Congestion - and the road rage it brings - is growing on Bellingham and Whatcom County streets

It's only a matter of time before we encounter - or become - an aggressive driver on Bellingham roads. It's obvious who they are. Honking their horn, speeding, tailgating, weaving dangerously in and out of traffic, blowing through stop signs or red lights are some of the things aggressive drivers will do.

Aggressive driving, or road rage, can happen because it's provoked, either intentionally or not. Or it can occur when a driver's life stresses take over their emotions while they're driving, and the slightest thing can set things off. Another aggressive driver might simply want to establish dominance, as if driving is some kind of contest and not simply a way to arrive at a destination safely. All of these types of drivers have certainly not read up on ways to keep your calm when driving.

Bellingham and Whatcom County are growing, so the increased traffic adds to drivers' frustration. Still, it is certainly a much better idea to de-stress than escalate a dangerous situation, or start your own.

From a study conducted by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it appears that road rage and aggressive driving are a modern invention and growing threat:

People have reported the occasional on-the-road behavior that we now describe as aggressive driving since the advent of motorized transport, and quite possibly, since the beginning of vehicular travel. Anyone who has spent more than a few hours in an automobile has experienced the rudeness of other drivers. Until the final decade of the Twentieth Century, most motorists were comforted by knowing that aggressive driving behavior was infrequent and atypical, and that extreme, confrontational acts were quite rare. However, beginning in the 1990s, an unrelenting series of news reports captured the public’s attention and elevated to a national problem what previously had been considered to be, simply, rude and occasionally bizarre human behavior.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that aggressive driving plays a role in more than half of all fatal crashes, with excessive speed being the No. 1 factor, accounting for 19 percent of all drivers and motorcyclists involved in fatal crashes. Summer often brings an uptick of aggressive driving and road rage incidents, partially due to the fact that it's hotter and partially because there tend to be more cars on the road.

From a personal injury lawyer's perspective, aggressive driving/road rage claims can be tricky. Often there are exclusions in auto insurance liability policies when damage is intentionally inflicted by the insured. So for example, an insurer may agree to cover damages resulting from a speeding driver who failed to yield the right-of-way, but they may not cover damages if there is evidence the driver intentionally carried out these actions (i.e., was waving an obscene gesture at the time they cut off another driver).

This is why the lawyers at Bill Coats Law recommends that motorists are very careful about statements or even offhand comments they might make at a crash site, or later when insurers contact them. Instead, it's better to be safe than sorry and consult for free with an attorney to maximize your chances for recovering damages fully and quickly.

The Washington State Patrol defines aggressive driving as the commission of two or more moving violations likely to endanger other persons or property or a single intentional violation that requires the defensive reaction of another driver. Road rage, meanwhile, is an assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by an operator or passenger of a motor vehicle toward another passenger or operator of a vehicle based on an incident that occurred on the road.

Washington state does not have a specific "aggressive driving" statute. However, RCW 46.61.500 outlines the offense of reckless driving. It is defined as when a person who drives a vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property. A violation is considered a gross misdemeanor, for which one can face up to 364 days in jail plus a $5,000 fine. One may also be subject to a suspended license, for a minimum of 30 days. Further, a person who committed reckless driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol (or if the original charge was DUI and was later pleaded down to reckless driving) can be required to have ignition interlock devices installed on all vehicles operated by the person.

If you do encounter aggressive drivers, it's important to give them space and not antagonize them. Call 911 to report in-progress aggressive driving, and visit this page on Washington State Patrol's aggressive driving page if you witness patterns of road rage in a particular area. For more, read here:

Aggressive driving in Bellingham is a risk to us all

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