to South Africa a few months ago, and they use their hazard flashlights. They flash it twice to say thank you. So this is like a cultural thing," he says.

Rich Whitcomb is a manager of driver training for the American Automobile Association, or AAA. He's not convinced that a courteous light is necessary, because he says drivers are already communicating in many different ways. "Any communication has to be understood by all, or it is not effective communication. In today's driving environment, there is a whole lot of communication going on with just the highway transportation system; the break light, the turn signals, and the head lights are even a form of communication. The drivers generally communicate with simply waves of the hands," he says. "Much more than that, I think, may create the possibility of misinterpretation."

Mr. Whitcomb believes that driver awareness programs and better drivers' education, not an extra light, would help decrease road rage. "Fortunately and also unfortunately, children are learning how to drive every time they get in the cars with their parents. I'd say that at about age 11 or 12 they really start paying attention to adults that are being their chauffeurs, and they will mimic those adults when they start driving," he says. "We need to be aware that we are role models, and we are educating our children on how we behave in traffic and how we expect them to behave in traffic."

Virginia Tech professor Scott Geller hopes that one day the "polite light" will be an optional feature installed in any car. But before that can happen, he has to convince state motor vehicle authorities as well as drivers that the courteous flash is the answer to rage on the roads.