- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — Even after 20 years studying the habits of aggressive drivers, Scott Geller acknowledges that he has trouble containing his shouts and curses when someone swerves in front of him on the highway.

But the Virginia Tech psychologist says he thinks he knows a better way to deal with road rage, if only he could get other drivers to follow his lead.

The idea seems plausible enough: Stick a tiny green light in back of every car, teach drivers to say “please” and “thank you” and “I’m sorry” with a series of quick flashes, and people will be less frustrated, less likely to run each other off the road.

“If someone cuts in front of you, you think, ‘He did it on purpose,’” Mr. Geller said. “What if the person who cuts in front of you could quickly tell you, ‘I’m sorry’?”

Truckers already do this, communicating with their headlights. And motorists in some countries, such as South Africa, have been known to make their highways sparkle with conversations through hazard lights, Mr. Geller said.

But in most American cities, commuters tend to keep to themselves and let the tension build, said Radford University professor Jerry Beasley, who approached Mr. Geller with the idea for the light system.

“We’re trained on the road to be discourteous, to be aggressive,” Mr. Beasley said. “People get in their cars, and all of a sudden they’ve got a ton of power. And everything’s in place to communicate violence — people wanting to get somewhere before everyone else.”

Mr. Beasley, who teaches self-defense and martial arts at Radford, said he has been trying to develop an automobile communication system for years. At first, he tried building a light fixture the size of a license plate that would flash “thank you” at the touch of a button.

“It was too heavy,” Mr. Beasley said. “It fell forward every time I stopped.”

After meeting Mr. Geller at a conference, the two developed a less-cumbersome system they call “the Flash.”

The thumb-sized light is attached with Velcro to the rear window. Powered by the cigarette lighter, the Flash can be seen from the front and the back by pushing a remote-control button.

Mr. Geller has been testing the device for more than a year in his 1995 Mazda sedan, squeezing off flashes according to a simple code Mr. Beasley copyrighted: one flash for “please,” two for “thank you,” three for “I’m sorry” and four for “Call 911.”

“Our goal is to make a case for doing this on a much larger scale,” Mr. Geller said. “My vision is that automobile manufacturers would offer an option to have a ‘Courteous Communicator’ in your car.”

For now, that vision has two primary obstacles. First, the Flash is illegal in Virginia and many other states, which prohibit installing extra lights in cars. Second, Mr. Geller doesn’t have any scientific data showing that the Flash soothes aggressive drivers or that anger is the main reason some people smash into one another on the road.

After two failed attempts at funding research, Mr. Geller received $100,000 from the National Institutes of Health to test the device, locating the experiment in Christiansburg, a town of about 17,000 in rural Southwest Virginia.

Mr. Geller recruited 180 volunteers to follow the code, using either their hazard lights or the Flash. Everyone was instructed to keep journals about their experience and how signaling made them feel.

The Flash was road tested for about a month, and Mr. Geller plans to complete a research report in August.

One of the volunteers, Virginia Tech graduate Sara Rayne, said that being able to communicate with the Flash was a liberating experience.

On a recent afternoon, Miss Rayne showed off the Flash while zipping around downtown Christiansburg in her friend’s silver Honda Civic.

“Please,” she said while flicking the light once to the car behind her, following instructions to speak while communicating with the Flash. “Please,” she said and flicked again.

“I think she saw me,” Miss Rayne said, pulling into the right lane in front of the car.

“It makes me feel a little bit more in control,” she said afterward. “If someone cut me off, or if I cut someone off, I feel like I have the ability to tell them something.”

It’s still too soon to tell whether the project had any effect on Christiansburg, said Lt. Dalton Reid, the traffic-safety coordinator for the town police. He agreed that the lights are illegal, though he hasn’t heard of anyone receiving a traffic citation for using the Flash.

“It is a violation of the law to add those lights,” Lt. Reid said. “It’s unnecessary or improper equipment. … They might distract other drivers.”

Mr. Geller said he promised his volunteers he would pay for the ticket if anyone received one.

“But clearly, we’re going to have change the laws,” he said.

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