By Howard B. Hall, Captain, Baltimore County, Maryland, Police Department; and Thomas J. Gianni, Deputy Chief, Maryland Highway Safety Office
ach year, more than 30,000 people lose their lives in traffic crashes in the United States.1 Scores more suffer injuries or damage to property. Fortunately, fatalities have been on the decline even as traffic volumes and congestion grow. Increasingly, however, drivers display behaviors that threaten other drivers while they all experience the effects of increasing traffic volume. This has resulted in the prevalence of what has become known as “aggressive driving.”
What Is Aggressive Driving and Why Does It Matter?
Aggressive driving has numerous definitions. Some relate to intentional acts, while others focus on behavioral issues that combine to create an aggressive driver. “Aggressive driving” and “road rage” have been terms frequently used interchangeably, although the behaviors are generally different. Road rage can be better described as predatory driving—that is, when a motorist’s actions become targeted at one or more other specific drivers. Some have referred to road rage as the big brother of aggressive driving—when moving traffic violations become criminal. For purposes of this article, the definition of aggressive driving developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will be used. According to this definition, aggressive driving occurs when a driver commits a combination of moving traffic violations that endanger people or property.2 Generally, the violations associated with aggressive driving include
- Following too closely
- Running red lights or stop signs
- Improper passing
Speeding, in particular, is associated with aggressive driving, especially when combined with weaving, passing, or tailgating. Since most law enforcement activity related to traffic enforcement is focused on behavioral factors and most traffic laws do not require a showing of intent to prove the violation, the response to this problem is normally targeted patrols and high-visibility enforcement.
Several societal factors have contributed to the increased levels of aggressive driving. Traffic congestion heads the list. Drivers are spending more time in slow-moving traffic, leading to higher stress levels and, ultimately, attempts to move faster. Drivers are increasingly impatient and few plan for unintended events like congestion.3 Vehicles also provide anonymity. Drivers are hidden behind glass and metal and have very limited direct interaction with the people in other vehicles. One’s chances of being recognized on the roadway are minimal. In fact, many drivers condemn others for the same actions that they take while driving. In 2008, a study by the AAA Foundation found that 78 percent of respondents rated aggressive drivers as a serious traffic safety problem; however, many of these same people admitted to engaging in driving behavior that could be considered aggressive.4 Aggressive driving usually ranks ahead of impaired driving as a concern of motorists, most likely because drivers frequently witness incidents of aggressive driving during their daily travels along highways and recognize it immediately as a threat.
Aggressive driving is a major concern of the motoring public. In 2005, a survey conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News reported that 32 percent of respondents identified aggressive driving as the greatest threat to their safety on the roadway. This is equivalent to the number of responses for identifying the dangers of drunk driving and nearly three times for the number of responses received for any other item.5 Clearly, the public perceives aggressive driving as dangerous and is concerned about its prevalence. Crash data support that concern.
Data from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System have shown that more than 55 percent of fatal crashes involve at least one driver who committed a potentially aggressive action. Speeding was the predominant violation, occurring in more than 30 percent of the fatalities included in the study.6 This is of particular concern since the probability of death and serious injury doubles for every 10 miles per hour over 50 miles per hour that a vehicle travels.7 The economic cost of speeding is estimated by NHTSA to exceed $40 billion. Using these data, it could be surmised that approximately 20,000 people are killed each year as a result of some form of aggressive driving.
What is particularly disturbing is the involvement of younger drivers in aggressive driving–related crashes. Overall, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for individuals age 3 through 34.8 In 2006, 36 percent of young drivers involved in crashes had previously been cited for speeding or other hazardous moving violations. In Maryland, drivers less than 34 years old account for more than half of aggressive driving crashes, and more than 40 percent of aggressive driving–related fatalities were younger than age 24.
The available data paint a clear picture of the public safety impact of aggressive driving. Lives are being lost, and the citizens, who law enforcement is sworn to protect, are being put at risk. The good news is that this can be prevented. Law enforcement knows from previous experiences, particularly those related to impaired driving, that public attitudes and driver behavior can be changed. The Smooth Operator Program is designed to do that through a combination of education, information, and high-visibility traffic enforcement.
