Driven to Extremes in the Northwest


As soon as her pickup edged into the other lane, Cheryl Kyle knew she had blown it. Kyle is a school bus driver; she checks her mirrors. But in this case, the small brown Toyota was in her blind spot. She quickly pulled back, and as the Toyota moved up beside her, she and her husband held up their hands and mouthed, “Sorry.”

Just the kind of thing you can expect in a place where road courtesy has been an article of faith. Northwest drivers are known for politely ushering pedestrians across mid-block, slowing down so parked cars can enter traffic, almost bowing to other motorists in endless “No, after you!” intersection choreographies that can infuriate outsiders.

Thus, it was a clear signal that something was amiss Christmas Day on the freeway, when Cheryl and Robert Kyle were returning to their Bush Prairie, Wash., home from a celebration with relatives.


When the Kyles held up their hands in pained gestures of apology, the Toyota driver didn’t smile back. He rolled down his window and fired a 9-millimeter handgun, striking Robert in the arm. Then he calmly motored on, eventually pulling off onto another freeway and disappearing across the Columbia River.

“He wasn’t screaming, he wasn’t cussing, he wasn’t excited in any way. He didn’t even speed away. He just continued about his business,” Cheryl recalled. “It’s all beyond me. I can’t even guess as to what might happen out there anymore.”

Road rage has become an exploding phenomenon across the country, but nowhere has it been more painful or pronounced than in the Pacific Northwest. Five drivers or their passengers have died since 1993--there have been three shootings in the last two weeks alone--victims of slip-ups on the road and slighted drivers who got really, really mad about them.

The image of a gun barrel leveled across a freeway lane was refined in California. But actual road-rage violence in the Golden State now pales in comparison to Washington. In 1996, the California Highway Patrol documented 49 cases of violence involving firearms; there were 1,100 such cases in Washington during the same period.

Washington officials say that while there is undoubtedly more rage on the roads than in past years, there have always been angry drivers, drivers so mad they were ready to do something about it.

“There is an upswing that we’re noting in regard to it, but I’ve been a trooper since 1971, and certainly in the ‘70s, when I was working the freeway system, I saw incidents similar to what we see today,” said State Patrol Capt. Marshall Pugh. “There weren’t shootings involved, but there was a lot of cutting off and fistfights.”


The number of drivers intentionally killing or injuring others in traffic disputes has been rising 7% a year across the country since 1990, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which analyzed more than 10,000 incidents over a seven-year period.

One reason for the increase here is the traffic. The Northwest is not a place accustomed to 5 mph freeway gridlock or shouted epithets across a backed-up intersection. But Seattle, the nation’s 22nd-largest city, now has the sixth-worst traffic gridlock. Worker commuting times closely rival Los Angeles’.

And it’s worsening, with Portland, Ore., and Seattle registering growth rates of more than 7% a year.


Thus come stories of road wars as hair-raising as anywhere in urban America, played out in a region that sees itself as an alternative to the big city’s fast lane.

The day after Christmas, police said, three people driving on a thoroughfare several miles south of Tacoma changed lanes too close to a red Honda, whose driver responded by handing over the wheel to a passenger, standing up through the sunroof and firing a .45-caliber handgun.

Christina Thornton, 50, was grazed in the head. Another passenger was hit in the head, and the driver was shot in the leg. All three survived. A man arrested in the shooting is being held on $750,000 bail.


“All I remember is seeing the pistol, and him kind of turning it around and aiming it at us,” Thornton said. “I was ducking down and trying to get out of the way, and I got hit. I told my daughter’s ex-boyfriend to tell her I loved her. I thought I was going to die. It hurt. It’s hard to even describe the pain.”

On New Year’s Eve, when a motorist struck a pedestrian in Tacoma and started to drive away, a bystander pulled out a gun, started firing and then disappeared into the crowd.


A few weeks earlier, according to police, 49-year-old Ronald Beagles drove too long on the West Seattle Freeway with his turn signal flashing. Vernon Mitchell, 19, started shouting at him, and when the two drivers pulled over, Mitchell allegedly smashed out Beagles’ back window and taillights with a baseball bat. Beagles grabbed a gun and began firing, police say, striking Mitchell in the buttocks. The district attorney is reviewing the case to decide whether charges will be filed against either man.

