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Heavy Traffic Strains Roads And Manners In America

New highways, new technology, new ways to adapt have yet to overcome a flood of cars eroding politeness

AT a thoroughfare in downtown Boston, an elderly woman watches a cavalcade of cars and trucks zoom past, oblivious to traffic signals. After several minutes she marches over to a policeman standing nearby. ``Excuse me, officer,'' she huffs. ``How am I supposed to cross this street?''

The policeman turns to her and offers this matter-of-fact advice: ``Run.''

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Such apocryphal stories are commonplace in Boston, where horn blasts and busted tail lights are as ubiquitous as clam chowder. But now, it seems, more cities are following in Boston's dubious tracks.

Throughout the United States, highways and surface streets swell with record volumes of traffic. Monstrous tie-ups and lengthening commutes have prompted some American drivers to eliminate one passenger from their car pools: ``Miss Manners.''

``In my opinion, people are more rude than they were 10 years ago,'' says Fritz Streff, social and behavioral analyst at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. ``I routinely stop to let somebody into a queue of cars and immediately get vicious looks and horns from people behind me who would not have been so kind.'' He says he has lots more anecdotal evidence that driving in America is getting worse.

While trends in driver behavior are nearly impossible to measure, a recent study by Harvard University researchers David Hemenway and Sara J. Solnick provides some sizable clues.

The study, based on a 1989 Los Angeles Times survey of 2,000 California drivers, found that in a 12-month period: 1 in 7 drivers had been in an accident; half had regularly exceeded the speed limit; 20 percent reported running a red light; and one-third had made an obscene gesture to another driver.

The most abysmal driving in the survey group came from the usual suspects: hot-tempered young men in customized cars. But when Mr. Hemenway and Ms. Solnick included factors such as the number of miles driven and the time of day, they concluded that knuckleheaded driving is hardly the sole province of reckless youth.

Characteristics like gender, race, and age had less bearing on driver aptitude, they found, than did socioeconomic groupings. Drivers with college educations and annual incomes of more than $60,000 reported proportionately more instances of speeding, accidents, and drunk driving than other respondents did.

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Fuzzy dice are no tip-off

In addition, ornaments like fuzzy dice and bumper stickers were weaker correlates of poor driving than car phones were. Automotive chatterers reported higher numbers of accidents and a greater propensity to drive while intoxicated.

On a 1992 broadcast of their nationally syndicated public-radio show, ``Car Talk,'' hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi asked listeners to call in their nominations for the worst type of driver in the United States. Their choice: A woman in her late 20s who drives a sports car. The consensus among callers was older men who wear hats while driving, followed by ``anybody in a pickup truck.''

The decidedly broad nature of these categories suggests that when it comes to bad road habits, few American motorists, if any, are exempt.

``Anybody can get a driver's license,'' says Alan Williams, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Washington, D.C. ``There are a lot of people who are less able to control themselves and are more likely to act on a perceived slight. That's where some of the discourtesies are coming from.''

Mr. Streff contends that the economic downturn of the last five years may have fueled the collective irritability of American drivers. He adds that geographical variations may also contribute to incidents of roadway misanthropy.

``People do things in Chicago that are just the normal course of business,'' he says. ``They don't consider it rude, but someone from a small town might. Clearly, there are different concepts of what is appropriate.''

Nevertheless, most roadway analysts agree that the primary culprit is overcrowding.

Americans drove more than 2 billion miles last year. After leveling off in 1991, the number of automobiles in use is climbing again, and traffic volume and congestion continue to rise faster than road crews can mix asphalt.

Here, the evidence is conclusive: Of 50 cities studied by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), only three - Phoenix, Houston, and Detroit - saw traffic congestion fall since 1982. The other 47 cities showed higher congestion. San Diego led the pack with a whopping 56 percent rise.

These numbers translate into agonizing delays. TTI researchers determined that in Los Angeles alone, drivers sit through 1.78 million person-hours of traffic jams on a typical day.

