Road Rage: Seven steps to go from hostile to happy-go-lucky
Why are we so angry on the road? I say we, because I’m asking myself the same question. As a clinical psychologist, I help people manage their emotions effectively but when it comes to road rage, I can’t help but wonder, am I part of the problem or part of the solution?
What is road rage?
The term ‘road rage’ was coined by American media after a spate of shootings on Los Angeles freeways. Since then, the term has been used to describe a continuum of angry and aggressive behaviour by drivers in response to mistakes or what is perceived as irresponsible or selfish driving behaviour by other drivers.
Angry responses range from honking, swearing and hostile gestures at one end of the spectrum to dangerous and predatory driving behaviour like tailgating, blocking or chasing, all the way to extremely violent acts that can result in serious injury and even death.
How common is road rage?
The prevalence and breadth of the problem is not fully clear because the definition of “road rage” varies widely across studies, some only including violent acts and others using the broader definition. To remedy this lack of clarity, the Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee of the Parliament of Victoria recommended that the term “road rage” was replaced by two terms, road hostility and road violence (VPDCPC, 2005). Road hostility is defined as nonviolent but hostile acts like obscene gestures and verbal abuse directed at other drivers. Road violence refer to violence acts directed at other drivers.
Even with this delineation, it is difficult to clarify prevalence rates. Road hostility is difficult to measure, relying almost solely on self-report; and road violence incidents are usually recorded as generic criminal acts (like “assault”) rather than specifically as a “road rage” or “road violence” event.
Taking into account these barriers to ascertaining prevalence rates, with police figures and criminal statistics, it is estimated that road rage assaults have increased by an alarming 60 to 85 percent in the last 4 to 5 years in Victoria (Australia). These figures are replicated across the globe with a recent UK study finding that the UK had the highest rate of road rage, with Australia ranking 9th in a sample of 20 countries. In the United States, a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 80% of drivers reported expressing significant anger, aggression or road rage behind the wheel at least once a year, with up to 24% retaliating through dangerous driving and up to 4% resorting to violent behaviour.
Although shootings are not common on Australian roads due to our common-sense gun laws, there have been several incidents of extreme violence, like these three serious incidents reported in the news within one week late last year—one motorist got out of his car and punched a driver repeatedly while his children were watching, another driver threatened a motorcyclist with a metal bar and then was struck by the bar himself in retaliation, and a motorist got out of his car to confront another driver and was run over by the driver in a hit-and-run incident.
Are there gender differences?
University of London researcher, Patrick Fagan surveyed 1000 British drivers about their responses to given road scenarios and found that women were angrier while driving than men. The Monash University Accident Research Centre found that while it’s common for women and men to express anger or beep their horn at least occasionally, male drivers are more likely to drive dangerously to express their anger—for example by tailgating or chasing a driver. These behaviours are concerning because even if they don’t lead to violence, they can cause accidents.
Young male drivers (aged 22-39) reported the most extreme aggression, and this was associated with drunk-driving, speeding, and the use of a hand-held phone, suggesting that road violence was perpetrated by a small percentage of men who have a tendency toward criminal behaviour and dangerous driving. These drivers are more likely to have impulsive, irresponsible, risk-taking and hostile personality traits according to an Australian National University study of 300 young drivers.
Why are we so angry?
The NRMA surveyed 1500 motorists who identified several behaviours of other drivers that make them angry. Tailgating was the number one pet peeve. The list also included unnecessarily slamming on the brakes, merging without indicating, driving too slowly, not allowing others to merge, cutting drivers off, texting while driving, not waving ‘thank you’, and using the right-hand lane incorrectly.
Other driving-related reasons include increasing traffic and congestion on the roads, having to share the roads with other road-users like cyclists and pedestrians, and not following common sense road rules like using indicators or giving right of way to drivers at intersections and round-a-bouts.
But of course, people’s anger is not only related to driving conditions and driver behaviour; there are more factors at play. They include:
Personal Issues of Driver: Drivers will be more reactive and prone to anger and frustration if they are experiencing acute or ongoing stress in their lives, if their basic needs for sleep, nutrition, physical activity and social connection are not met, and if they have difficulty regulating their emotions more generally. All of these variables will make drivers more vulnerable to unreasonable outbursts on the road.
Social Learning: Drivers are more likely to react angrily on the road if this has been modelled by significant others. The TAC has found that parents underestimate the influence of their role modelling while driving on their children. According to the TAC, studies have shown significant links between parents’ aggressive driving styles and their children’s eventual driving behaviour on the road. These results led the TAC to launch the towardszero campaign which targets the influence of parent behaviour on young drivers.
