Cary Campria was behind the wheel of her Mini Cooper on West Flagler Street, driving from her downtown Miami job to her home near Doral. Soon, she noticed an 18-wheeler trying to get into her lane.
Instead of slowing down so the truck could get in front of her, she sped up so the big rig could slip behind.
She didn’t think anything of her maneuver until her Mini and the truck approached a traffic light. The driver pulled up next to her on the right.
The man, she said, opened his truck’s door, hung his body out and yelled at Campira while flailing his arms.
The light turned green and a startled Campria drove on. After a couple of blocks, another red light put the drivers in tandem again. This time, the man got out of his 18-wheeler and walked to Campria’s driver’s side.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Campria said she couldn’t make out what the driver was saying, but his body language spoke enough — “threatening.”
“I was concerned for my safety,” Campria, 56, said. “I didn’t know if he was going to punch my windshield or glass or what he was going to do.”
Campria’s concern isn’t misplaced or uncommon in South Florida.
More people, freed from the restrictions of the COVID pandemic over the past year, have poured onto the streets and highways. Add frustrating road construction, backups and gridlock, crashes and breakdowns blocking the way, and the daily rush back to the office — and you have a recipe for road rage.
Then there are drivers who are armed. Gun sales soared at the height of the pandemic. Americans bought more than 40 million guns in 2020 and 2021, “the two highest sales years on record,” according to The Trace. Five million of those customers were first-time buyers.
Feeling unsafe during the encounter in May, Campria, who had responded to a Miami Herald query asking readers to share their experiences on South Florida roadways, said she wished she had been carrying her gun at that moment. Had she been, she “would have at least threatened him,” she said. “He had no right to come up to my vehicle in that manner and act all angry and threatening.”
But if someone pulls a gun and the other driver tells police, you would typically be arrested, according to attorney David Katz from the Firearm Firm in Central Florida. “Right or wrong, it is almost always the gun owner arrested.”
You could also be charged with an improper exhibition of a firearm. It’s a misdemeanor and punishable by up to one year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
Depending on how you displayed the weapon, you could be charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.
And worse than all that, a confrontation of words and gestures could turn violent or deadly.
When the light turned green again, Campria sped off in her Mini Cooper and took a different route home to lose the man.
From skirmish to tragedy
Sudden skirmishes on the road can turn tragic. A 23-year-old Broward County preschool teacher, Ana Estevez, was shot and killed in a southbound lane of I-95 between Sunrise and Broward boulevards while driving home from vacation in April.
Florida’s road battles rage from expletives shouted out of car windows to frightening encounters like one in April at a Key Largo school zone in which a guy got busted for shooting out the tires of another driver’s car.
In mid-August, a Miami couple driving a Ford pickup truck near mile marker 26, close to Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys, crashed into a Chevrolet pickup truck.
When both cars pulled over, the man in the Ford started to fight with the driver of the Chevrolet, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. The man’s wife joined the fray, pulling a .380-caliber handgun as she simultaneously called 911. The 911 operator heard her threaten to kill the 38-year-old Chevy driver from Marathon. The driver also heard the gun click as the trigger was pulled repeatedly. But the weapon didn’t fire.
“This was an unfortunate crash that should have been resolved peacefully,” Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay told the Miami Herald. “Instead, we have people in jail facing serious legal charges.”
Also in late August, a man driving two children cut off another motorist on Sheridan Street near the intersection of Pine Island Road in Pembroke Pines. In turn, that other driver opened fire on the car, police said. No one was hurt and the shooter was caught a few blocks away. A Broward County sheriff’s deputy happened to be on the road and saw the shooting.
In July, a driver sitting in the middle of an intersection in Cocoa, Florida, rammed into cars and then got out of his Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and started attacking other vehicles with a tire iron, according to a Brevard sheriff’s office deputy. The driver faced charges that included aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer
And Miami-Dade police say a September shootout between three people in an SUV and two on the street in the area of Northwest 18th Avenue and 64th Street in Miami’s Gladeview neighborhood was sparked by road rage. Three men were taken to Jackson Memorial with gunshot wounds and arrested. Two of those men face attempted murder charges.
