Fla. Drivers Merge Into the Rude Lane

TIMES STAFF WRITER

How do Miami drivers mind their manners? Police Sgt. George Arias just laughs.

"You name it, I've probably seen it. Like people running tollbooths for a quarter," the 27-year veteran officer says.

It's just past 1 o'clock on a hot and muggy afternoon, and Arias is piloting his marked Ford police cruiser south on Interstate 95 through downtown Miami. He's five miles above the speed limit.

Cars zoom past him anyway. He laughs and shakes his head.

In an unscientific, but much-commented-upon poll, motorists in Miami recently rated themselves the nation's rudest. They think driving through yellow lights, blasting the horn, changing lanes without signaling, blinding an oncoming car with the high beams and making rude gestures to others are more common here than in other major American cities.

"If you're going to Miami, consider walking," suggested the poll, conducted for TheSteelAlliance, an industry association.

Only when it came to tailgating did Miamians rate themselves as no more aggressive than other Americans. And although nearly two-thirds of the people surveyed here recently considered it dangerous to talk on the cell phone while driving, 50% confessed having done so over the previous month.

Is it the near-tropical intensity of the sunshine, the complex alchemy of Latin and Anglo, immigrant and native-born snowbird in this metropolis of 2.2 million?

Ernseau Gillot, 42, who has lived here for 20 years, can't say.

"Got to be careful," the Haitian immigrant says in summarizing his own behind-the-wheel credo. "Some don't pay attention. Some drive fast. Some drive crazy."

Gillot is standing on the curb of Flagler Street in Miami's commercial heart because his Isuzu Rodeo has just been rear-ended at a stop light. The man who hit him is a visitor from Beirut, in a hurry to get to his next appointment.

"There's nothing special about driving in Miami," volunteers the impatient businessman in the red Mustang, 30-year-old David Zouein. "It's like driving in Lebanon."

When Arias arrives, he hops out of his patrol car and soon is directing traffic around the immobilized vehicles. If he didn't, he says, other drivers wouldn't even make way for any necessary fire engines or ambulances.

"It's me, me, me," Arias grumbles, referring to the typical Miami driver's mind-set. Behind the wheel, the sergeant says, his fellow citizens mutate into ferociously territorial creatures--never yielding the right of way and doing whatever is necessary to advance another inch in traffic.

And this day, Arias points out example after example of egotistical behavior: A man turning left on a Little Havana street, despite a sign clearly forbidding it. A driver in Overtown exceeding the speed limit by 15 mph in a school zone and nearly knocking over a child on a bicycle.

"We've got people from Central America, South America, the North, the South, and they all bring their own culture," Arias says. "They fit in. Or they have an accident. Whatever comes first."

But whether Miami residents deserve a flunking grade for politeness is a matter of opinion and, most probably, personal experience.

"How do you measure rudeness?" Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez asks, waxing philosophical. "It's like beauty. And what city has the most beautiful women?"

TheSteelAlliance surveyed 1,000 licensed drivers nationwide and an additional 100 drivers in each of eight major cities. In its third year, the poll may have found Miamians the most churlish, but Bostonians edged them to take the prize of being judged the worst drivers overall.

Los Angeles followed those two East Coast cities as the third least safe place to drive. Motorists in Cleveland were judged the most courteous, as well as the best drivers--along with their counterparts in Detroit.

The most recent accident data available do find the deadliest place to drive in the United States to be in Florida--but it is Fort Lauderdale, not Miami. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 24.67 fatalities per 100,000 residents in Miami's northern neighbor in 1999.

Three other Florida cities--Orlando, the Miami suburb of Hialeah and Tampa--placed in the national Top 10 when it came to their high accident-fatality rates. Miami was No. 11.

Lt. John Bagnardi of the Florida Highway Patrol, who cruised the highways of Miami for almost 10 years and now works in Fort Lauderdale, believes the behavior of South Florida motorists can be linked to the region's torrid economic growth.

"There's a lot of construction, and that means delays," he said.

All it takes is an accident or a bridge opening to slow traffic flow, the state trooper says, and things become a "free-for-all."

At the Miami-Dade County courthouse on Miami's Northwest 14th Street, a dozen busy courtrooms handle traffic violations. Judge Rosa C. Figarola doesn't find anything particularly outrageous about the cases she hears. In about five months on the job, she's presided over two incidents of road rage. But the most common violation to come before her is driving without a license.

"I've gone to Manhattan. Not everybody there is nice either, you know," she says.

But in the courthouse lobby, bailiff Mark Vinson, 40, says that behavior on Miami roads and streets is increasingly loutish and that it is responsible for his present job. For five years, he says, he drove cars for an auto dealership until he couldn't take "all the bad drivers" anymore.

"Yesterday, I'm in my car going to pick up my girlfriend, and somebody shoots me the bird," Vinson says. "What'd I do? Nothing. The only time there was common courtesy was after Andrew [the devastating hurricane of 1992]. Then for a week or so, people stopped, gave you a break. Now they need to take a chill pill."

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