Get serious about road rage

Cops: Man confessed to road rage shooting of child
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Story highlights

  • A 4-year-old girl was killed this week in an alleged road rage incident
  • Danny Cevallos: Road rage may be appropriate target for "mandatory minimum" sentencing

Danny Cevallos is a CNN Legal Analyst and a personal injury and criminal defense attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)Albuquerque police have arrested a 32-year-old man and charged him with murder in the alleged "road rage" killing of a 4 year-old, who was caught in gunfire as she sat in the back seat of her father's truck. Tony Torrez was arrested Wednesday and has apparently admitted to the shooting that caused this child's death.

Of course it's senseless, and of course it's tragic. But it also raises a larger, and perennially ignored, danger in our society: Why don't we talk more about the phenomenon of road rage?
Danny Cevallos
Let's face it, Americans love to obsess over some threats and ignore others. For example, we're consumed these days with fears over gluten in food and antibiotics in our cows. Yet automobiles kill a lot more people per year than bagels or beef jerky. Automobiles are already incredibly dangerous without gun-toting nudniks, so it's perplexing that we as a society would tolerate behavior that adds any unnecessary risk to an already incredibly risky activity.
    Yet both our citizenry and our legislatures are remarkably tolerant of the avoidable risks attendant to driving. Speed limits are intermittently enforced, nobody seems to care about fixing traffic jams, and road rage is just accepted behavior.
    And when I say accepted behavior, I mean no one is immune. With other crimes, it's safe to say there's a type. When a bank heist goes off, or a kidnapping-for-ransom, law enforcement does not start by investigating 70-year-old grandmothers. Most crimes have a certain "type." If I sound vague or ambiguous, let me put a finer point on it: that type is young -- and that type is male.
    Road rage is different; it knows no age, gender or other boundaries, other than a single, universal prerequisite: "driver." Mothers, accountants, grandfathers, even members of law enforcement can get involved in "road rage" incidents. Academic studies confirm what we've all known instinctively for a long time: When we feel anonymous in our cars, we're emboldened to act out in a way we would never do in our normal lives. The "why" of road rage is apparent; we understand why people are so brash behind the false security of their shatter-resistant windshields. The real "why" is: Why do we tolerate it, legally or socially?
    Think about it. There's absolutely nothing good that comes of acting out against another driver. Has any driver that cut you off doubled back to apologize after you honked and flipped him off? Has losing your temper at another driver ever made you any less late in getting to your appointment? No. There's no upside. The risk is tremendous. You could cause an accident, or the other guy might have a gun. It's all risk, no reward. But humans are notoriously lousy at calculating the odds, and so drivers continue to throw down the middle-fingered gauntlet, inviting all the deadly risk involved.
    Perhaps an aggrieved driver thinks his aggression will be deemed justified in retrospect, that the cool reflection of law enforcement will understand that this good citizen just had to give this lane-changer a "piece of his mind," as is his right, as a noble member of society.
    Wrong.
    Law enforcement does not look kindly upon vigilantes to begin with. Police especially dislike the "road rage" variety of cowboy. There are plenty of reasons for their ire: First, each party in a road rage incident bears a modicum of guilt, however slight. Second, road rage doesn't just endanger the participants; everyone on the road is at risk when two Volvos decide to go "Fast & Furious" on each other. Third, and by far the most important, nothing irritates police more than when people try to BS them. Similar to fistfights and neighbor disputes, road rage participants will each give officers an implausible, self-aggrandizing version. Be warned: try to feed an officer a BS story, and you'll find yourself arrested. They've heard it all before.
    Whether drivers are consciously lying or there is just some primal self-preservation instinct, neither driver ever, ever, ever appears to think himself the "original aggressor." Don't believe me? Exhibit A is the alleged shooter Torrez in the Albuquerque case: He reportedly claimed Garcia's truck tried first to run him off the road. How that possibly justifies firing a gun at the pickup truck defies common sense, but trust me, Torrez will cobble together some meager explanation.
    In an era of decriminalization for low-level drug offenders, maybe "road rage" needs to be DE-decriminalized. Perhaps road rage is an appropriate target for "mandatory minimum" sentencing. In the second half of the 20th century, Congress began embracing mandatory minimum penalties to combat a perceived threat from drug trafficking and related crime. Mandatory sentencing for drug crimes has since fallen out of favor, even with the Department of Justice.
    But if you want to discourage road rage incidents, harsh sentencing might be the answer. Involved in a road rage incident? Caused a traffic jam because you pulled over to tell off that guy in the Prius? Six months in jail. Automatic. Do not pass go. Definitely don't collect $200. The question is: Would that deterrent make motorists think twice before flipping the bird?
    Overall, decriminalization of certain crimes is a positive development. But road rage crimes should not be seen this way. This is behavior that unnecessarily creates grave risk to innocents, with zero upside.