- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

It's Day 1 of court-ordered road rage class in Arlington, and the participants all look a little ticked off.

The nine class members — average age 26, men and women of all races — don't look like raging maniacs, either. When asked, they are near unanimous in their belief they don't belong there. They don't think they have a road-rage problem, and they're skeptical the class will help.

Now flash forward one month, to July 10 — graduation day. All the participants say they have better learned to control their anger when driving, even if many still believe that the Other Guy was the one who would have really benefited from the class.

One man, a management consultant from Arlington who, like the other drivers, declined to give his name, described a situation in which a driver cut him off on his commute into the District.

"I can think of a thousand times where I would have nudged a little closer to other car, taken the chance to agitate them," the man said.

Instead, he conjured up an image of his dog, which helped him relax. And he remembered the class' core lesson that anger and resentment stem from a lack of self-respect, so if you value yourself you will have no reason to let another driver make you angry.

The man said he grew up and learned to drive in New York City, and has been forced to adapt his behavior in Northern Virginia.

"You can talk about the Beltway all you want; it's nothing like New York," said the man, who was ordered to take the class after being convicted of making an unsafe lane change and reckless driving. "In New York if I miss your car by an inch, then I'm a good driver. Here, if you don't leave a car length, they tell you you're an aggressive driver."

In fact, a national survey released in May by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the Steel Alliance shows that Northern Virginians and Washingtonians are more likely than people elsewhere to be aggressive drivers. The poll showed that 52 percent of Washingtonians honk their horns at other drivers, compared with 29 percent nationally. D.C.-area drivers were also 33 percent more likely to speed. Only Boston fared worse among the eight major cities surveyed.

Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said a number of factors contribute to the region's apparent angry driving. The primary factor is the congestion. The D.C. area is constantly rated among the nation's worst for traffic jams.

Another factor: the self-important, me-first attitude that seems connected to the nation's capital.

"We certainly have our share of arrogance, " Mr. Anderson said.

The Arlington County class, called Empowered Driving, is part of a pilot program sponsored by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles through a $75,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It will expand to Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, most likely in September, said Steven Stosny, the Gaithersburg psychologist and anger therapist who developed the course.

Participants were referred by police and judges, who were instructed by Mr. Stosny on how to spot angry drivers. All the drivers had some type of reckless-driving conviction, Mr. Stosny said.

The class in part explains the physiology of anger and how it erodes driving skills. For instance, an angry person will have increased peripheral vision, but it comes at the expense of depth perception, Mr. Stosny said. That lack of depth perception contributes to a variety of accidents.

The primary focus, though, is on controlling emotions. It often takes a touchy-feely tone in one class, for example, students repeat aloud the following statement: "I forgive myself for feeling disregarded, unimportant, devalued and powerless when the driver cut me off."

Mr. Stosny said there is no way to help angry drivers except by helping them control their anger. And the anger can be controlled only by learning to accept the inherent worth of yourself and others.

"It's easy to dehumanize people when they're in cars behind tinted windows and air conditioners," he said.

The course is the first of its kind to be offered in Virginia, said Vince Burgess, assistant commissioner for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Mr. Burgess said anger management has to be a part of any comprehensive solution to the region's road rage.

"If you don't deal with the anger, I don't care how much driver improvement you give; that education will be lost," Mr. Burgess said.

The National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg will evaluate the program, comparing participants' driving records before and after the course. If it's shown to be successful, it will likely be expanded, Mr. Stosny said.

At the end of the class, the students who had completed the course agreed it had been useful.

"It just helped me make sure I connect with the other person. Instead of getting angry at another driver, I'll just think that maybe they're having a bad day. Maybe their dog just died," said one woman who was sent to the class after getting a speeding ticket that she blamed on a cop with a bad attitude.

"Everybody can use a little Compassion 101."

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