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Atty. Ralph D. Sherman

130 West Main Street • New Britain, Connecticut 06052

tel. (860) 229-0213 • fax (860) 229-0235 • e-mail


Legal Opinion

August 2002


How to avoid a case of "road rage"

You’re stopped for a red light, in a line of several cars. The light changes to green. No one moves, so you give a light toot on your horn. The driver immediately in front of you responds by opening his door, getting out, and giving you a blast of obscenities and gestures. What should you do?

The question here is one of law and of self-preservation. If your answer includes getting out of your car, then you flunk on both points.

This situation isn’t hypothetical; I’ve represented many individuals who found themselves in it. They contacted me because they didn’t handle the situation as well as they should have. Usually their first mistake was getting out of the car. From there, the scenario may have taken various turns, including an exchange of bad language from both parties, one or more verbal threats, pepper spray, a knife, a firearm, or other physical contact involving one or both vehicle(s) and/or one or both drivers.

I’m glad to report that none of the cases I’ve seen involved a person who held a pistol permit. Permit-holders really do try harder than most persons to avoid this type of situation or, at least, to prevent it from escalating.

Permit-holders also tend to understand better the legal and moral concept of self-defense. Typically in these cases, my client (the horn-tooter) says, "The other guy started it. How could I be the one to get arrested?"

Let’s go back to where the other driver gets out of his car. No, let’s go back even further - to the point where you stopped for the red light.

When you stop in traffic, for any reason, you should always leave enough room in front of your vehicle so that you can pull out and drive around the next vehicle in front if it doesn’t move again. Leaving room puts you in a good defensive position that can help you avoid a carjacking and other troubles. Usually if you can see the next vehicle’s rear tires, you’re back far enough that you can drive around it, but this depends a little on the size and shape of your vehicle and the next one. A quick experiment in a parking lot will show you how much distance you need.

So let’s assume that you have stopped your vehicle so as to leave room to maneuver. The light changes to green. The next question is: Should you blow your horn?

As a rule, my answer is: No.

Go ahead and call me a wimp. I’d rather sit through another change of the light than deal with the next driver getting out of his vehicle. But I’ll honk if he doesn’t move at the second change.

So now we’re at the horn stage of the scenario. Hearing your horn, the driver in front gets out of his vehicle and flaunts his repertoire of four-letter words.

At this point, getting out of your vehicle is the last thing you should consider doing.

The immediate problem with your getting out is that doing so puts you in physical danger - needlessly. What if the other guy is drunk? Or armed? Or both? He has plainly overreacted to your horn. Are ready to have your spouse cash in on your life insurance?

Is this encounter really necessary?

That’s the immediate problem. The long-term problem is that if you survive the encounter, you run a good risk of being arrested. The police and the state’s attorney will say that because you were in no imminent danger when the other driver was 30 feet away and merely calling you nasty names, you were not acting defensively when you got out of your vehicle. Instead, when you got out, you were threatening the other driver, or at least signaling your willingness to fight.

Deep down, maybe that’s why some individuals do get out of their vehicles in this situation. The other driver awakens a primal instinct to stand ground.

This instinct runs contrary to our law, however. So I do see a fair number of individuals in this situation who have been charged with threatening, breach of peace, and even assault. Every one has made his case difficult to defend, because he got out of his vehicle.

What should you do in this situation? Consider your options, and pick the best one, depending on the exact circumstances.

You could simply wait until the other driver finishes venting his emotions, returns to his seat, and drives away. This probably won’t take long. You could also open your window, call out "Sorry!", and try to look sheepish, which may encourage the other driver to return to his seat a little faster.

If the other driver begins to approach your vehicle, you need to make sure your windows are closed and your doors are locked. Then find a safe escape route - one that doesn’t involve striking the other driver - and get away. This may be challenging because you may have to wait until the other driver comes quite near your door before it’s safe to pull out. But since you left plenty of distance between your vehicle and his, you can do it.

When you get home safely, think a little harder about the meaning of the old slogan, "drive defensively." It applies even to situations where your vehicle is stationary.


Copyright 2002 by Ralph D. Sherman

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