HOUSTON – At a news conference on road rage earlier this month at Houston City Hall, Mayor Sylvester Turner couldn’t contain his rage anymore regarding the violence impacting Houston area roads and the victims - young and old - caught up in the crossfire.
“And hell, if you’re not mad, you ought to be mad,” said Turner.
For well over a year, cases have been popping up across the Houston area. The harsh reality is that once you enter a freeway, the violence can roll up in seconds.
“It’s surreal what we see happening right now,” said Gregory Fremin, a Retired HPD Captain and Criminal Justice Professor at Sam Houston State University.
Marshall Erwin escaped potential death in an unprovoked shooting on the Fort Bend County Toll Road last November.
“I didn’t know what was going on until a bullet went right past my head,” Erwin said.
Erwin is one of the lucky ones. He survived.
Fremin said most shooters are “subscribe to the code of the street,” and that violence on the roads is fueled by an act of perceived disrespect.
“They feel the need to exact revenge, and to them, exacting revenge is getting the gun and shooting you,” said Fremin.
In recent news conferences, HPD Chief Troy Finner has sent messages to criminals who don’t think twice about shooting from a moving vehicle.
“We’re coming after you,” said Finner.
HPD ramped up its initiative last July following the shooting death of David Castro after an Astros Game.
“What we are really are focusing on is aggressive driving behavior,” said Commander Reece Hardy.
The department has partnered with 11 agencies, including the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, in a task force designed to prevent road rage on major thoroughfares.
Deputy Tim Mordecai said 290, I-10, 45 and Beltway 8 are hot spots for the county. HPD is also focused on the 610 Loop.
A component of the task force’s plan is to utilize marked and unmarked units in search of aggressive behavior.
“Everybody that we can use to get out there and get out in front of a bad situation before it occurs, we are using them,” said Hardy.
HPD reports a 9% drop in calls for service from the start of the initiative through Jan. 31 of this year. Harris County said they are hearing of fewer cases as well. Modecai said the sheriff’s office received 76 calls for service in January, the lowest it’s been in over a year.
However, law enforcement is not the only group involved in the fight. In a sign of the times, one state agency has rolled out consistent messaging on highway billboards to help cut down on the violence.
“We know this is not going to be the silver bullet, but we view it as a step in the right direction,” said Matt DeLeon with TxDOT.
University of Wisconsin Green Bay Professor Ryan Martin said capturing the attention of drivers while behind the wheel is key,.
“I think the best sorts of initiatives are the ones that are going to remind you in the moment,” said Martin.
Essentially, these are positive triggers in any form.
“Constant reminders to people in any form that you can -- radio ads, the signs, PSAs, those sort of constant reminders are really, really important,” said Martin.
Evolving technology also is viewed as key weapons in preventing road rage in the future as well as solving cases that are challenging for law enforcement.
In terms of prevention, there is facial recognition software being pushed to carmakers to make a driver aware when their behavior is out of the norm.
As far as solving cases?
Mayor Turner and Chief Finner both believe better technology can play a pivotal role.
“If you position yourself properly with technology, it’s working 24/7,” said Finner in reference to having an established and robust system of license plate readers and surveillance cameras on the roads.
Turner said a solution he’s working on is tapping into Trans Star’s current camera system in hopes of having key surveillance video recorded and preserved.
“And so, I’m at the point of turning on that camera and videoing in real-time where we can go back and see you,” said Turner.
What also makes road rage complex for law enforcement is that it happens in a flash and at a high rate of velocity, in most cases, with very little to nothing to show for it.
“Without the video evidence or without a witness or someone providing the information to the sheriff’s office, sometimes they are not solved. We have to have the public’s help,” said Mordecai.
As far as tips? Experts suggest avoiding anyone driving recklessly, don’t instigate or retaliate to an act, i.e. no flashing of high beams or hand gestures. Simply stay in your lane and don’t stare back.
As far as being a passenger in a vehicle where the driver behind the wheel is driving out of control?
“I think sometimes actually just telling them that you don’t feel safe in that moment is a little different than saying relax or calm down,” said Martin