Lack of emotion regulation skills: Violent, aggressive and angry responses may be a result of a lack of skills rather than a lack of motivation to behave better. Some people have not been exposed to environments during childhood that modelled effective coping and anger management techniques and strategies like identifying your emotions, breathing and relaxation exercises, mindfulness, and helpful self-talk.
Unhelpful Attitudes/Beliefs: Attitudes and beliefs about ourselves, others and the world play a part in how we behave on the road. Society is changing at a pace that makes our heads spin and we are getting used to everything being easily and immediately accessible. This has led to expectations of perfection, control, certainty, and immediacy and has diminished the opportunities to develop skills like patience and sharing. We have become unforgiving, judgemental and territorial in our vehicles, rather than tolerant and compassionate.
Why should I change if I’m not at fault?
If you’re like me, you may be thinking, “Hmmm, I do spend a lot of time feeling annoyed with other drivers but I’m not that angry, I just swear at people when I’m alone in my car, and I occasionally flip the bird.” I am one of those drivers, quick to react in response to discourteous or irresponsible drivers, easily frustrated by minor errors, and excusing my hostile reactions as an acceptable release of anger because I’m on my own within the safe confines of my car. No one can hear me calling them a “moron” or an “idiot”, right? But more and more I am asking myself, “Is this a reflection of me or of them?”
You might be thinking, “Of course I’m going to feel angry in response to these annoying and often unsafe driving behaviours.” And, “If they cut me off or almost crashed into me, surely they deserve my wrath!”
True, sometimes feeling irritated, frustrated or angry is justified, but that doesn’t mean that the way we behave in response to these feelings are justified. Road rage is perpetuated by the belief that it is warranted.
The more important question is what makes us more vulnerable to behaving in an hostile manner and how can we take more responsibility for our reactions to the driving mistakes and behaviours of others.
If you’re starting to think about making some changes to how you feel and behave on the road, here are some more reasons to help boost your motivation.
Reasons to stop road raging:
Physical health: Anger has a physiological impact. Anger expressed assertively and managed effectively does not have a negative impact on your health; however, frequent sudden surges of anger can put you at risk for a number of serious physical problems including heart attack and stroke. Studies have also shown the frequent anger and hostility weakens the immune system and can lead to respiratory problems in men. Being stressed on the road also lasts longer than you think according to a study by the University of Sunshine Coast and the RACQ who measured drivers’ distress as they drove in various scenarios. They found that the physiological and emotional impact of being highly stressed while driving can stay with you for hours after you drive.
Safety: Although it is a small percentage of people who will actually react violently to annoying driving behaviours, you may be putting yourself at risk by responding in a hostile manner. You don’t know what will send another person over the edge. Do you really want to take that risk?
Your values: Are you able to skillfully manage your emotions and effectively deal with the minor, and even major, frustrations in your life without resorting to hostile gestures and unnecessary expletives? Why is that? It probably has a lot to do with your values. I value my relationships, I value kindness, and I value people. I couldn’t do what I do without having genuine positive regard toward others. So the behaviour I display in the car is not is not at all in line with my values nor is in line with who I think I am or who I strive to be as a person. Examine your values, is your behaviour as a driver in line with these values or not? If not, time to make a change.
People can see you! There is this weird thing that happens when you’re in your car. You know the windows are see-through but for some reason you think no one is looking. This is best demonstrated by the many motorists who pick their noses while driving. We can see you! Stop it! The same goes for your angry facial expressions and hostile gesticulations. One time, this women behind me honked at me for not moving forward (I literally could not move forward even an inch) and I could see her getting increasingly frustrated through my rear-view mirror. I realised that I knew her, she was a mother at my children’s school. And I have to say, my impression of her diminished significantly. I couldn’t believe how angry she was and that it was directed at me even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It did make me reflect though on what I might look like to others when I’m angry at them in the car and how this could affect their impression of me. Just remember, people can see you! Who do you want them to see?
Habit-forming: It is very easy to get to used to responding to particular triggers in a particular way. If you are constantly frustrated, impatient and unforgiving on the roads and express this through hostile or dangerous behaviours—you may not be able to control your behaviour when others are in the car. This point really hit home for me last year. I was driving home and was stopped at a level crossing. When the gates went up, I decided to let a woman in who was merging from the left and the man behind me honked at me for not moving. I felt so indignant and annoyed at his impatience, I both swore and gave him the finger. It was so automatic. Then I heard a gasp. Two in fact. I had forgotten that my kids were in the car! I was so used to responding to my perception of injustice on the roads in an hostile manner, it led to an automatic response; I didn’t think before acting. It was not my proudest moment.