And even in the three cities where traffic volume decreased, the waiting did not. Despite a 10 percent reduction in traffic, motorists in Phoenix spent 24 percent more time idling behind the wheel from 1986 to 1990. In Sacramento, Calif., delays doubled.

If empty hours aren't enough to irk a motorist, an empty wallet might be: By TTI calculations, Americans spend an estimated $40 billion a year on wasted gasoline.

The upshot: Everyone from daily commuters to weekend fun-seekers is forced to contend with the emotional and economic strains of snarled traffic. Snarled traffic can fray nerves, and frayed nerves can easily lead to rudeness. ``In our constantly mobile society, people are in their cars more often,'' Streff says. ``With suburban sprawl, people have to travel farther to do what they want to do. They start to see other drivers as obstacles.''

This contributes to the false perception that roadway tensions often erupt in violence. ``All things considered, I don't think violence on the roadway is something we need to be concerned about,'' he says. ``In terms of reported cases, it's down in the decimal dust.''

Overzealous press reports are at the root of this misconception, Streff says: ``It's big news when someone gets shot for their car, but it tends to exaggerate the importance of the event in the public's mind.''

``People judge the relative frequency of events by how easy it is to recall one of these events,'' Streff continues. And because carjackings are so widely reported, they stick in people's minds. So while people may think a carjacking is likely, ``it's really a very rare event. Their perceptions of risk are way off.''

In many respects, driving is actually safer than it used to be. Accident tallies have declined almost 50 percent since 1970, and rates of motor-vehicle injuries and deaths have also plummeted. Strict speed limits, seat-belt laws, and efforts to thwart drunk driving deserve much of the credit, as do advances in automotive safety, says TTI researcher Tim Lomax.

The introduction of the now-standard third brake light has smoothed traffic by allowing drivers to see situations developing three or four cars ahead, Mr. Lomax says. ``One of the things we've seen is that the capacity of a freeway lane has increased. People are learning to drive closer together.''

But technology doesn't deserve all the credit. ``People adapt,'' Lomax says. ``If they have a long commute, they get car phones so they can work in the car, they avoid peak periods, or they ride the train. There are a lot of coping mechanisms you wouldn't expect you would live with ... but you do.''

Mark Gregg, a California highway patrolman based in San Diego, says that, while fully half of the city's drivers tend to disobey rules and behave poorly, the other half are ``courteous.''

He adds that driving has become such a concern in San Diego that local chambers of commerce, in conjunction with the Highway Patrol, have initiated an annual program to reward good drivers.

Gift-coupon `citations'

Each year around Christmas time, retailers will donate gift certificates with the recipient's name left blank, Officer Gregg says. ``We go out and look for drivers who are doing everything right: signaling lane changes, going 55, and staying within the recommended distance. Basically, we pull people over for doing everything right and we issue these `citations.' It's a good public-awareness tool.''

Regardless of how drivers are coping with congestion, little is being done to relieve it permanently. ``In the long term, we're not going to build our way out of the congestion problem,'' Lomax says. ``The required increases in spending are just staggering. Cities have not been able to keep up.'' Despite a massive roadbuilding program in Phoenix in the 1980s, for example, delays there increased significantly.

``If you have a real good economic slump, you can do a lot to reduce congestion,'' he adds. That's why traffic volume fell in Houston and Detroit, for instance. ``Short of that, cities have to look at everything they can do: constructing freeways in areas where they make sense, applying advanced technologies, better land use, and mass transit.''

Of the cities included in the TTI study, Lomax says that ``maybe a third'' are investing significantly in mass transportation, but it is still too early to gauge the effectiveness of their efforts.

In 1990, US Census data showed that only 5 percent of Americans relied on buses or rail systems to get to work, and only 15 percent reported car-pooling. In other words, old habits die hard.

Michael Schmeltzer, a property manager from Philadelphia, summed up his commuting philosophy this way: ``If someone's in the left lane going slowly, I'm going to bright them, honk at them, and tailgate them until they get out of the way.''

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