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Interview with Leon James

The American Legion Magazine  Trent D. McNeeley  December 12, 1997

Some automotive enthusiasts claim the epidemic mentality being pushed on the media stems from a concerted effort on behalf of NHTSA and DoT to increase their visibility, clout and funding. With no more carnage on U.S. highways after removing the double-nickel speed limit, is this just another way to try to catch speeders, replacing speed kills with road rage kills?

Do I discern a certain cynicism in the back of this question, a kind of pessimism and mistrust of government efforts in transportation safety? I'm not going to take sides and will try to be the "third party" that both sides can consult. I strive to speak as a scientist, staying clear of political issues. Having said that, I'd like to give you some more thoughts on this.

My advice and recommendation would be for both government officials and citizen advocacy groups to work together to formulate a highway policy and ethic that represents both community norms and societal interests. First of all, we all could give up mutual animosity by assuming that the failures and shortcoming to existing solutions are not attributable to the officials in question, to their lack of integrity, or sincerity, but to their inability--technical inability to come up with effective solutions. No one knows in advance what is going to work. At the same time, government officials could adopt a more integrated, grass roots approach in the formulation of policy. So: we must bring the two sides together, recognize each other's legitimate function or role, and come up with jointly formulated policies.

I agree that right now, government officials are insufficiently responsive to citizen activism and local norms and concerns across the vast highway spectrum in our nation. They rely exclusively on "research" which is still quite inadequate--hence they should rely on it less, and more on community needs and norms.

Will this become fodder for NHTSA and non-governmental safety organizations to push for Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems to create more government involvement in our lives while filling coffers at DoT and government contractors with more tax dollars?

I'm not going to address the political accusations contained in this question. That is not my role. However, I want to legitimize the feeling behind it, which is that we don't want excessive and less than useless systems of government control on highways and streets. I agree that government agencies should consult the community activist groups in their planning, and not go on their own. If they did this, they would not be perceived as just pushing through their own arrogant plans on all of us.

At the same time, I believe that IVH systems and other things like that are going to take place because it's the future, and you can't stop the future. These systems can be our friends or our enemies. I believe we ought to work with government to determine what systems we want and how to change those that we start but don't like.

One writer claims, tongue firmly in cheek, that road rage can be traced to Oedipus slaying his father on the road from Delphi. So, if this problem has existed for so long, why all the attention now? Can it really be all just about more congestion on roadways?

To understand why aggressive driving and road rage are happening now, though they existed before, you need to consider multiple causation. Several factors, each independent but acting together, can be identified, as I have done in my congressional testimony. To name some of these factors:

Thus, greater space density on highways, our cultural sense of competition and territoriality, less driver's education and training, and greater civic activism are some of the factors that explain why road rage and aggressive driving are in the national consciousness today much more than before.

You claim teaching defensive driving actually produces paranoia, contributing to aggression. Some driving school officials I spoke with say that's ludicrous, that they merely teach people to anticipate and avoid accidents, and how to get the most out of their cars as accidents are happening. How do you respond to that criticism, and what other types of driving techniques can reduce predatory driving?

I don't want to criticize defensive driving schools and instructors. I stated that they have saved many lives! However, I think it can be improved, and that's where I gave suggestions. First, we need a better curriculum and training program. Everybody wants that. I think we need to improve and expand all forms of driver education.

The ability to anticipate and avoid accidents is great! If some of the people you talked to say that defensive driving does not contribute to aggression, my response would be that they don't know this really, and they should retain a more open mind. They should accept the idea that defensive driving COULD in some way contribute to aggressive driving. They can then listen to arguments such as those I have put forth to see whether or not defensive driving can turn offensive under many routine driving conditions.

An alternative to the "defensive" idea is the "collective" idea. By switching, they would not be threatened in their jobs, I assure you. The more thy can do for drivers, the better! I want to encourage their work! So I'm saying that if you combine territoriality, lack of respect, and a defensive attitude, you are continuing to create the competitive driver who thinks for self more than others. This attitude contributes negatively to safety and comfort on highways. Instead, driving instructors could encourage the "collective model" of driving, teaching people how to identify with other drivers as a highway community, and to cooperate (not compete) in getting everyone to where they wish to go.

Should the federal or state governments offer tax incentives to encourage people and businesses to take advantage of driver's education programs, or spend the money more on enforcing existing traffic laws?

This is not something I can comment on. I leave it to political activism. In general, I am for tax incentives, and I favor citizen grass roots movements of re-training as a better method than law enforcement. However law enforcement is also necessary. Personally I see them as my protectors, even if I get the occasional traffic citation...

Here in Hawaii. I serve on the Governor's Impaired Driving Task Force which brings together the State's officials and experts in legislation, transportation, registration, testing, the courts, law enforcement, and citizen activists like MADD, etc. I support this activity because it's needed and is responsive to many ills that must be removed or checked. I admit this: we don't really know what will work and we make mistakes. This means suffering and stress and discrimination for many citizens. I admit that. So what else can we do...

How often are people in fatal accidents charged with vehicular homicide? How often are they convicted, or do they often walk away with a few fines and points off their licenses?

I'm sorry but we'll need to research this statistic. I don't know if it exists yet. I detect some complaint behind this question, am I right? In other words, you seem to reflect the point of view that courts don't adequately punish dangerous drivers. Perhaps that's true in many cases. I reiterate my point of view on this: the real and lasting solution lies in grass roots re-training programs, universal and continuing driver's ed, and Quality Driving Circles (QDCs). I'd like to see the American Legion sponsor such groups for their members. Especially since older drivers have new needs on highways that others must accommodate to. There is a greater diversity of drivers now and not all drivers have the same needs or capabilities.

An instructor for the local 55 Alive program told me that older drivers complain most about being tailgated by mad drivers. Older drivers seem to become more obstructionist as their abilities change. For example, many of them don't understand why they should not be driving in the left lane even if they're at speed limit. Older drivers need to be taught how to compensate for their declining alertness or their slowness of response.

Any additional comments you would like to make will certainly be appreciated.

I want to emphasize that the highway community needs to be strengthened like neighborhood community through positive approaches, through grass roots training and monitoring, through civic activism, and a bettering of the psychological climate surrounding driving and automobile ownership. We should care about what cartoons and movies portray to our children about drivers behaving badly. We should protest when car commercials bring on competitive symbolism that encourages aggressiveness on the road. We should care that the majority of high school students cannot take driver's ed for lack of space and funds.

I believe that the second century of car society, which is now beginning, will bring new challenges and new opportunities for safety and the strengthening of our community.

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