How Road Rage Works

Road Rage or 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.