How Road Rage Works

Two pedestrians fight a driver and his passenger after a near-collision in New Delhi, India. Road rage is a dangerous behavior pattern that can affect any of us at any given time.  See more car safety pictures.
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"Road rage" became a popular buzz term in the '90s as stories about motorists attacking one another in parking lots and intersections seemed to increase.

So what do you think of when you hear the term "road rage"? It's one of those catch phrases everyone has heard, and yet there is no common definition we can all use. Often, people use terms like "road rage" and "aggressive driving" interchangeably.

And while some might say that aggressive driving includes everything from cutting someone off on purpose to tailgating to making obscene gestures and cursing at other drivers, others might claim road rage refers only to incidents where violence erupts between drivers and passengers -- in or around cars. (There are just as many who might reverse those two definitions.) One thing is certain -- road rage is a dangerous phenomenon that can happen to any one of us, either as a perpetrator or a victim.­

In most jurisdictions, road rage isn't a specific crime. Many aggressive driving maneuvers fall under the category of traffic violations, but there are only a few districts that try to define aggressive driving or road rage as an illegal activity. One reason most states don't classify road rage as a crime is that lawmakers often find it difficult to quantify road-rage behaviors. For example, a law might state that it's illegal to follow a car too closely. But what is too close and who makes that determination? Without providing specific parameters, the law is completely subjective.


­For the purposes of this article, we'll look at road rage in the broadest spectrum, from driving aggressively to violent confrontations between drivers. We'll examine the psychology behind road rage, common behaviors associated with road rage, ways to avoid getting into confrontations with angry drivers and how to determine and alleviate your own road rage. We'll also look at some statistics on road rage, including which cities have the most aggressive drivers.

In the next section, we'll learn about the psychology behind road rage and how a well-adjusted human being can become a highway vigilante.

Road Rage Mindset

Bullet holes riddle a car involved in a road-rage incident in Los Angeles.
Bullet holes riddle a car involved in a road-rage incident in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

Driving a car is stressful -- it's inherently dangerous because even if you're the safest driver in the world, there are a lot different variables that you can't predict, like weather, traffic, accidents, and road work. And what about all those other people on the road? Some of them aren't just bad drivers, they're engaging in risky behavior. Some of them even do things specifically to make you angry or prevent you from getting to where you need to go.

That's the thought progression someone might have just before switching into road-rage mode, leading a driver to make irrational decisions very quickly. All of a sudden, you might be thinking: They need to know that what they're doing is dangerous and stupid, and you should show them. In fact, you should punish them.

There's no denying that driving can be a risky and emotional experience. For many of us, our cars are an extension of our personality, and it might be the most expensive possession we own. When we drive, we're aware that there's potential for injury and property damage. Driving might be an expression of freedom for some, but it's also an activity that tends to increase our stress levels, even if we're not aware of it at the time. Driving is also a communal activity. You might think of driving in terms of your own individual experience. But once you pull into traffic, you've joined a community of other drivers, all of whom have their own goals, fears and driving skills. Psychologists Dr. Leon James and Dr. Diane Nahl say that one factor in road rage is our tendency to concentrate on ourselves while dismissing the communal aspect of driving. It's very easy to perceive another driver's actions in terms of how it affects us, which in turn makes it easy to transition into anger [source: James, Nahl]. Once an expert witness to Congress on traffic psychology, Dr. James, known as "Dr. Driving," believes that the core cause of road rage isn't due to traffic jams or more drivers on the road -- but how our culture views aggressive driving [source: Dr.]. In our culture, children learn that the normal rules regarding behavior and civility don't apply when driving a car. They may see their parents engage in competitive-driving behaviors, maneuvering the car with multiple lane changes or traveling at high speeds in a rush to get to a destination. Some popular films and television shows portray aggressive driving as a positive, or at the very least, an exciting activity. To complicate matters, for years pop psychologists suggested that the best way to relieve anger and stress was to vent your frustration, essentially giving into and feeding your negative emotions. However, psychological studies show that venting doesn't help relieve anger at all. In a road rage situation, venting can help escalate an incident into a violent encounter. Americans also tend to view a person who backs away from confrontation as a coward, creating a sense of pressure on a driver to not give up any ground even when no one is judging him. With that in mind, it's no surprise that violent encounters happen occasionally. Almost everyone is predisposed to engaging in irrational behavior while driving -- Dr. James even goes so far as to say that most people are emotionally impaired when they drive [source: James]. The key, psychologists say, is being aware of your emotional state and making the right choices, even when you are tempted to act out emotionally. In the next section, we'll examine some of the factors that contribute to road rage. ­