A Boeing Co. employee, Jeffrey C. Thompson, was sentenced to 18 months in prison Friday on a second-degree assault conviction in connection with an incident that began last spring. He shot insurance executive Jim McClure for allegedly cutting him off during the commute home.

“Two 50-year-old guys. Businessmen. Both generally--but for this--probably decent family guys,” recounted Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Paul Stern.

After the initial exchange of hostilities on Interstate 5, he said, “both have the misfortune of electing to get off the same exit to go home. McClure stops first at the light, Thompson’s behind him. Nice, lovely spring day. McClure walks back to Thompson’s car to say, ‘What the hell’s the problem?’ There’s an exchange of words . . . and Thompson pulls a gun to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this thing. Back off.’ McClure backs off. There’s one shot fired that touches the ground, and a second shot fired that hits McClure in the groin area.”



Three other people, including a young teenage girl riding in the back of a car that cut someone off, died in separate road-shooting incidents last year. In all, Washington state police are tallying about 1,100 gun-brandishing incidents on state highways every year--a dramatic increase since 1990, although virtually every state is documenting a rise in road-rage reports.

“There’s no question that the Northwest is overrepresented with this problem. Part of this has to do with growth in the area, congestion in the area, poor design of roads that were not designed to move people efficiently. So you have things here that you don’t see in other parts of the country,” said Dr. Roland Maiuro, a University of Washington professor who, at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, directs one of the few road-rage therapy programs in the nation.

“We also have people who are accustomed to driving as they please on the road, and not having to be close and interacting intimately with other drivers,” Maiuro said. “This is the great Pacific Northwest and people like their space here, and it’s being taken away from them.”

Maiuro has documented five personality types most susceptible to roadway violence:

* The young, impulsive male, whose sense of identity is not fully formed, who has much to prove to his peers and is very susceptible to challenge.

* The typical Type-A profile, a competitive individual who sees driving as a race, a challenge, who wants to be first and is determined to defend his territory.

* A displaced anger or projected-rage profile, who is mad about something else and takes it out in his car.


* The Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde profile, who appears mild and unassertive in most social encounters and whose bottled-up rage erupts behind the wheel.

* And, heavily represented in the Northwest and among women, the polite rule-enforcer, who has a certain etiquette he or she expects on the road and who becomes highly offended when it is breached.


The profiles cross geographic strata and social boundaries. Maiuro has among his patients two men whose paths converged during their evening commute to the prosperous suburbs east of Seattle, home to many high-tech millionaires.

One man says the other was tailgating him while they were crossing the Lake Washington bridge. The other accused the driver in front of riding his brakes.

“It developed into a chase of bumping cars and people cutting each other off,” Maiuro said. “Finally, the one individual attempted to flee and tried to drive home, and the other person followed him, drove right up on his lawn and got out of the car and tackled the other individual as he was trying to head into his home.

“His wife and children noticed the commotion,” he said. “They were expecting their dad to come home, but what they weren’t expecting was that he would be followed by a road-rager. They went out onto the lawn to help and they ended up being assaulted as well.”


The Washington State Patrol is preparing a road-rage response package for presentation to the Legislature next month. It will focus on educating drivers on how to avoid highway confrontations, but also will beef up patrols to ticket tailgaters and faulty lane-changers and, where possible, provide engineering improvements to roads in order to avoid predictable traffic conflicts.


Badly planned onramps and exits are bound to escalate tempers, Pugh said. “We want to look at some highway areas where potentially the . . . design or situations that occur in certain areas may be causing a higher number of incidents of being cut off or failing to yield.”

As a rule, drivers here in the Northwest are still a polite breed. But things are beginning to change, especially in urban areas.

“It’s a little scary. I’ve lived here for 13 1/2 years, and I tell you, when I moved here, it was nice,” prosecutor Stern said. “Drive wherever the heck you wanted, didn’t have to worry about the traffic. You wanted to go someplace, you just went there. And now, the roads here, I’m not sure they’re any better than L.A.--and a hell of a lot worse than anyplace else I’ve ever been.

“And everybody’s in a hurry, you know? And everybody else is the bad driver. Nobody else is in a hurry except you. Nobody else matters. The ‘Me Generation’ hits the road.”