History of the Smooth Operator Program
During the early morning hours of April 17, 1996, Nancy McBrien, a 41-year-old mother of three children, was traveling southbound along Virginia’s George Washington Memorial Parkway. McBrien was returning from maternity leave to start a new job that day. At the same time, an incident involving aggressive driving and road rage in the northbound lanes of the Parkway was unfolding between two other drivers. They were chasing each other at speeds up to 80 miles an hour. A collision between the two vehicles sent them careening into the southbound lanes. The front of McBrien’s minivan was struck by a 500-pound section of one of the cars. She died within moments of the crash. Three people were killed in this incident, including one of the drivers involved in the initial road rage. The other driver sustained a broken ankle, cuts, and bruises. He was ultimately charged in federal court with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and several other charges.
This incident captured attention all around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Incidents of aggressive driving and road rage had been noticeably on the rise as traffic congestion increased and driver patience frayed. As total vehicle miles traveled has risen over the past 10 years, highway construction and expansion have been unable to keep pace. The Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas are consistently ranked as having some of the most congested highways in the country. Motorists in these heavily populated areas frequently face long commute times, and aggressive driving is frequently observed on roadways of all types. Shortly after the crash that killed McBrien, 18 law enforcement agencies in the region joined forces to conduct coordinated waves of concentrated aggressive driving enforcement. These agencies formed the beginning of the Smooth Operator Program, which has grown today to include close to 100 police departments and sheriff’s offices in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
Following its formation in 1997, the Smooth Operator Program has expanded to become more than an enforcement initiative. This comprehensive program incorporates the five Es of highway safety: enforcement, education, engineering, emergency medical services, and regular evaluation. Highway safety offices in each jurisdiction provide funding for added enforcement, as well as for the development and placement of media messages. Annual coordinated enforcement waves coincide with media blitzes to accomplish three objectives:
- Inform the public of the dangers of aggressive driving.
- Provide support to enforcement agencies by informing the public of the presence and purpose of increased concentrated traffic enforcement across the region.
- Ultimately stigmatize the behavior by shaming aggressive drivers into respecting the rules of the road.
As the program expanded to include highway safety, government officials, and trauma experts, more state, county, and local law enforcement agencies came together to participate in the enforcement waves. Currently, weeklong waves occur annually during the summer months of June, July, August, and September when research indicates that aggressive driving behaviors increase and aggressive driving–related crashes are more numerous. Concentrated waves of enforcement—accompanied by television, radio, and outdoor advertising—create awareness of the problem and help brand the Smooth Operator Program. By conducting the campaign in concentrated waves, as opposed to yearlong attempts to sustain enforcement and education, the program is better managed and effectively heightens the public’s awareness of the dangers associated with aggressive driving while highlighting enforcement efforts to combat these behaviors.
Law enforcement officials, highway safety experts, and other professionals meet regularly to chart the program’s course and develop the public education campaign that accompanies enforcement. This steering committee not only guides the creation of the media campaign but also coordinates major media events to announce the regional enforcement waves.
Smooth Operator in Action
Education and public information. Crash data show that speeding is a primary factor in aggressive driving. Media, however, informs the public that although speeding is a major factor, aggressive driving involves more behaviors than just speed. Great care is also taken to differentiate between road rage and aggressive driving. During the program’s early years, motorist surveys indicated the public’s misunderstanding of aggressive driving. Most drivers believed aggressive driving was road rage—that was what they were more familiar with, based on high-profile cases of confrontations and even assaults that resulted from highway incidents. People who could never imagine themselves losing their tempers and actually accosting other drivers believed that aggressive driving messages were not intended for them. To counter this misperception, the Smooth Operator Program developed media messages specifically intended to educate motorists that driving behaviors, such as speeding, failing to yield the right of way, rushing through red lights and stop signs, and making improper lane changes, were actually forms of aggressive driving. Likewise, law enforcement officers were trained to avoid using the terms interchangeably.
|Media events are supported by law enforcement from|
Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Northern Virginia.
Westminster, Maryland’s Chief Jeffrey Spaulding (at podium)
and other Baltimore area law enforcement executives attended
the Baltimore kickoff event.
