Road rage: How Michigan promotes efforts to keep drivers safe

LANSING — Rick Sykes was driving down a busy freeway a few years ago when he saw something in his rearview mirror.

A car was getting closer and closer to his bumper.

The driver was “trying to rush me,” Sykes said. Wary of the speed limit, he didn’t budge.

The person behind him didn’t like that, and as they became more erratic, Sykes heard a loud honk.

“They literally tried to run me off the road,” he said.

He eventually lost the aggressive driver. But the experience stuck with him.

Only 0.03% of car crash fatalities in the state are caused by road rage or aggressive driving.

That makes Michigan the fourth-safest state for road rage fatalities, according to data between 2017 and 2021 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Pennsylvania ranked the safest, while Colorado was the most dangerous. Among Michigan’s neighbors, Ohio ranked 14th safest and Wisconsin ranked 5th most dangerous.

The accident data was analyzed by the criminal defense law firm Simmrin Law Group in California.

Despite the comparatively few deaths, many Michigan advocates and officials say that anger still plagues Michigan’s roads.

“We’d like to think our messaging has been successful and has helped keep Michigan’s road-rage numbers relatively low,” said Katie Bower, the director of the Office of Highway Safety Planning. “However, in Michigan and across the nation, we must continue to educate drivers and raise awareness about this critical and growing concern.”

Sykes said there’s no shortage of work to do. His experiences with road rage and aggressive driving inspired him to start Don’t Engage N Road Rage in 2017, an organization that promotes education about and awareness of road rage. It’s based in Detroit.

Sykes — “the road rage guy,” as he says he’s often called — has been holding meetings and events across the Metro Detroit area for years, partnering with companies such as BMW and Harley Davidson to promote vehicle safety and awareness.

Lt. Rene Gonzalez, a public information officer for the State Police who covers Clinton, Eaton, Ingham, Hillsdale and Lenawee counties, says he’s seen a heavy increase in road rage incidents in his 26 years on the job.

He attributes the rise in aggression partially to distracted driving.

“They’re drifting into somebody’s lane, or they’re driving real slow on the roadway, and people behind them start to get upset,” Gonzalez said. “So maybe they honk or something because they’re mad, and that’s what starts the whole thing up.”

Some motorists might take out their frustrations from home or work on other drivers, Gonzalez said. Others are naturally prone to anger.

“People are stressed out nowadays a lot more,” he said. “They’re trying to get to work, trying to get the kids to school. They’ve got places to be, and people are not moving out of their way when they want to fly down the freeway.”

Gonzalez said road rage has gotten more violent. He cited a recent incident in Ypsilanti that shut down I-94.

“One of the drivers got so upset that he pulled out a gun and started shooting at the other guy’s car,” he said. “Before we just saw people cutting each other off – now we got people pulling out weapons.”

Last month in Traverse City, a truck driver backed into another vehicle after trying to pass him and driving erratically, according to local news reports. Also last month in Rockford, an SUV rear-ended a vehicle and pushed it along U.S. 131. And in February, a road rage incident on US-31 in Ottawa County ended in a car crash that injured four people.

Bower said it’s crucial to set aside all distractions while operating a vehicle.

“Our messaging emphasizes that, when you’re behind the wheel, to focus on the task at hand and just drive,” Bower said. “Buckle up, don’t drive impaired or distracted, be patient, don’t tailgate or drive aggressively – and make it to your destination safely.”

Gonzalez said it’s best to avoid getting upset at perceived inconveniences while driving.

“It’s best to not take it personally,” he said. “Let that incident go. Don’t try to retaliate or act on it.”

Should drivers find themselves in an escalating situation, Gonzalez recommends being as safe as possible.

“Pull off the side of the road and let them go on,” he said. “If someone were to follow you, drive to the nearest police station. Drive to a crowded gas station.”

Bower recommends safely getting out of an aggressive driver’s way to avoid conflict.

“If you are in the left lane and someone wants to pass, move over and let them by,” Bower said. “Give speeding drivers plenty of space. Speeding drivers may lose control of their vehicle more easily. If a speeding driver is tailgating you or trying to engage you in risky driving, use judgment to safely steer your vehicle out of the way.”


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