Anatomy of a Road Rage Incident

Rage directed against road crews on a California highway led to officials shutting down the road.
Rage directed against road crews on a California highway led to officials shutting down the road.
David McNew/Getty Images

A typical road rage incident happens when at least one driver chooses to act out in anger. Usually, the driver is already feeling stress when something triggers an aggressive reaction. Many road-rage drivers reported being under duress in other areas of their lives, like work or relationships, all of which contribute to a driver's stress level, making him more vulnerable to engaging in irrational behavior.

Dr. James also identifies several aspects of driving that contribute to our frustration and stress levels, including:

  • Immobility - we're stuck sitting behind the steering wheel and can't physically relieve tension.
  • Constriction - because we must drive on roads, our options are limited, often giving us the feeling of being boxed in.
  • Lack of control - although we maintain control of our own vehicle, many other variables like traffic, lane closures, and the behavior of other drivers, are completely outside of our influence.
  • Territoriality - like many animals, human beings react negatively when we feel our space is threatened by someone else.
  • Denial and loss of objectivity - we tend to overlook our own faults and place blame on others.
  • Unpredictability - we all know that every time we drive there are going to be unexpected events, such as someone pulling out into traffic ahead of you without warning -- this makes driving more stressful.
  • Ambiguity - because there's no culturally agreed-upon way to signal an apology to another driver, it's easy to misinterpret someone's actions as a sign of aggression or insult.

[source: Dr.]

Many police incident reports mention that multiple parties contributed to the escalation of emotions leading up to a violent encounter. As one driver reacts in anger to the other, the second driver in turn reacts negatively, and the emotions (and aggressive tactics) escalate, feeding each other in a vicious cycle. Ultimately, these behaviors lead to a complete surrender to base emotional reactions, and the drivers leave rationality behind.

Dan Goleman, a psychologist who coined the term Emotional Intelligence, says that anger is a seductive emotion. When you get angry, your heart beats faster and your body prepares for confrontation. The rush of adrenaline that comes as a result of real or perceived danger makes it easy for us to give into anger. It's a real challenge to impose self-control and behave in a way that's contradictory to how you initially feel. In other words, road rage tends to happen because it's easy to fall into the trap of directing anger toward another driver.

In the next section, we'll look at the sort of behaviors and tactics commonly associated with road rage.

Road Rage or Aggressive Driving?

Changing lanes without signaling is an example of aggressive driving.
Changing lanes without signaling is an example of aggressive driving.
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

One of the big issues with aggressive driving and road rage is that the driving public and the police define "aggressive" very differently. Surveys show that many drivers don't consider certain behaviors -- like honking the car horn or changing lanes without signaling -- to be aggressive at all. One survey found that only 47 percent of American drivers consider driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit to be a kind of aggressive driving, though law enforcement officials tend to disagree [source: Dr.].

There's a wide range of aggressive-driving behaviors, some of which are potentially much more dangerous than others. Dr. James divides aggressive driving into three areas -- impatience and inattentiveness, power struggles, and recklessness and road rage.

