Virginia Teenager's Death Puts Spotlight On Road Rage Police have characterized the killing of a Muslim teen in Virginia as an instance of road rage. But, what exactly constitutes road rage has been hard to define.

Virginia Teenager's Death Puts Spotlight On Road Rage

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Traffic jams up on the Kennedy Expressway leaving the city for the Memorial Day weekend in 2014 in Chicago, Ill.
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The killing of a Virginia teen over the weekend is drawing a new focus on road rage.

Fairfax County police say Nabra Hassanen, 17, was killed early Sunday by an angry motorist after an encounter with a group of Muslim teenagers walking along a road on their way back to a mosque.

Police have arrested Darwin Martinez Torres, 22, and charged him with second-degree murder. Authorities say he beat Hassanen with a baseball bat, then put her in his car, assaulted her again, and dumped her dead body in a pond.

The police are describing it as an incident of road rage that escalated into deadly violence. But local Muslim leaders are skeptical and have called on authorities to investigate the killing as a possible hate crime.

For some experts, desciribing this case as road rage seems odd.

Road rage-related fatalities in the U.S. increased between 2011 and 2015. NHTSA hide caption

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"That's beyond road rage I would say," says Mary Vriniotis, a researcher at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center in Boston.

"I don't think most folks who study either auto fatalities or homicides would describe that as a road rage incident," she says.

Law enforcement agencies don't typically single out road rage episodes as a category for data collection, so it's hard to get a handle on what factors lead to deadly outcomes in such incidents.

Figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration do indicate a rise in traffic deaths attributed to aggressive driving — from 292 fatalities in 2011 to 467 in 2015.

A 2016 survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that nearly 80 percent of drivers expressed anger, aggression or rage behind the wheel at least once in the last year. It also found that about 8 million U.S. drivers engaged in extreme road rage behaviors, such as purposefully ramming another vehicle or getting out of the car to confront another driver.

According to AAA estimates:

  • Purposefully tailgating: 51 percent (104 million drivers)
  • Trying to block another vehicle from changing lanes: 24 percent (49 million drivers)
  • Cutting off another vehicle on purpose: 12 percent (24 million drivers)
  • Getting out of the vehicle to confront another driver: 4 percent (7.6 million drivers)
  • Bumping or ramming another vehicle on purpose: 3 percent (5.7 million drivers)

Vriniotis is co-author of a study in 2006 on the relationship between having a gun and the likelihood of road rage.

She says road rage incidents are most likely to involve young male drivers, who also engage in other risky behaviors such as drinking.

Those who said they had a firearm in the car were more likely to exhibit road rage behaviors like making an obscene gesture or aggressively following another vehicle too closely.

"Raising the idea that perhaps just having the gun there changes your response to things in your environment that are aggravating to you, like driving," Vriniotis says.

High-profile cases draw attention to road rage. For instance, consider the 2016 killing of former New Orleans Saints football player Will Smith, who was gunned down by a man who had rear-ended his car.

There are lesser-known road rage incidents just about every day. Like the case in California Wednesday where a motorcyclist kicked a car, causing a chain reaction crash. The car he kicked swerved into another lane of traffic, hitting a truck that then overturned, injuring the driver.

"It's an increasing out-of-control public health crisis," says Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii.

He teaches a driving psychology class and has written a book about road rage and aggressive driving.

"I believe that it's been increasing due to the fact that society has become a little bit more permissive of aggressiveness," says James.

It comes down to a lack of civility, he says. "Aggressive driving is eroding our social conscience."

Shaheen Ainpour is an intern for the National Desk.