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Continued: Angry drivers are put to the psych test

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 23, 2010 - 6:37 AM

Jeremy Oluma's driving so infuriated another motorist that the guy got out of his stopped truck, reached into Oluma's open window and slapped him in the face. Yet after Oluma reported that spasm of road rage to police, he now has to prove he's mentally stable enough to drive.

The State Department of Public Safety invoked a little-known power to require a psychological exam for Oluma to keep his license. It's a response to a pattern of aggressive-driving complaints against Oluma, even though the Princeton resident wasn't charged or ticketed in any of the incidents. In fact, the driver who slapped him got a $285 fine after admitting in court that he assaulted Oluma.

In a brief interview last week, James Nelson of Apple Valley said he wasn't required to take a psychological exam, despite his guilty plea. But Oluma, who behavior was partly blamed for the fracas, said he will have to spend $400 to $1,200 to get his head examined.

"This is ridiculous," said Oluma, 32. "I feel like I was doing what I was supposed to do, and here I am getting punished."

Each year, about 60 state drivers are ordered to get psychological reports attesting to their fitness to drive, said Lisa Hager Koenig, driver compliance manager for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

No one at the agency thinks the test will keep all the maniacs off the road. But Capt. Matt Langer, a State Patrol spokesman, called the exam a "tremendous tool" for keeping the roads safe.

Not every expert agrees. Leon James, a psychology professor who has studied road rage for 30 years, said no one has designed a test capable of identifying a highway hothead.

"What the state needs to think of is not how to test them and keep them off the roads, but how to educate the public," said James, who teaches at the University of Hawaii. "Road rage is normal. We need to train people to control it."

While Minnesota officials were first given the authority to evaluate a motorist's mental fitness in 1939, the measure is so obscure that veteran traffic lawyers and even the director for Minnesotans for Safe Driving had never heard of it. Sam McCloud, a defense attorney for 33 years, said judges don't typically require a mental exam even when drivers are convicted of reckless driving and road rage offenses.

For drivers like Oluma, the process of ordering a psychological report starts with a request from a police officer, who asks state administrators to hold a hearing to assess a driver's mental condition. In about 80 percent of the cases, a state evaluator agrees that the driver needs to be evaluated by a mental health professional, Koenig said. The state cancels the license of anyone who refuses to submit to the evaluation. In some cases, drivers are referred to anger management therapy, which can be effective in reducing aggressive driving.

Does it work?

Some experts doubt whether states can effectively weed out motorists who are prone to hostility. Studies have found that up to half of all drivers exhibit symptoms of road rage by making gestures, yelling or driving more aggressively in response to other drivers.

Oluma insists he is no menace on the road, but acknowledges that his driving history is troubled. Records show a DWI in 2001, three speeding tickets, two crashes and a reckless-driving conviction in 2006. The reckless-driving incident triggered a mental evaluation that found him fit to drive, state records show.

When other drivers challenged him on the road, Oluma said, "I would just pop off."

Cases pile up

In March, after a road confrontation, Oluma and another driver called 911 on each other, but the case was dropped. In July, someone complained about Oluma's car swerving across several lanes of traffic and slamming on the brakes, but that incident wasn't investigated.

On Nov. 22, Oluma crossed paths with Nelson while going to a friend's house in Elk River. Nelson, 45, told state troopers that he was returning from a hunting trip when Oluma's Mercedes, which was in front of him, started speeding up and then suddenly braking. When both cars stopped at a traffic light, Nelson got out to "see what the issue was," according to the incident report.

When Nelson refused to get back in his truck, the two men exchanged angry words. Nelson called Oluma a racial epithet and Oluma retorted, according to both drivers and the report.

Nelson then slapped Oluma in the face before getting back in his truck and driving around the stopped car, he later admitted. Oluma pursued Nelson and dialed police to report the license plate number.

From the start of the investigation, Oluma denied any aggressive driving. The trooper suggested charging both Oluma and Nelson, but the city attorney only charged Nelson with misdemeanor assault.

Oluma still feels like he is being blamed for the incident. He has filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, saying he was treated poorly because of his ethnicity. His father is from Ethiopia.

"This isn't about anything besides principle for me," he said.

Oluma, who has been disabled since 2004 by a muscle disease, is applying for public health insurance to help pay for the exam, which must be done by mid-April.

Kristine Chapin, a state public safety spokeswoman, denied that her agency is persecuting Oluma.

"Driver and Vehicle Services has a right to protect other drivers by requiring these procedures," she said. "It's not the kind of thing where any of our people enjoy putting people through this, or do it lightly."

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