Doug Dahl, the Target Zero manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, answers popular travel-related questions.
Q: What action should one take when witnessing severe unsafe driving? For example, on a recent trip I saw a semi truck repeatedly cross traffic lanes, three motorcycles drive in between lanes and cars through traffic, and two cars race ahead at 80-plus mph. Should these incidents just be ignored? Do you call 911 to report unsafe driving? Or, do you stay in your zone listening to podcasts to avoid your own road rage from building?
A: Anyone who has been driving for a while has had a day when you were seriously annoyed by another driver. And there’s a good chance there has been a day when you were the annoying driver, too. Hopefully not on purpose, but mistakes are inevitable in life, and if driving is part of your life you’ll make mistakes there too.
Then there are times when another driver actually scares you. Maybe you fear for yourself, or possibly you have a vicarious fear for the other drivers on the road. Things like a semi truck drifting into another lane or cars racing down the freeway can do that.
Your question is actually doing a lot of the heavy lifting for me. If you’re annoyed by another driver, yes, listen to your podcast, do some breathing exercises, practice empathy and understand that maybe the other driver didn’t signal for their lane change because they’re thinking about the medical needs of an aging parent, or maybe the driver is a victim of an underdeveloped organ; the brain, in case you’re wondering which one. On a related side note, we can get our driver license when we’re 16, but the decision-making part of our brain doesn’t fully develop until we’re around 25.
But if a driver’s behavior is posing a threat, 911 is a good choice. We’ve been taught to call 911 only in an emergency, so allow me to reframe that a bit. If you saw a person walking up to your neighbor’s house at night carrying a crowbar would you wait until they pried the front door open to call 911? Maybe it’s a crowbar salesman with insomnia, but why not intervene before the sound of splintering wood proves you wrong? Likewise, you’d call 911 if you rolled up on the scene of a crash; consider calling 911 if you observe behavior that’s likely to cause a crash.
Much of police work is responding after an incident. Traffic enforcement is one of the few opportunities police have to intervene before something bad happens. On its website, the Washington State Patrol specifically requests that you report aggressive, distracted or impaired drivers.
When you call 911 the dispatcher is likely going to ask you the location you last saw the vehicle, the license plate number (if known), the direction of travel, what roadway, the vehicle color and what happened. The dispatcher will then relay that information to officers in the area.
What can police officers do with the information? They can’t just stop a car based on it. By law, an officer can only issue a traffic infraction if they or another officer witnessed it, or based on evidence at the scene of a crash. However, in the sea of cars all doing their thing, your description alerts them to watch for a specific vehicle.
Does it work? It did when I reported an impaired driver to 911. A few minutes later I was called by an officer who had arrested the driver, asking for a statement of what I observed. That’s just one example of how we all work together to make our roadways safer.
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