Why We Rage on the Roads—and How to Stop - Pacific Standard

Why We Rage on the Roads—and How to Stop

A perfect combination of fear and overconfidence produces dangerous escalations of tiny incidents. The best course of action is to allow the guy flipping you the bird to drive right past.
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(Photo: tonythemisfit/Flickr)

(Photo: tonythemisfit/Flickr)

I have road rage. I use the present tense for a reason.

This is how my variety works: Generally, I'm a driver of relative calm, doing my best to get from point A to point B with the proper anxiety that someone in control of a two-ton hunk of metal should have. If someone's driving slower than a rickshaw, I'll quietly maneuver around them. If someone's falling asleep at a green light, I'll gently tap one-two on my horn to give them a nudge. But! If someone tailgates me, lays on their horn, or flips me their most insulting finger, I lose my goddamn mind.

Blood rushes to my head, nostrils flare, fists clench. My steering wheel gets a pounding, my windows rattle with an explosion of profanity. And when that despicable driver comes into view, I leer into their window, give them a maniacal wave, and smile like Christian Bale in American Psycho. This happens on a monthly basis. It's not the recommended course of action.

“The backseat of the car, I call that Road Rage Nursery. Children learn from their parents to be very hostile, verbally and emotionally, so when they start driving, they are going to behave that way.”

“It's a dangerous thing to do,” says Leon James, who studies driving psychology at the University of Hawaii. “You have to ask yourself, do I want to get involved in this? What am I actually gaining?”

The answer—in the moment, at least—is quite obvious: I'm teaching this jerk a lesson! He—and, c'mon, it's always a he; if you don't think so, here's your science—needs to know he doesn't own the road, that his actions have consequences, that next time he decides to lay on his horn he may be doing it to an actual psychopath with a weapon of some sort. James was not persuaded.

“That's a wrong kind of thinking,” James says. “You never know who this other person is and how they're going to respond to you. Even just looking at them, they get enraged, they have no control.”

You only have to read through a recent spate of news coverage to confirm this. In January, a story about a North Carolina woman who tried to bait another driver into an accident went viral. In February, an Austin man spit on a car and shouted a bunch of obscenities. In San Francisco, a driver cut off a bicyclist and then jumped out of his car to curse at the rider after the ensuing collision. Last week in Las Vegas, a mother was killed in a “road rage shootout,” after giving her daughter a driving lesson. Road rage isn't a series of isolated incidents. It's an epidemic. Why are we all raging on the road?

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Since the term “road rage” was coined by Los Angeles news anchors in the '80s, there has been no shortage of attempts at answering this question. In 1997, experts said it had to do with an ignorance of the road. A 2008 study found that people's possession of bumper stickers correlated with a higher likelihood of exhibiting the negative behavior. Last May, travel website Expedia tried to figure out what specific actions make people rage the most. Not surprisingly, "The Texter" was the most aggravating, followed by "The Tailgater," "The Multi-tasker," and "The Drifter."

“We all have our opinions on what frustrates us the most while driving,” writes John Morrey, vice president and general manager of Expedia.com, in an email. “Some of the behaviors I find most annoying, actually ended up on the bottom of the list!” For me, that's the finding that "The Unappreciative"—that is, someone who doesn't offer a courtesy thank you wave for letting them into your lane, an act of presumptuous superiority so rancid it shakes me to my core—only upsets 13 percent of the population. Part of this survey was simply about data collection, but another goal was using it as a learning tool. “I think [the results] certainly encouraged us to have just a little bit more patience with our fellow drivers while on the road!” Morrey writes. “Hopefully this newfound awareness will result in less driving etiquette violations on all of our parts.”

Which, frankly, is wishful thinking. Road rage isn't going anywhere.

In fact, “road rage is going to increase,” James says. “Why? Because people learn from each other. The backseat of the car, I call that Road Rage Nursery. Children learn from their parents to be very hostile, verbally and emotionally, so when they start driving, they are going to behave that way.”