How common is road rage in Florida?
Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and local police don’t specifically list “road rage” on reports or maintain statistics on specific road rage infractions. Arrests or charges are usually listed under reckless driving or a specific assault should violence or a shooting ensue. When road rage escalates into physical attack or discharge of a deadly weapon, charges can elevate to assault or homicide.
In 2018, there were 410 fatal crashes and 483 fatalities in Florida involving road rage or aggressive driving, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2021, there were 608 crashes and 692 fatalities. That’s a 48% increase in crashes and 43% increase in fatalities.
From 2018 to 2022, there were 240 gun-related road rage incidents in Florida, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a Kentucky-based nonprofit that tallies shootings in near-real time, and tracks incidents in which someone in a car handles a gun in a threatening manner or fires at a driver or passenger in another car.
The state also ranked among the Top 3 for instances of road rage-related shootings in the period 2017 to 2021, according to the Gun Violence Archive, as reported by The Trace.
Texas was tops with 467 incidents involving guns. Florida was second with 304 incidents and California was third at 179.
Road rage can lead to aggressive driving
Not all aggressive drivers have road rage, and not all drivers with road rage drive aggressively.
2023 Florida Statutes defines aggressive driving as “committing two or more of the following acts simultaneously or in succession:
▪ Exceeding the posted speed
▪ Unsafely or improperly changing lanes.
▪ Following another vehicle too closely.
▪ Failing to yield the right-of-way.
▪ Improperly passing.
▪ Violating traffic control and signal devices.
While the law doesn’t specify charges for aggressive driving, the behaviors themselves can land you a ticket, such as speeding or running a red light.
How behavior fuels road rage
So what accounts for road rage?
Gregory D. Webster, an endowed professor of psychology at the University of Florida and acting director of the Gainesville school’s Social Psychology Program has a theory.
“I think it has to do with frustration and the impedance of goals,” Webster said in a telephone interview with the Miami Herald.
“One reason why we do this more on the road than we do on the sidewalk is it’s very rare that our forward motion is truly impeded,” he said. “When we’re walking, there’s almost always a way to get around something, right? Sitting in traffic is more akin to the frustration we feel when we’re in line for something and we’re afraid that we’re not gonna get to whatever window or whatever is being sold.”
There’s also a “sense of invincibility in a car,” Webster suggests. You’re surrounded by more than 4,000 pounds of steel and tempered glass on all four sides.
Such social isolating can fuel bravado and bad decisions. Some may surmise, “I’m safe in my car so I can curse you out. You’re not going to be able to punch me,” Webster said.
The same sort of behavior defines social media sites like X, formerly Twitter, and Facebook, where, in the comfort of your home, you can hit strangers with your opinions and then run.
“Electronic social distance as opposed to just the buffering distance you get in the car, but I think the same phenomenon flies there,” Webster said.
According to a study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2017, research found that drivers with guns in their cars are more aggressive drivers than those without weapons. The study of 2,.770 American drivers found that those who had a gun in their car while driving were significantly more likely than drivers with no gun in their vehicle to make obscene gestures at other drivers (23% vs. 16%), tailgate (14% vs. 8%), or both (6.3% vs. 2.8%), even after controlling for many other factors related to aggressive driving, such as gender, age, urbanization, census region, and driving frequency.
The lockdown era of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 also brought “a sea change in psychology,” Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, told the Los Angeles Times. He called reckless driving “a form of rebellion” and dubs the behavior “arousal breakout.”
“You’ve been cooped up, locked down, and have restrictions you chafe at,” Farley said. “So if you can have an arousal breakout, you want to take it.”
Road rage stories from the streets of Miami
Jeremy Sapienza, 43, who gets around Miami on his bicycle, can tell you about the feelings out there. He says Miami drivers aren’t exactly the most patient with cyclists.
Sapienza has experienced plenty of unpleasant situations when pedaling among the cars and SUVs.
“I get honked at all the time now. I get yelled at. I get cut off for no reason,” Sapienza said. “They zoom around me to get to just the next red light for no reason. Like, we’re gonna see each other again in one second.”