  • Impatience and inattentiveness - these can be categorized by behaviors like driving through red lights, rolling through stop signs, blocking intersections, speeding and not using signals when turning or changing lanes. Drivers who engage in these behaviors often say that their schedules are very busy, that they've run out of time or that their mind was on something else. This is the lowest level of aggressive driving -- behaviors that are annoying and could trigger road rage in another, but are less risky than other negative behaviors.
  • Power struggles - these are more serious, and they include preventing someone from moving over into your lane, using gestures or obscene language to humiliate or threaten other drivers, tailgating and cutting off another driver or braking without warning as an act of retaliation. These behaviors stem from an unhealthy mentality in which drivers feel as if they're the target of malicious acts. Many people feel a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness when behind the wheel of a car -- it's common for them to feel that someone who makes a mistake needs to be punished. Most of us have wished for another driver to feel guilt or shame for an action we've deemed stupid or dangerous -- according to Dr. James, that's the first step to entering into a power struggle.
  • Recklessness and road rage -- the most serious incidents include behaviors like entering into a duel with another car, racing at dangerous speeds and committing assault with a weapon or your vehicle. In these cases, aggressive driving gives way to outright violence. While road rage isn't exactly a worldwide epidemic, studies have shown that incidents have increased each year. Skeptics point out that this could be due to an increase in reporting incidents, however, and may not actually indicate an increase in cases.

In the next section, we'll look at how to avoid getting involved in a confrontation with someone who's experiencing road rage.

Avoiding Road Rage

Robbie Crawford demonstrates his LED "Thanks," "Help!" and "Sorry" sign in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Robbie Crawford demonstrates his LED "Thanks," "Help!" and "Sorry" sign in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Ian Cook, Time Life Pictures, Getty Images

Here's the bad news: Everyone makes mistakes, even you. No matter how skilled a driver you are, you're bound to make an error at some point that could seriously agitate another driver. Here's some news that's worse: Sometimes you don't even have to make a mistake to trigger someone else's road rage. Because a person experiencing road rage isn't rational, he might interpret a reaction as innocent as an increase in speed as an act of aggression.

Fortunately there's some good news to go along with the bad -- by keeping a level head and calm point of view, you can avoid most conflicts:

  • Don't show a physical reaction to an aggressive driver's behavior. In particular, you should avoid eye contact, as this is often seen as a sign of mutual aggression. Advice like this might give you the impression that drivers experiencing road rage are similar to aggressive animals in the wild. According to some psychologists, that might not be too far off.
  • It's very important to keep control of your own temper when someone is driving aggressively. Remember that many people don't view their own actions as aggressive. Surveys have shown that drivers often think of their own actions as assertive, but not aggressive. Try not to match another driver's behavior.
  • Don't use your car horn to express displeasure at other drivers -- doing so might make them more aggressive. It's extremely difficult to resist the urge to express yourself. Individual expression has deep roots in our culture, and to deny yourself that venue seems counterintuitive and unnatural. Try to keep in mind that there are more important factors than your displeasure. Remember that your safety, the safety of your vehicle and the safety of everyone around you is far more important than your sense of indignation.

Try to be kind and courteous to your fellow drivers. The best way to avoid road rage is to practice good driving habits. When you do encounter an aggressive driver, it's better to let him have his way, even when it feels unfair. It's easy to think of this as letting the bad guy win, but try to avoid that mentality. It's more important to think of driving as a group experience instead of a competition. Try to increase the distance between you and the aggressive driver. Remember that he is likely under just as much stress as you are -- he's just really bad at handling it.

In the next section, we'll look at ways to defuse your own road rage.


Preventing Road Rage

So how do we avoid becoming a road warrior? It requires both a stronger focus on our driving habits and a shift in our attitude toward driving. There are some specific things you can do to help reduce your vulnerability to giving in to road rage, but the bottom line is that it takes commitment.