The highlights of the annual campaigns are the large media events that kick off the summer enforcement waves across the region. Two events are usually planned—one to cover the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and one designed specifically for the Baltimore, Maryland, metropolitan area. These events are usually staged at high-profile locations such as historic sites (the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.) or congested traffic routes such as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Given the attendance of high-ranking government and law enforcement executives, kick-off events not only draw significant media attention but also energize the region’s law enforcement agencies as they come together from across the tri-jurisdictional region in a unified display of traffic enforcement might. The presence of large numbers of law enforcement agencies at such unique locations help to garner media coverage on area television and radio stations as news outlets announce the onset of the concentrated enforcement waves while informing their listeners of the dangers of aggressive driving. Since paid media spots can be expensive, especially when placed in concentrated blocks to support the campaign, the Smooth Operator Program relies heavily on television, radio, and print coverage to help communicate the message.
To help craft more effective messages, annual surveys are conducted to gauge motorist understanding of the problem, as well as their awareness of the Smooth Operator Program. Survey results help guide the formation of the following year’s program, as well as target messages to the proper demographics. Each year, new media that attempt to inform the public of the inherent dangers of the behaviors associated with aggressive driving, as well as law enforcement’s coordinated mobilization during campaign waves to combat the problem, are created. Subsequent education and campaign awareness combine sophisticated marketing techniques during law enforcement waves. Cable television and radio spots are aired during drive times and are placed on stations that target the most at-risk demographic—generally, male drivers between the ages of 18 years old and 34 years old.
Enforcement. High-visibility traffic enforcement is a key component of the Smooth Operator Program. Research suggests that public information and education campaigns are more effective when they are combined with traffic enforcement.9 During the five enforcement waves, participating agencies utilize an electronic reporting page on the Smooth Operator Program website to record the citations issued by individual agencies. These enforcement numbers are used to generate press releases and news stories to ensure the campaign’s momentum. Since its inception, more than 3.2 million citations have been issued.10 In 2009, approximately 90 agencies participated in the effort.
The Baltimore County, Maryland, Police Department (BCOPD) has participated in the Smooth Operator Program since 2000. The county’s proximity to the city of Baltimore and its extensive transportation system make the area prone to aggressive driving behavior, and traffic safety is a priority of its citizens and police. Chief James W. Johnson has made data-driven policing a priority for the agency and has emphasized high-visibility enforcement as a tool to reduce both traffic crashes and crime. In 2008, the BCOPD integrated its participation in the Smooth Operator Program with its efforts to implement what is now known as Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS).
DDACTS is an operational model that uses high-visibility traffic enforcement as a primary countermeasure against traffic crashes, crime, and other forms of social harm. It has been developed and promoted by NHTSA, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the National Institute of Justice. The Smooth Operator Program is a natural complement to DDACTS, since it is focused on areas where traffic safety problems (for example, aggressive driving) are occurring.
The BCOPD selected six highly traveled corridors for its focused enforcement in 2008. The selections were based on overlapping occurrences of robberies, burglaries, and traffic crashes. An analysis of crash causes in these areas revealed that violations associated with aggressive driving were frequent. Whereas DDACTS is an ongoing initiative that continues beyond the enforcement waves associated with Smooth Operator, these corridors were targeted for increased attention during the waves. The BCOPD used overtime funds provided by the Maryland Highway Safety Office to deploy enforcement teams into these areas. The teams consisted of a supervisor and four or five officers who worked together to provide high-visibility enforcement generally during rush hours—the time frame when aggressive driving appears to be most prevalent.
The DDACTS initiative continues to evolve in Baltimore County and the Smooth Operator Program continues to be an integral part of it. DDACTS target areas are reviewed continuously and roadways within them that experience aggressive driving–related crashes are targeted as Smooth Operator enforcement zones.
Many other agencies deploy high-visibility enforcement during Smooth Operator waves. This combines with the media efforts to heighten the perception that aggressive drivers will be stopped and cited. The BCOPD has been able to deploy significant enforcement resources to targeted areas by assigning patrol time to hot spots for high-visibility enforcement that is supplemented by overtime enforcement teams.
Traditional enforcement tactics, such as the use of radar and other speed detection devices, are combined with unmarked vehicles and aerial enforcement to enhance impact. A particularly interesting tactic known as the “centipede” is used in some areas and involves placing enforcement units several miles apart along targeted stretches of highways, particularly on interstates, to provide the impression that police enforcement is omnipresent. It may also serve to deter those tending to speed up or ignore other regulations after seeing a patrol unit. The combination of enforcement efforts from all of the participating agencies enhances the deterrent effect as the visibility stretches across the entire region.
