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What drives people to commit acts of road rage?

The driver of a car, upset over the lane change of a pickup driver, threw a can of pop at the pickup while they were headed down the Thruway in the Town of Evans not long ago.

That prompted a passenger in the pickup to pull out a 9 mm handgun and fire two shots at the driver of the car.

The incident suggests driving can be hazardous these days, even if not all instances of aggressive driving result in intentional violence that defines road rage.

Just look at what happened April 9 in New Orleans, where former Saints defensive end Will Smith was shot and killed following a minor traffic accident with another driver.

Road rage and aggressive driving are blamed for hundreds of deaths. In four years between 2009 and 2014, more than 1,500 people died in 1,350 crashes attributed to road rage/aggressive driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that potentially aggressive actions were a factor in 56 percent of fatal crashes. Another AAA Foundation study looked at more than 10,000 road rage incidents over seven years and determined they resulted in at least 218 murders and another 12,610 injuries.

Local police on a regular basis see aggressive driving and tempers flaring.

“People feel they are entitled to something, a piece of the road,” said Sgt. Eric Kaderli of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office Crash Investigation Unit, “and when they don’t get it, they act like little brats.”

The pop can incident on the Thruway occurred in April 2014 and was fueled when the driver of the pickup made an unsafe lane change in front of the other car, State Police said.

The driver of the car, from Brantford, Ont., responded by pulling ahead of the truck, throwing the pop can and speeding away.

He soon heard two bangs and saw “a black handgun sticking out of the passenger-side window with a cloud of smoke coming from it,” State Police reported.

The Canadian driver called 911, and troopers pulled over the pickup truck at the Lackawanna toll barrier, where they seized the gun from an Ohio man. James Henderson II, 38, of Alliance, Ohio, faced up to 15 years in prison but accepted a plea deal to felony weapons possession. He is serving 3½ years in the Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica. Henderson is eligible for parole in May 2018.

What drives people to act so badly when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle?

In an online driver-training article on aggressive driving and road rage, the American Safety Council found:

• 66 percent of traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving.

• Half the drivers who are on the receiving end of aggressive behavior – such as horn honking, a rude gesture or tailgating – admit to responding with aggressive behavior themselves.

• 37 percent of aggressive driving incidents involve a firearm.

When confrontations between drivers escalate to violence, a firearm is not the only weapon used, according to police reports in Western New York since January 2014.

• On Elmwood Avenue last year, a 31-year-old Cleveland Avenue man was arrested after he slammed on his brakes in traffic, got out of his car and punched the driver of the car behind him.

• A 26-year-old West Valley driver emerged from his car with a bayonet during a roadside encounter that ended with the man slashing a 35-year-old West Seneca resident on Route 219, said State Police, who investigated the incident.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines road rage as when a driver “commits moving traffic offenses so as to endanger other persons or property; an assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by the operator or passenger of one motor vehicle on the operator or passengers of another motor vehicle.”

Los Angeles news station KTLA coined the term “road rage” in the late 1980s after a string of shootings occurred on several freeways in the city.

“It’s a media phenomenon,” confirmed Dwight Hennessy, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at SUNY Buffalo State.

Hennessy built his career studying traffic stress and aggression starting in 1997.

“That’s when it just started to hit public consciousness,” Hennessy said. “We have been aware for years that there is a change in some people when they get behind the wheel. There’s something different about the traffic environment. There’s more anonymity.

“Think about it,” said Hennessy. “You can get away easily because you’re already in the getaway car. In some ways, you are driving a weapon, a 2,000-pound weapon.”

Not all drivers react badly when their personal zone of safety is violated, Hennessy noted.

“But if someone cuts you off in a car, the risks are much greater,” he said. “We’re a lot more defensive of that space than people realize. We are protective of that space and those who are in it.”

If you are being bullied or followed by another driver, you should drive to a well-populated, well-lit area – the parking lot of a store or restaurant – to get away from them, said Kerry Donnelly, assistant manager in the driver training program at AAA of Western & Central New York.

“Take some time to calm down,” she said. “This gives you a chance to gather your thoughts.”

Kaderli of the State Police advised drivers who encounter aggression on the road to pull to the right and allow the other driver to pass,

“Don’t get in a lane-change game, and call 911 if you truly believe it to be an emergency,” he said. “Don’t make eye contact, and don’t engage in a battle of gestures. We don’t recommend you taking a video with your cellphone. Stay in your car. If someone presents a weapon, safely leave the scenario. Try and get some of the license plate and a vehicle description.”