Here are some building blocks you can use to help avoid going off the deep end while driving your car:

  • Make sure you're getting enough sleep. Driving without enough rest can make you more irritable and dangerous.
  • Try to give yourself plenty of time to get to where you're going. Often, frustrations bubble up when we feel we're running out of time, especially in traffic. Another strategy is to accept that you're running late, and you can't do anything about it.
  • Listen to relaxing music and concentrate on breathing. Try to avoid aggressive thoughts and concentrate on something neutral instead. The more you focus on a trigger, the more likely you'll make yourself angry.
  • Don't show displeasure to other drivers. There's a good chance that whatever has ticked you off was a mistake on the other driver's part. It's very unlikely the other driver is singling you out, and even if he is, it's not worth it to follow suit. So resist the urge to honk your horn, curse and go through the array of obscene gestures in your repertoire.
  • Avoid venting. It isn't helpful and can actually increase your elevated sense of danger and frustration. There's also the chance that the driver will see you and react in kind, escalating the situation. As difficult as it may seem, it's better to avoid venting your frustrations. Instead, assume the driver doesn't mean to be unsafe or thoughtless [source: Dr.].

Self-assessment and self-control are key components to keeping your cool. First, you have to recognize the moment you have a choice whether or not to act in anger. Then you have to develop the willpower to choose not to indulge in negative behavior. Dr. James says that such a change may take a long time and involves changing perspectives about other drivers as much as it does changing your own driving behavior.

In the next section, we'll look at some sobering statistics on road rage.


Road Rage Statistics

2006 AutoVantage Road Rage Survey ranked Miami as the least courteous city, compared to 19 other major American metro areas.
2006 AutoVantage Road Rage Survey ranked Miami as the least courteous city, compared to 19 other major American metro areas.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

National auto discount club AutoVantage administered a survey to determine which cities have the most aggressive drivers. AutoVantage polled participants about how their fellow drivers behave on the road. The survey shows that people believe road rage is usually the result of triggers like feeling rushed, speeding, or being in traffic. Other aggressive driving behaviors include tailgating, changing lanes without using a signal, talking on cell phones while driving, running red lights, honking the horn and using angry or obscene gestures at other drivers.

Participants also provided suggestions on how to decrease road-rage incidents. Suggestions ranged from outlawing talking on a cell phone while driving to increasing police presence on the roads. Only 32 percent of the respondents felt that a major public awareness campaign would be useful -- Dr. James argues that extensive driver's education courses beginning at grade-school level are necessary to decrease road-rage incidents [source:].

So where in the United States are you going to find the most aggressive drivers? According to the survey, that dubious honor belongs to Miami, Fla. Miami has a very diverse, dense population, including a large community of senior citizens who have a very different driving style from younger drivers.

The other four cities rounding out the top five include New York City, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The city with the most courteous drivers was Portland, Ore. Pittsburgh, Seattle/Tacoma, St. Louis and Dallas/Fort Worth also ranked high in driver courtesy [source:].

Statistically, young men are the most prone to road rage. Whether this is due to a predisposition to aggression, a lack of experience or just the simple fact that young men tend to drive more than other age and gender groups, is still a subject of debate. In a 2002 Rage-Depression Survey, the most competitive, aggressive population polled were men under the age of 19 [source: Dr.].

Men reported feeling a sense of rage more frequently than women. Fifty-six percent of the men surveyed said they experienced rage on a daily basis versus 44 percent of the women. More men also admitted to retaliating against others when they felt angry or provoked [source: Dr.].

Recently, several writers have published articles about the rise in road-rage incidents among women. Most of these articles are written from an editorial perspective, with few facts or figures to support observations. However, there is the perception that women are closing the aggression gap.

It's important to keep in mind that road rage isn't some uncontrollable phenomenon. As drivers, we each have the responsibility to be as safe as we can. We also each have the choice over whether to engage in aggressive behaviors or retaliate against a real or perceived insult. So the next time you're driving and someone cuts you off or honks at you, try to keep a cool head and set a good example.

To learn more about road rage and related subjects, check out the links on the next page

Related How Stuff Works Articles:

Related How Stuff Works Articles:

More Great Links

More Great Links


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