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December 15, 1999


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Calcutta-Born Professor Trains Wheel Warriors

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A P Kamath

Sheila Sarkar

Professor Sheila Sarkar has not been a victim of road rage but she could discuss it for hours on end.

She has observed plenty of it, read a lot of stories about it, and watched it in the movies and night news.

Road rage can vary from name-calling and swearing to making obscene signs and violence.

The US Highway Safety Office has testified to Congress that tens of thousands of accidents each year can be linked directly to aggressive driving, including road rage, and is now a leading cause of death for young children.

Motorists frustrated by delays, traffic problems and upset by what they think is the fault of other drivers, in extreme cases, have killed people.

Though road rage is found across America, its presence across California has drawn a lot of attention because of the national coverage it has received and its depiction in Hollywood movies. And while there are classes and seminars for police across the nation dealing with the road rage, Sheila Sarkar's two-hour 'Cool Operator' seminar at San Diego State University has been drawing a lot of national attention, for the seminars involve students, drivers and police officers.

More than 2,000 people have attended it since January at locations across Southern California and Sarkar has been getting letters from other states who want to emulate her program. The participants in her seminars learn, among other things, about driving safely, keeping cool and gain insights into conflict resolution.

Sarkar, who is with the engineering department of SDSU, has been studying road rage for five years. She is also the director, California Institute of Transportation Safety. CITS is host to the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety, a statewide organization devoted to increasing traffic safety awareness among companies in major metropolitan areas in California. The institute builds on the success of the transportation program at San Diego State University, expands research into the transportation safety area and develops safety-related curriculum with funding from state and local governments.

The institute offers hands-on experience for students involved in projects in the area of transportation safety.

"I got involved with the study of road rage since I have been studying transportation and public safety," says Calcutta-born Sarkar who has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. She also teaches transportation safety classes to undergraduate civil engineering students.

As many as 800 lives and $ 3 billion could be saved if every driver followed some basic rules for just one week, she says. Road rage is a small but significant part of the traffic problems across the country and her endeavor is to spread the message about road safety effectively all through the year.

Sarkar is also involved in promoting the National Drive Safely at Work Week.

The national campaign helps employers emphasize the importance of driving safely on the job to eliminate preventable crashes. Sponsored by NETS, National Drive Safely at Work Week is held in the third week of April.

Road rage cuts across demographic profiles, she says.

"Multimillionaires lose their cool too," she says, adding women also experience anger and frustration while driving and can turn abusive to fellow drivers. And it is not confined to any particular race.

"Immigrants are not exempt from road rage," she says.

"We are often angered or annoyed by the actions of aggressive drivers," Sarkar said in an interview recently. "It ranges from a simple discourtesy to one that provokes physical, violent confrontation."

Sarkar said road rage can be caused by drivers who cut other vehicles off, tailgating, and driving erratically while talking on cellular telephones.

"It is a far wider phenomenon than we realize," she says. She has estimated that only one in 10 acts of road rage are reported.

Her research also shows that freeway design sometimes prompts aggression.

"The design of some merging lanes is too abrupt, and it causes conflict," she told the San Diego Tribune recently. "Also, the lack of adequate signs before exit ramps sometimes fails to warn drivers enough in advance to prepare for their exit."

Professor Sarkar, who has published over a dozen papers about public safety and road rage in journals in many countries, is also in big demand to address seminars on the subject.

Sarcar, who says walking through center cities is one of her passions, is naturally interested in the issues related to pedestrians. She is a member of a national committee on pedestrians.

"Creating public space has a lot to do with public safety," she says. People are prone to relax when there is room to walk around. And calmer people are better at handling road rage.

She also believes that government must do more in handling the road rogues.

"We haven't yet figured out a way to calm the road warriors," she says.

Traffic tickets for such behavior are not disbursed mainly because of a shortage of manpower.

Being Calm on the Road

Experts across America have come up with dos and donts in dealing with road rage. Here are some of the suggestions:

Drivers often become upset because you accidentally cut in front of them, or for other reasons that were not intentional. A key factor in reversing the process is an apology. Over 85 per cent of road ragers said that they would drop the matter if the other "careless" driver had simply apologized.

Instead, road ragers claim, the "careless" driver seems to be unconcerned about what they just did and, therefore, needs to be taught a lesson.

In a car, only one method is effective in conveying an apology: A sign. Several studies have found that it is very effective in warding off anger. In fact, many drivers actually smile when others raise a 'SORRY' sign to them after they have accidentally done something wrong.

Some drivers keep a 'SORRY' sign in the map holder on the driver's door and the passenger's door. Experts suggest the lettering of the 'SORRY' sign should be thick, such as "Arial rounded bold," and about two inches high. The lettering should be black and the background should be white. If it is night, you may need to turn on your car's ceiling light so they can see your sign.

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