Sapienza lives in Miami Beach and cycles to and from work in Wynwood, to friends’ houses and to run errands. He says he rides about 60 miles a week.
Confronting the possibility of horrific encounters every day, Sapieza says he isn’t the most patient with drivers, either.
Riding home one day last April, he was stopped in the left turn lane on 17th Street waiting to turn onto Lenox Avenue, near Temple Beth Shmuel-Cuban Hebrew Congregation. He put his left arm out to signal a turn when a driver in a Tesla, going about 20 miles per hour, drove around his left side, almost hitting his signaling arm.
Livid, and imagining a severe injury, at the least, Sapienza zipped up to the car, which had stopped at the red light ahead. He yelled at the driver to roll down his window.
When the driver didn’t comply, Sapienza thought about taking the pepper spray he keeps strapped on his handlebars and saturating the Tesla’s door.
“I couldn’t even see the person inside, [but] I was trying to get them to roll down the window so I could ask them ‘what the f---?’” Sapienza said.
“But I was like, ‘OK, let’s chill. ‘And then I just left but [was] still really mad because there just was no reason for it at all. People get behind the wheel and they have no patience.”
In another incident on 17th Street in March, Sapienza was almost hit by a woman in a Mercedes who was attempting a three-point-turn while trying to park. Sapienza braked so suddenly to avoid a crash he fell off the bike.
Afterward, Sapienza said the woman sat in her car looking at him with a blank expression, “Like ‘what? What’s the big deal?’ ”
He motioned for her to roll down the window and she said she didn’t see him.
“The whole problem is that you’re not looking,” Sapienza said he told the woman. “You’re just swinging your car around without paying attention to who might be coming. If I wasn’t, it could have been a car.”
Sapienza was hit by a car in 2021. The accident broke his collarbone, requiring surgery.
“I’m angrier about how cars behave in general since my accident,” Sapienza said.
How to avoid road rage
Webster, the UF professor, has some advice on tamping down on road rage — for victim and aggressor, alike.
▪ Remove yourself from the situation. “If you’re on the receiving end of road rage, it’s usually the best to just ignore or walk away,” Webster said. Or drive off. Deescalate the situation. Yelling back will fuel further aggression.
▪ Being pursued? Don’t drive home. Rather, try and head to a police station, or call the police if that’s possible.
▪ Feeling like the aggressor? “Think back to a time where you might have been on the receiving end of that and how that made you feel so you don’t perpetuate it. And keep in mind the broader picture: Is honking my horn, yelling at someone, flipping them off or even flashing a gun at another person, is that really going to help you get to where you’re trying to be on time?”
How drivers lose composure
Isabel Betancourt, who responded to the Miami Herald’s road rage query, wishes she had heeded such advice.
Heading to Pembroke Pines via I-95 in post-rush hour traffic in early June, Betancourt, 40, was trying to merge left from the outermost right lane. But a woman in an SUV wasn’t giving her room to merge and Betancourt felt her right wheel bite into the gravel of the highway’s shoulder.
Cars were bumper to bumper because of rush hour, Betancourt said, so she was frustrated by the woman’s “senselessness” and “entitlement” of not letting her merge — either in front of or behind her.
Betancourt lost her composure and rolled down her window. They flung insults at each other, Betancourt said, each trying to outdo the other.
“It became a toxic competition on who can insult whom the worst,” Betancourt said. “I’m embarrassed to repeat it now with a cool head, but I can tell you that in the moment I had so much anger inside and I felt so aggressive — I almost didn’t see straight. It’s almost like my vision was kind of blurred and everything was out of focus except for this person who had angered me.”
Betancourt doesn’t know the psychology of where that senseless rage comes from. All she knows is that it comes up and can get the best of otherwise rational folks.
“I like to be polite to cashiers and hold doors for strangers and have common courtesy,” Betancourt said. “But then behind the wheel and in congestion in Miami we all regress to such hostile, volatile people.
“But there is something that is triggered, something hostile and angry in all of us,” she said, “that we just become so aggressive towards each other for really silly, silly, silly things.”