This is not a unanimous opinion. While a much-cited 1997 study from AAA claims “1,500 [people] are injured or killed each year in the United States as a result of 'aggressive driving,'” there's not a lot of hard data to back this up. There's been a drop-off in mentions of “road rage” on Google Books, but other data is hard to come by. An incident usually needs to hit a certain level of seriousness or become a viral video hit before police get involved. The fewer mentions on Google over time may also indicate the death of the term, not necessarily the ceasing of the act; people got angry at other drivers before the phrase was coined.

The upward trajectory of road rage incidents would make sense on an empirical level. There are more drivers now than anytime in history, meaning more interactions. More cars has led to fewer space and more battles over it. A wider disparity of automobiles allows the roads to be congested with cars of varying levels of speed and safety, meaning everyone experiences the driving act slightly differently. This leads to a lack of empathy. Phones and other distractions aren't helping. (If you want more visual evidence, lose an afternoon searching for “road rage” on YouTube.) But all that doesn't necessarily translate into people losing their minds behind the wheel. That is most directly due to a combination of two competing emotions: fear and overconfidence.

The fear part's easy to understand. You don't need to see the entirety of the California Highway Patrol's four-part Red Asphalt driver's ed series to have daymares about it. “Driving is one of the most dangerous things people do on a regular basis,” James says. “When an event or situation in traffic happens and we get scared, it affects us very deeply.” When you have emotions flying high, responses will be heightened as well.

On the other side of that coin is the sense of safety you have inside of a car. “It's not like waiting in the bank line, we're not exposed in the same way,” James says. You feel that you're in a protective bubble, that you're Ripley in the Power Loader at the end of Aliens. Despite all your rage, that cage of yours is keeping the other rats out. That allows us the confidence to act out a little more when confronted with annoying behaviors.

There's also another variable to consider: passengers. While there are certain instances where this may sooth the savage beast—James contends communal ride-shares with strangers have fewer instances of road rage—there's the instigation factor when you're driving with people you know. “If you're with a couple of friends, especially young men, who are in the habit of being fairly violent in public places, they're going to be violent while they're driving,” James says. “They may actually encourage you to engage in a duel.”

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This is where James introduces his own method for avoiding road rage: AWM, or acknowledge, witness, modify. “The first step is the hardest,” James explains. This is acknowledging that you're an aggressive driver, that you have a problem. “Most people are not willing to do that.” Aggressive driving is separate from road rage, in that it's simply the act of driving recklessly, not necessarily the yelling and flicking-off-other-drivers part associated with the latter. Aggressive driving is something that leads to road rage, since it makes other people super annoyed, and that starts the back-and-forth escalation process.

If you get past that first step, then you need to witness your own behavior and see where you're making mistakes. If you're not switching lanes properly, if you're not making sure no one's in your blind spot. The final step is modifying these mistakes. “Every trip, focus on one mistake at a time,” James says. “Until conditioning is in place so that you automatically back off if you're too close.”

But, still: All this does is make sure you don't cause an incident, since you're driving appropriately. But even if you're driving safely, that doesn't always jive with someone else's sensibilities, doesn't mean they're not going to be driving aggressively. You can be doing everything completely correct, and yet there they are in your rear-view mirror, laying on their horn, flashing their most sullied of fingers. And when they do, what's a driver supposed to do? Just sit there and take it?

It's no accident James uses the word “duel” when discussing road rage. Duels are, by nature, the result of two people escalating, neither backing down. The first smacks the white glove and demands “satisfaction,” and the second says, “yeah, here it is.” While one may be the instigator, the second is perhaps more instrumental in the end result. “Almost all road rage cases that have been studied basically start with one little incident but then get magnified,” James says. “It's a duel because it's an escalation process. So if you don't participate in the escalation process there's not going to be any road rage.”

If you don't want to end up as a news story, James says you have to live with “being wronged” and move past it. Leering out your window, waving, or flashing them a contorted smile isn't going to help anything. “The other person doesn't care, you can't change their behavior,” James says. “The only thing you can change is your own.” Bite your tongue, take a few deep breaths, swallow that anger, let them drive off, and have faith that karma's got your back.

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