Aspen’s commutes breeding road rage |

Aspen’s commutes breeding road rage

Charles Agar
Aspen Correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado

ASPEN, COLORADO ” Aspen is still a place where powder days trump billable hours and big-city problems, like violent crime and gangs, are practically nonexistent.

But the town is not immune to all urban diseases ” road rage is on the rise.

Characterized by any violent behavior in an automobile, “road rage” is a blanket term for everything from tailgating, weaving or cutting off other drivers to shouts, rude gestures, threats and even attacks, according to local law-enforcement officials.

With increased traffic on Highway 82 and long waits during morning and evening rush hour in the bottleneck at the entrance to Aspen, Colorado State Patrol officials report an increase in road-rage incidents. And local law-enforcement agents are becoming more vigilant.

“[Highway] 82 is our No. 1 spot for road-rage calls,” said Sgt. David Kucera of the Colorado State Patrol, and the numbers are increasing.

The state police dispatch center in Craig received 1,765 road-rage calls from January to September 2006. The Northwest Colorado district extends from Steamboat Springs to Mesa County and includes part of the Interstate 70 corridor, Highway 133 and Highway 82 as far as Aspen.

Highway 82 boasts the most road-rage incidents of any highway in the district, Kucera said. And from January to September 2007, the number of road-rage calls districtwide increased by 21 percent to 2,134, Kucera said.

Drivers cannot be charged with road rage, he added, but the term describes a range of offenses and types of behavior. Some road-rage incidents turn out to be drunk driving, Kucera said. Others result in charges for reckless driving, careless driving and criminal mischief.

Police respond to some road-rage calls by writing tickets for aggressive driving, a total of 206 from January to October 2006 and 186 for the same period in 2007, Kucera said.

The prevalence of cell phones and the signs along Highway 82 asking people to “report road rage” might add to the number of calls, Kucera said. But he’s also convinced that there’s simply more overall anger on the road, that the calls reflect an increase in the number of frustrated drivers.

Kim Vieira, a resident of Aspen Village, said she’s one of only a few who drive the speed limit along Highway 82. She is fed up with aggressive drivers hurtling down the highway and said law-enforcement officials should do something about it.

“They come right up to my bumper and they hang there, and they’re trying to push me,” Vieira said. “People are going crazy on the road. No one pays attention to the speed limits.”

Vieira said a number of people have flipped her off, and she’s written several letters to the local newspapers calling for Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies to step up their patrols on Highway 82. Vieira believes the high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes on Highway 82 are at the root of the problem.

“I don’t think the HOV lane works here,” Vieira said. “I understand it for large cities. Here it doesn’t work.”

Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis agrees.

Braudis said that frustration over high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane violators causes road-rage incidents along Highway 82.

“There is an inordinate level of noncompliance with HOV. It’s becoming the prime reason for complaints,” Braudis said. “Our road-rage calls are coming from people who are observing cheaters.”

Single-occupant vehicles illegally use the HOV lanes to pass long lines of cars backed up near Buttermilk Ski Area. And that’s where trouble often breaks out when frustrated drivers tailgate, drive aggressively and get into arguments, Braudis said.

“The righteous people who follow the HOV [laws] are getting enraged when they see cars whiz by them in the HOV,” Braudis said. “Some people chase HOV offenders down and get out of the car and confront them.”

Most local road-rage incidents defuse or end up in simple arguments, Braudis said, adding that most locals are “too reasonable” to get into fistfights in traffic. But commuting in the Roaring Fork Valley is becoming a “corrosive experience,” with delays as long as an hour-and-a-half from Basalt to Aspen some days, the sheriff said.

Prosecuting road rage takes cooperation from citizens, Braudis said. When police aren’t present, sheriff’s deputies count on witnesses.

“The caller has to be willing to identify the driver and appear in court,” Braudis said, but most witnesses who finger dangerous drivers say they aren’t willing to testify.

Responding to recent complaints, Pitkin County deputies are patrolling Highway 82 for HOV offenders because so many are breaking the rules.

But even enforcing the rules for HOV lanes might not have an effect, especially when the ticket is just $66 and costs no points on a driver’s license.

“Sixty-six dollars is not a lot to some socioeconomic groups in Aspen,” Braudis said.

Patrolling for HOV offenders is an experiment, Braudis said, and he’ll know from feedback in coming months whether it works.

“I tell people to just slow down and let the other guy pass,” Braudis said. “My advice is chill out.”

But road rage is a problem all across the state, Sgt. Kucera said.

He remembered a call on Interstate 70 where a driver was tailgating. The lead driver purposely slammed on his brakes, causing an accident. Both drivers were ticketed, Kucera said.

He also remembers cases where drivers were charged with assault for throwing things, but Kucera hasn’t heard of any traffic-related fistfights or assaults in the area.

“People who work upvalley have a tremendous commute, and tempers flare,” Kucera said.

Sometimes a driver follows another too closely, drives too fast or makes unsafe lane changes and does not use a turn signal.

“Those are the four major contributing factors,” Kucera said.

Some road ragers react to slow-moving cars and people who have inadvertently delayed their progress, Kucera said.

When state officials receive a road-rage call, they sometimes catch the drivers in the act, Kucera said. More often, however, state patrol officers are spread far and wide across the Western Slope, and it’s up to citizens and local law agencies to prosecute road-rage cases.

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