Engineering efforts. Traffic engineers play an important role in traffic safety and crash reduction. During the Smooth Operator waves, highway officials contribute by posting warning signs in targeted areas. These signs identify Smooth Operator and inform drivers that the roadway has been designated for increased enforcement. Engineering partners have analyzed crash data to better identify the locations, times, and dates of aggressive driving–related crashes. By identifying high-risk crash corridors, law enforcement officials are better able to effectively target concentrated enforcement resources.
Another effective strategy is the use of roadway safety audits. While not unique to the Smooth Operator Program, roadway safety audits are an excellent means of obtaining an outside, objective review of roadway conditions where crash problems have developed. A team of engineers and safety experts from other jurisdictions review all aspects of traffic safety in the targeted area and make recommendations for maintenance, improvements, and enforcement to counter identified problems. These have been used along several targeted roadways in Baltimore County, and the results have proven valuable. Although major construction changes cannot occur immediately, many of the recommendations include steps that are of minimal cost and easy to implement, providing immediate improvements that can increase the safety of a targeted roadway.
Emergency medical services. Trauma center staff is all too familiar with the carnage that is wreaked on area highways as a result of aggressive driving. These dedicated professionals are quick to lend a hand to get the message out in support of the Smooth Operator Program. The trauma centers are frequent locations for major media events in partnership with law enforcement officers from around the region. Emergency providers also support the Smooth Operator Program by participating on the steering committee and by providing information to the media and public about the devastating injuries that result from traffic crashes.
Smooth Operator Program Results
The Smooth Operator Program results in a substantial amount of media, public information, and enforcement targeted toward drivers. This combination is known to be an effective method of changing driver behavior. Elizabeth A. Baker, PhD, NHTSA Region III administrator, said, “The Smooth Operator Program has significantly raised awareness among motorists regarding the dangers of aggressive driving. Once again, focused enforcement, coupled with paid and earned media coverage, results in a successful program.”
Nearly 2,000 radio spots were broadcast during the 2009 campaign in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, markets. These alone produced almost 26 million total impressions on listeners. Added media value and public service announcements resulted in more than $265,000 of free media placement to promote the Smooth Operator message.11 Outdoor advertising, including billboards, and additional police presence were positioned on the corridors of high-crash incidence. These boards, as well as signage on buses traveling the same routes, increased the campaign’s profile for all drivers during enforcement waves. Additionally, assorted forms of Internet advertising helped saturate the area with the Smooth Operator message.
Since 1997, law enforcement agencies in the region have issued more than 3.2 million citations and warnings during Smooth Operator enforcement waves. Additionally, the enforcement reach has grown to include the entire state of Maryland, the most densely populated counties of northern Virginia, and metropolitan and federal law enforcement agencies inside the District of Columbia. In 2009, more than 400,000 citations were issued during the enforcement waves, including 205,066 in Maryland; 125,813 in Virginia; and 77,698 in Washington, D.C. This is a substantial increase from 2008, during which 319,379 citations were issued in these states and is more than four times the citations issued in the first year of the program.
The BCOPD has been able to deploy significant enforcement resources to targeted areas by assigning patrol time to hot spots for high-visibility enforcement that is supplemented by overtime enforcement teams. In 2008, the agency expended more than 51,000 hours of enforcement time along targeted roadways and reported more than 65,000 violator contacts. During the Smooth Operator waves, more than 10,000 citations and warnings were issued.12
At the end of each campaign, the program’s steering committee organizes a reception and recognition event to award officers in each actively participating agency for their dedication to highway safety, specifically aggressive driving enforcement. Agencies are provided a set number of nominations based on agency size. Coordinators select officers whom they believe deserve recognition for their efforts during the past year’s campaign. These officers are invited to a formal ceremony, along with their peers from across the tri-jurisdictional region, where they receive a specially made Smooth Operator medal and a uniform pin comprised of the campaign colors.
