Road rage rarely comes cold-blooded. It spurts hot from the reptilian brain, without warning, bringing death or injury to some and putting others behind bars.
It forces snap decisions: Fight or flight? Kill or be killed?
In one moment, you’re driving along a road tapping your fingers on the steering wheel to the song playing on your speakers. Perhaps you’re singing, too. In the next moment, a cursing man (it’s often a male, usually young) points a gun.
Or it could be more direct, as it was for Tyler Wingate, who will be buried Friday in suburban Berkley. Wingate, 24, died Monday after a minor accident on Detroit's west side. When both drivers left their cars, the other man punched Wingate in the head.
After several more punches, recorded by video cameras, the killer kicked Wingate in the head in what Police Chief James Craig said may have been the fatal blow. Detectives are looking for a specific 23-year-old man with a history of violence.
“Lawrence James Davis,” Craig said at a news conference. “Turn yourself in.”
Technically, you can dispute whether this killing is due to classic “road rage.” The men weren’t inside moving vehicles at the moment of violence. But this is a distinction without a difference. This death involved automobiles and instant anger.
Not Just Detroit
And the victim’s personal story – a young suburbanite relocating to the city to help revive it – makes this death more poignant in a way both felt and understood by most residents of Metro Detroit. But tragic confrontations like this are hardly limited to the Motor City.
In recent weeks:
- In Houston, an 18-year-old man early this month shot a gun that caused fireworks to blow up inside another vehicle. Two adults and two children were injured with the children – ages 1 and 2 – suffering extensive burns.
- In Dodge City, Ala., a woman earlier this month accidentally shot her husband in the head while gunning for a different driver.
- In Arlington, Texas, this week a 27-year-old man attacked a truck with a hatchet after a crash, damaging the windshield, another window and a tire.
- In Stone Mountain, Ga., also this week, a Good Samaritan got shot in the head and was in critical condition after trying to break up a road-rage argument near Atlanta. A SWAT team arrested a 23-year-old man.
- In Milwaukee, a 3-year-old girl died when a motorist – angry at the child’s mother over a near collision – opened fire on the family’s car.
The WebMD site, in an extensive series about road rage, quotes psychologist Ava Cadell about angry drivers' mentality.
“They heavy metal of a car is a safe haven,” she said. “Road ragers don’t think about the consequences or even about other people on the road as real people with families. Road ragers are selfish, power-hungry, angry and vindictive.”
Kids Learn from Parents
Often, road rage results from rude and dangerous habits called “aggressive driving.” Those who cause it might not even be aware of their effect on other drivers.
They tailgate the car in front of them; they drive at high speeds; they weave from lane to lane, passing on the right; they cut off other drivers and change lanes without using turn signals; or they drift into adjacent lanes because they are talking or texting on a cell phone.
In a 2000 study called “Aggressive Driving is Emotionally Impaired Driving,” University of Hawaii Professors Leon James and Diane Nahl observed that children learn aggressive driving from the back seats of parents' cars.
“Kids observe and react internally to their drivers’ cursing or yelling, obscene or violent gestures, trash talk and other common forms of derision and retaliation,” their study reported. “. . . It is a learned habit that is transmitted from one generation to the next.”
Competitions and explosions
Angry driving “intensifies self-righteous indignation and encourages retaliation and unlawful acts” by “self-appointed vigilantes,” they wrote.
“Drivers are filled with competitive motives and explosive intentions that they are not fully aware of,” the report states. “These motives and intentions are emotionally impaired states because they distort the driver’s thinking and amplify the emotions beyond adequate self-control.”
One such case occurred in Livingston County in 2014 when Martin Edward Zale – now 74 – fatally shot Derek Flemming, a father of two young children. It happened after Flemming left his car and walked in anger toward Zale’s Dodge Ram pickup truck.
Flemming’s wife, Amy – who witnessed her husband’s death – testified at Zale’s trial about how fast the confrontation escalated.
“Derek was driving on Grand River Avenue when a truck pulled up to a stop sign so quickly that she feared it would not stop,” according to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which upheld Zale’s prison sentence.
“The truck pulled behind them onto Grand River Avenue. It drove close to their vehicle and Amy thought they would be rear-ended.”
She said in testimony that the truck passed on the right, sped up, pulled directly in front of them and then slammed on its brakes, a maneuver Zale repeated. Then they both stopped at a red light. “Derek put their vehicle into park, got out of the car, and walked toward the truck,” according to the March 2017 opinion.
“Amy saw Derek throw his hands in the air and say `what the ****’s your problem?’ She heard a popping noise and saw her husband’s head go back before he fell to the ground.”
Zale is eligible for parole in 2041, the year he turns 95. Flemming remains dead. Perhaps part of the problem was the gun as much as the road rage, but that’s a different thought for another day.