Originally created 02/26/03

Officials say road rage is spreading, causing more deaths despite 2001 law



Jessie Hadden watched her husband take his last breath on Interstate 20 after being stabbed by an angry motorist.

Two years later, the Thomson woman worries about upsetting another driver on the road.

"I try to stay out of everybody's way. I'm real paranoid when I'm driving, scared to death I'm going to make someone mad," she said.

The 20-year-old widow has reason to fear.

Officials at the Augusta Safe Communities Coalition say aggressive driving is becoming more common and is a factor in 90 percent of fatal crashes in Richmond County.

A 2001 Georgia law designed to fight aggressive driving is not being used enough, said Priscilla Bence, the coalition's coordinator.

"I think we could do better with enforcing the law that was passed in 2001," she said.

The law makes it a six-point violation to drive a vehicle with the intent to "annoy, harass, molest, intimidate, injure or obstruct" another driver. The state suspends the license of a driver who accumulates 15 or more points in a two-year period.

Richmond County sheriff's Maj. Larry Vinson said he hasn't seen his deputies issue any citations for aggressive driving, mainly because deputies cite drivers using more common offenses that are familiar to area judges, including improper movement on highway, reckless driving and speeding.

The major said aggressive driving is hard to define or prove in court. Before deputies can start using the law, the sheriff's office needs to sit down with judges, go over the law and warn them that they will be getting cases, he said. He said he doesn't think that will happen soon.

"We would need to speak to state court judges to see what they think," Maj. Vinson said. "I would think that the judge would probably have a problem with it."

Ms. Bence said aggressive driving is considered to be anything that is nondefensive, including speeding, following too closely and failing to yield. Though drunken driving is blamed for 35 percent of the fatal crashes in Richmond County, aggressive driving plays a role in 90 percent of them. The group did not examine Columbia County's numbers because its focus is Richmond County.

According to Angie Rios, of the data section of the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicle Safety, traffic deaths are primarily the result of carelessness, not recklessness. Ms. Bence agrees.

"They are just driving slightly too fast, not stopping two seconds to assess traffic, not stopping 50 feet from a train crossing with bars down or forgetting to yield to others when in doubt of whose right of way it is," Ms. Bence said. "(They are) forgetting courtesy or care for a second."

On Aug. 31, 2001, Mr. Hadden was stabbed to death on Interstate 20 by Brian Lonergan after both drivers pulled over after a fender bender. Mr. Lonergan told police he was angry that Mr. Hadden had cut him off.

In December, Mr. Lonergan was sentenced to life in prison plus 17 years for the road-rage stabbing.

Ms. Hadden - who is now alone in raising 4-year-old Joshua Jr. - said that drivers should calm down and that police should enforce the aggressive-driving law.

"It would sure make me feel safer if they would buckle down on it," she said.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

According to Georgia Code 40-6-397:

  • A person commits the offense of aggressive driving when he or she operates any motor vehicle with the intent to annoy, harass, molest, intimidate, injure or obstruct another person.
  • Any person convicted of aggressive driving shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.
  • Violators lose six points from their license.
  • Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.