In addition to outputs related to enforcement and education, it is important to measure outcomes, particularly related to crash reductions. Since Smooth Operator is designed to stigmatize aggressive driving and reduce its overall incidence, specific numbers during enforcement waves are not measured across all jurisdictions. However, following are some notable outcomes:
- Overall aggressive driving crashes peaked in Maryland in 2006 and have been declining for the past two years. Persons killed in aggressive driving crashes have declined from a high of 88 in 2006 to 62 in 2008.
- In 2008, the BCOPD experienced a 6 percent overall reduction in crashes along the 6 targeted corridors and a 14.7 percent reduction in injury crashes. As a result of the DDACTS initiative, corresponding crime reductions have been realized in areas where targeted, high-visibility enforcement has been utilized.
- In 2007, overall crashes in Howard County, Maryland, dropped during all four waves of the Smooth Operator Program, as compared to other time frames.
- In 2005, the Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Department reported that citations issued by red light cameras, as well as overall crashes, declined during the summer months.13
Although these are generalized data, post-campaign surveys indicate that public awareness of the problem has increased. In 2009, 72 percent of individuals contacted selected total awareness of all Smooth Operator Program messages, up from 64 percent in the pre-campaign survey. More importantly, within the target demographic, awareness of the enforcement message was 58 percent—a 6 percent increase from the pre- to the postsurvey. These results confirm the success of the campaign’s goal of delivering a stronger enforcement message to this at-risk demographic.14
The goal of the Smooth Operator Program has been to stigmatize the driving behaviors associated with aggressive driving, increase enforcement of related violations, and ultimately reduce related crashes. The hard work of the participants has been paying off as crash numbers decline. This is likely due to three strategies that have been incorporated:
- Enforcement and education efforts have been targeted to the areas where the problem is most prevalent.
- Media has been designed to reach those most likely to engage in aggressive driving behaviors.
- Collaboration has provided a multiagency, multi-state approach. This collaboration not only increases ideas and expertise but provides an expanded reach as drivers observe program activity across jurisdictional lines, which also maximizes the efficient use of limited resources.
Smooth Operator is a program that has benefited the Mid-Atlantic region by addressing the problem of traffic safety. It is also a program that can be replicated anywhere that aggressive driving or other safety problems arise. The starting point is identifying partners from within law enforcement, the community, and other agencies concerned with traffic safety issues. The use of combined resources will result in a broader reach and greater benefits.
More information regarding the Smooth Operator Program can be obtained by contacting the authors or by visiting www.smoothoperatorprogram.com. ■
1NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, “Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities in 2009,” Traffic Safety Facts, DOTHS 811 291, March 2010, www-nrd.nhtsa.do2t.gov/pubs/811291.pdf.
2National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Aggressive Driving Enforcement: Strategies for Implementing Best Practices,” http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/enforce/aggressdrivers/aggenforce/define.html (accessed April 20, 2010).
3International Association of Chiefs of Police Highway Safety Committee, Highway Safety Deskbook (September 2004): 18–7.
4AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “Aggressive Driving: Research Update” (Washington, D.C., 2009): 4.
7Maryland Highway Safety Office, The 2009 Smooth Operator Program Annual Report, March 2010, 6.
8Rajesh Subramanian, “Top 10 Leading Causes of Death in the United States for 2006,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, October 2009, DOT HS 811 226, 2, table Top 10 Leading Causes of Death in the United States for 2006, by Age Group, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811226.PDF (accessed May 13, 2010).
9National Cooperative Highway Research Program, “Public Information and Education in the Promotion of Highway Safety,” Research Results Digest 322 (August 2007): 10, http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/nchrp/nchrp_rrd_322.pdf (accessed May 17, 2010).
10Maryland Highway Safety Office, The 2009 Smooth Operator Program Annual Report, 3.
12These statistics were reported by the BCOPD as a result of the DDACTS and Smooth Operator Programs.
13These statistics were reported to the Maryland Highway Safety Office by the INOVA-Fairfax Hospital as part of a contracted evaluation report.
14Maryland Highway Safety Office, The 2009 Smooth Operator Program Annual Report, 10.
Please cite as:
Howard B. Hall and Thomas J. Gianni, "The Smooth Operator Program: Combating Aggressive Driving in the Mid-Atlantic," The Police Chief 77 (July 2010): 32–38,
http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/CPIM0710/#/32 (insert access date).