Modelling behaviour to your children: Right after the incident I just recounted above, guess what my 8-year old son did…he repeated what I said. I had to admonish him for doing exactly what I did (have I mentioned my pet peeve is hypocrisy). When I told him that he should not speak that way, he responded cheekily, “I’m just saying what you said.” I replied, “Yes, I was naughty, but you shouldn’t copy everything that I do.” And he replied, “But you’re my role model.” The way he said it made me laugh but it struck a nerve with me. Children model their behaviour on what you do not what you tell them to do. Do you want to create another generation of angry, hostile drivers. I don’t.
Seven steps to go from hostile to happy-go-lucky
Step 1: Decide to Change
The first step is to identify if this is a problem area for you and then to make a conscious decision and commitment to do something to change it. The process of change can be challenging especially for ingrained habits but if you want to change, you can learn to react differently, by practicing new ways of thinking and behaving.
Step 2: Identify and reduce your vulnerabilities People are generally more vulnerable to anger responses in certain conditions like when they are under a great deal of stress, or they are in heavy traffic conditions, or they are running late. Lifestyle factors can also impact your emotional state like not getting enough sleep or being very hungry (hence the word, “hangry”). Once you identify the factors that make you more likely to be easily angered or irritable, you need to do plan for it. For instance, plan to manage stress levels with breathing exercises or listening to soothing music, make sure you leave early so you are not feeling under pressure in heavy traffic, and don’t skip meals and get at least 7 hours of sleep every night.
Step 3: Make your car a positive space
Make sure you are in the right state of mind before you drive (don’t drive when you’re highly emotional) and then make sure you stay in the best state of mind while driving by making your car a calm zone or a fun zone.
Calm zone—play calming music, hang a peppermint or cinnamon air freshener which have been found to be both calming and increasing alertness according to a NASA-funded study
Fun zone—play music that puts you in a good mood, listen to a funny podcast, play car games that don’t distract you from driving like searching for certain colour cars or making words out of licence plates
Step 4: Learn skills to manage frustration effectively
FACT: being frustrated and angry does not make the situation better, but it has the potential to make it much worse. So, it’s in your best interest to learn to reduce and manage your anger. A recent Monash University Accident Research study has shown that mindfulness is likely to be an effective intervention to both reduce anger and aggressive driving because it helps people regulate their emotions as well as accept, rather than react to situations.
Other suggestions come from the NRMA who suggest waving politely to other drivers to diffuse situations in their RoadWave campaign and Transport for London advises to keep things in perspective and let the anger go in their #sharetheroad campaign. These skills and can be learned in a variety of ways: books, apps, online programs, skills groups and individual psychological treatment and can they can help reduce anger and the behaviours associated with it.
Step 5: Change your attitudes about other drivers
Try to remember that no one is perfect and most people are doing the best they can.
Instead of demanding perfection from other drivers, expect imperfection. Be forgiving of mistakes rather than taking them personally. Remember the times when you have made mistakes, and ask yourself, did you do it on purpose and were you out to get someone? Unlikely. And it’s unlikely for other drivers too. A tip that helps me is to pretend the other driver who is annoying you is your best friend or grandmother because I know I would be far more forgiving if I knew who the driver was and if it was someone I really cared about.
Step 6: Think Safety First
The most important thing is for you and your passengers to stay safe on the road. You may feel anger from time to time and you may come across irresponsible, selfish or dangerous drivers; but retaliating in an hostile manner is not going to make you feel better or drive better. Jake Nelson, AAA's Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research, advises, "Don't risk escalating a frustrating situation because you never know what the other driver might do. Maintain a cool head, and focus on reaching your destination safely." If other drivers express anger toward you, don’t engage them, avoid eye contact and find help if you need it. If someone is following you, do not drive home, instead go to a public place (like a shopping centre or hospital) or drive to the nearest police station.
Step 7: Drive like everyone is watching
Be a Kind and Courteous Driver. Share the road, be patient, and acknowledge and apologise for your mistakes. Being understanding and polite can go a long way to diffusing potentially volatile situations and also increases the likelihood that your actions will be reciprocated. It also serves as excellent role modelling for your little passengers.