Psychology of Road Rage

We’ve all been there. We’re sitting behind another car at a stoplight. The light turns green. The driver in front of us doesn’t seem to notice for what seems like an eternity; though, at worst, it’s probably for only a few seconds. The urge to honk at the “moron” in front of us slowly creeps to the surface. Yet, many of us can stifle any potential outward expression of frustration; though, perhaps some not-so-PG thoughts linger in our minds. What is it about those individuals who aren’t as able to filter their actions? How do things escalate from mumbling a few angry words to oneself to walking up to a nearby car and smashing in the windshield with a baseball bat?

For decades, psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists across the globe have been trying to answer these and more questions by studying patterns of road rage. In doing this, they have gained further insight into what things might make some people tick and what traits might make some people more susceptible to road rage than others. It is through this knowledge that researchers are working to develop interventions that might help reduce the incidence of these sorts of risky behaviors on the streets.

Just over twenty years ago, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that road rage contributed to 218 deaths and over 12,000 deaths between 1990 and 1996. More alarmingly, this report found that road rage-related incidents increased by 7 percent each year just within that six-year period. In 2005, Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher, a psychology professor at Colorado State University, presented his findings after comparing personality traits of self-described “high-anger” drivers to those of “low-anger” drivers. His study found that high-anger drivers tend to share the following traits: 1) hostile, aggressive thinking, such as judging other drivers and thinking hostile and vengeful thoughts toward them; 2) riskier driving, such as regularly speeding 10-20 mph over the speed limit, tailgating, and rapidly switching lanes; 3) outward expression of anger from non-driving related stressors, such as leaving home or work angry. It is important to note, however, that Deffenbacher found that high-anger drivers are not always angry or offensive drivers, exemplified by their similarly low levels of anger to low-anger drivers when they were exposed to computer simulated programs with unimpeded country roads. So clearly, the equation for what amounts to road rage is not complete without considering the traffic-related triggers.

While Deffenbacher’s study helped shed further light on how the personalities of individuals more likely to exhibit road rage differ from their counterparts, the question of what triggers the rage remains. One study in India published in 2013 found that honking, overtaking from the wrong side of the road, loud music in other cars, and hot and humid climates significantly increased the chances that high-anger drivers would experience anger compared to low anger drivers. The way this anger manifested differed between both groups, as well. In this study, high-anger drivers were far more likely to yell and argue with and verbally abuse other drivers and to even go as far as overtaking them, hitting and bumping other cars, fighting other drivers, and holding spaces so other drivers couldn’t get them. Whereas, low-anger drivers tended to exhibit more passive behaviors, including holding grudges against other drivers and eating or drinking something to cool down. This more passive behavior is similar to that of the low-anger drivers reported in Deffenbacher’s study, who tended to focus their anger on safe driving, rethink anger-provoking situations less negatively, and even use calming and relaxing distractors, such as turning on the radio.

Similarly, a study of Chinese drivers found that over half of drivers became angry when flashed by high beam lights of vehicles traveling in the opposite direction, and almost one-third of participants would flash their own high beam lights in retaliation. The majority of drivers were also dissatisfied when other drivers drove too slowly and didn’t drive when lights turned green (sound familiar?), and over half of drivers will honk or flash their lights in respond. Interestingly, most participants didn’t seem to mind traffic congestion or jay walkers. Additionally, the severity of response to these triggers varied with factors like gender (i.e., men more easily irritated than women), age (i.e., older drivers were less easily provoked), and driving experience (i.e., novice drivers were more tolerant events like being flashed by high beams or illegally overtaken by other cars.)

With a greater understanding of what defines and causes road rage has come potentially effective interventions. Relaxation, cognitive restructuring, or reframing of negative events as intervention techniques have been studied in college students and were found to curb road rage. By practicing skills to control their anger while visualizing anger-provoking situations like being cut off in traffic and while they were actually driving, intervention participants experienced reductions in the frequency and intensity of their anger. Additional practical techniques suggested by participants in the Chines study included planning trips better in advance, improving public transportation, and strengthening law enforcement. While some solutions may be better suited for certain environments than others, the global efforts toward reducing road rage will hopefully pave the way for safer roads.

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