People immediately speculated on the cause: The drivers were unaware of their surrounding traffic. They were playing a game of automotive chicken. They were functionally brain dead behind the wheel. One or more of the drivers made a last-second decision to veer off the interstate and onto the ramp.
If you picked choice #4 — ding, ding, ding — you’re a winner!
SSPD Sgt. Salvador Ortega said the department posted the photo to alert drivers to the dangers of the lane closures and exit reconfigurations that occur as the state undergoes a massive, multiyear construction project to remake the I-285/Ga. 400 juncture. Drivers are creatures of habit, so construction-related changes are causing high anxiety. This was just a nudge to the public to ask folks to slow down, and be alert and more cautious.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
However, what started as a traffic alert by the department, Ortega said, “ultimately became something that thousands of Atlantans shared, as traffic crashes and bad driving habits affect their daily commute.”
This case, he said, was caused by a “distracted driver,” the SUV, “making a last-second decision to rapidly go across a lane in an attempt to take the exit. This driver’s actions caused a domino type of effect with the other two vehicles that were also trying to take the same exit.”
I read recently that the average price of a new car is $41,000. With this kind of investment, you’d think drivers would be more scrupulous in their daily endeavors. But anyone venturing out on Atlanta’s highways knows that this notion is absolute nonsense.
Recently on a surface street, a middle-aged guy in a Lexus who was driving the inside lane quickly pulled up aside me, riding the bumper of the car ahead of him. I instantly realized we were hemming in a man in a hurry. As I started to ease up to let him in (the old me would have continued to purposely box him in), the guy swerved into my lane, causing me to hit the brakes to avoid a certain collision.
A few blocks later, there he was stopped two cars ahead of me at a red light, no doubt calculating who else he had to cut off so he could get where he’d needed to be 87 seconds earlier.
Steve Rose, a retired captain from the Sandy Springs force, is a pretty good observer of the human condition based on 44 years of police work. As he likes to say, “Sometimes I wonder how we got to be at the top of the food chain.”
“It’s like your own personal kingdom when behind the wheel and any move by another driver is taken personally,” he said. “People yell and scream at those who won’t let you into the lane. But once you’re in that lane, damned if you’ll let anyone else in.”
It’s like the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down” is playing in an endless loop in our brains as we negotiate the roads.
Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Part of that is the anonymous nature of driving.
It’s just different being behind the wheel. You wouldn’t push a little old lady out of the way at the checkout line at Kroger, or yell at her if she clogs the potato chip aisle with her cart. But all bets are off if she pulls any such nonsense in her 2003 Buick LeSabre while you’re encased in your air-conditioned, 3,000-pound metal capsule.
In the past five years, studies by The Zebra, an insurance comparison site, and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety have found that more than 80% of drivers had expressed significant anger, aggression or road rage in the previous year. The AAA study, conducted in 2016, found that 51% of drivers have purposefully tailgated; 33% have made angry gestures; 24% have blocked another vehicle from changing lanes, and 4% have even left their vehicle to confront another driver.
Rose attributes the seemingly growing callousness and aggressiveness to social media. “Twitter is a toilet,” he said. “And people get used to taking shots at others without any responsibility.”
There’s another thought that other technologies might be driving much of the road mayhem.
Sure, selfishness is a big factor. But Doug Turnbull, a WSB radio traffic reporter, also thinks all the “smart” technology designed for cars has made drivers dumber.
“We’re so reliant on turn-by-turn navigation that there’s less ownership of your ride,” he said. “People are waiting until later to make their turn at the last minute. Then it’s my way or be damned.”
As construction has progressed on I-285, lanes are constricted, cars are squeezed together, yet people remain in a hurry. “With all that, you’re more likely to run into someone if you make a mistake or if someone else does,” Turnbull told me.
Deaths on Georgia’s roads have increased notably during the last couple of years. Last year’s increases were blamed on numbskulls driving ungodly speeds on empty roads. This year, more cars have returned to the roads but the speeders haven’t slowed down.
But it’s not just COVID-19 craziness. It’s something more systemic. Traffic deaths in Georgia have increased almost 50% from 2014′s toll of 1,145 road fatalities to 2020′s toll of 1,701. And as I noted, deaths so far are up again this year, an 8% increase from last year.
This month, Sam Harris, the top safety engineer at the Georgia Department of Transportation, told GDOT board members of the grave statistics and attributed the increase in fatalities to speeding, driving under the influence, and distracted driving.
Authorities and social pressure have cracked down on DUIs for decades, and speeding has been around since Henry Ford. What has changed is technology. Smartphone use has exploded in the past decade, and the wreckage on the roads seems to correlate with that increase.
Harris has some wild, yet simple advice. Slow down, pay attention, and try not to be a jerk.
“People are not accommodating. Why not just let someone in?” he asked. “Small things can make a big impact on the road.”
In the upcoming weeks, construction crews on I-285 near Ga. 400 are set to funnel five lanes on I-285 into three lanes.
It might be time to heed the engineer’s advice.