I first realized that the driver of a white Nissan Rogue was really angry at me when he pulled up alongside me as I was driving one hot summer afternoon in Scottsdale, Arizona. Before his window was all the way down, he shoved a fist out of his car and shook it at me vigorously — with middle finger raised. He was yelling, too, but I couldn’t hear him over the Bill Withers tune I was singing.
Almost every driver has a road-rage story, whether as a target, a witness, a passenger, or even a perpetrator. If you’ve driven with any regularity, you may have gotten that single-finger salute a time or two. Perhaps you’ve even given a few. During a seven-year period in the United States, The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety looked at more than 10,000 road rage incidents and found they caused 12,610 injuries and 218 deaths. Additionally, 37 percent of aggressive driving incidents involved firearms. How does irritation over a perceived slight turn into aggression and violence on the roadways, and what can we do to avoid it? Let’s talk about it.
What Is Road Rage?
There’s a difference between road rage and aggressive driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calls aggressive driving any unsafe behavior performed deliberately and with ill intention or disregard for safety such as speeding, running a red light or stop sign, failure to yield the right of way, or reckless driving, which are all traffic infractions. It also includes brake checking, changing lanes without signaling, tailgating, driving in an emergency lane, and obscene gestures.
Aggressive driving becomes road rage when the actions of a driver turn criminally violent. The NHTSA defines it as “the operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger persons or property.” Road rage includes behavior such as physical confrontation, brandishing a weapon, sideswiping or ramming other cars, throwing objects, or forcing a driver off the road.
What Are the Consequences of Road Rage?
The legal consequences of aggressive driving vary from state to state. In Arizona, a driver convicted of aggressive driving faces up to six months in jail, suspension of driving privileges, three years probation, and more than $4,000 in fines. The penalties for road rage are worse. Charges can include reckless driving, simple assault, and aggravated assault, or even worse and could be considered felonies. New Jersey has much stiffer penalties for roadway violence as thanks to the passing of Jessica’s Law there, those convicted of road rage that causes serious injuries can face three to five years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
No one is immune to falling victim to road rage in one way or another. Heavyweight champion boxer Mike Tyson was sentenced in 1999 to two years in jail for attacking two motorists in what a Maryland judge called “a tragic example of potentially lethal road rage.” Last April, an aide traveling with a Virginia state senator brandished an AR-15 rifle at another driver at the same time the senator was participating in a gun-rights group forum over the phone.
The biggest losses in road rage events are more personal, as a quick search of news on Google will give you the tragic details of road rage in action. High-profile accounts of road rage over the last year, some of which even ended in death, haunt the news constantly. In September, road rage led to the death of 23-year-old Krista Nichols, who was eight months pregnant with her second son. Just a few months before that, 6-year-old Aiden Leos was killed in a road rage incident in Orange County, California. His mother was cut off by another driver and after allegedly using a hand gesture, a man in the other vehicle opened fire. The 24-year-old driver was arrested and faces murder charges. Although the anger feels real and justified at the time, no one wants to make the news over road rage.
How to Avoid Aggressive Drivers
Who knows why the driver of that white Nissan Rogue was so upset that day last summer, but his anger disturbed me. Instead of engaging, I performed the easiest evasive driving maneuver I could think of: I slowed down — quickly but safely. He responded by pulling in front of me and braking abruptly. Not wanting to give up on my peaceful afternoon, I slowed my Camaro even more and took the first left I could. The small diversion added to my travel time, but at least I could get back to full voice for the chorus of “Lovely Day.” Peace of mind and a good song were my best choices that day.
If you’re the target of an aggressive driver who seems hellbent to seek vengeance for whatever happens on the roadway, there are a few steps you can take. The AAA traffic safety group advises:
- Don’t engage. One angry driver can’t start a fight if the other isn’t willing to join in.
- Steer clear. Give angry drivers lots of space. Turn in another direction, even if it means being late to your destination.
- Avoid eye contact. Concentrate on driving.
- Don’t pull over. Nor should you ever get out of the car.
- Get help. Call law enforcement or drive to a police station. You can also drive to a busy convenience store or even a hospital and honk your horn to get someone’s attention.
How to Defuse Our Own Anger
Eric Yelsa is a clinical health psychologist trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction and currently working for the University of Utah’s Health Sciences Clinics. When I asked him about road rage, he told me that anger is an emotional response to a perceived threat in which we might be limited in our ability to respond. The response of the body is to believe the threat is real and to react to it.
“Think of your anger as a pot of water,” Yelsa explains, “and the boiling point is when the anger becomes problematic as the pot boils over.” There are several ways to help yourself before, after, and during a potential road rage situation. Yelsa shared a few techniques:
To reduce tension, try inhaling through the nose and mouth for about four seconds and exhaling out the mouth for about six seconds, emphasizing exhaling more air than you’re taking in.
Create an emotion vs. reason list
Your emotions will create problems if you follow them without reason, but your rational thoughts can become a problem if you follow them without feeling. Think of whether your response is logical or emotional, and use those answers to develop more creative responses to potentially dangerous situations.
Make your goals public
“When you share your intent, you make yourself accountable,” Yelsa says. If aggression while driving is something you’d like to curtail, let friends and family members know.
Take control of your self talk
Be aware of negative thoughts when they come up and correct them. Turn absolute statements such as “people always drive recklessly” or “that guy is an idiot” into factual statements such as “he’s driving unsafely for the conditions” or “I can move away from that driver in case he has an accident.”
The 20-minutes rule
Recognize that once you’re angry it will take about 20 minutes for the chemicals responsible for triggering that anger to disperse and for you to return to normal. Use that knowledge and try some deep breathing to return to a calm state.
Try a little empathy
Imagine the set of circumstances an aggressive motorist might be dealing with. When we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, it produces an empathy response that then increases the production of oxytocin, a chemical associated with feeling good.
Become focused on your surroundings. Count the number of cars on the road. Count your breaths. Focus on a sense of feeling heavy and relaxed in the car. Play soothing music. Sing out loud. Recall a favorite memory. Imagine being next to somebody you love. Make plans for how you’re going to celebrate not having lost your cool in the car.
Here’s the Best Reason To Get a Dash Cam
If you’ve taken a trip through the subreddit “IdiotsInCars” you’re aware of how prevalent dashboard cameras have become. Law enforcement officers use dash cams to increase their safety and decrease their liability. Those are pretty good reasons for everyone to have one. We share more arguments in favor of dash cams here.
My top choice is a Thinkware unit for its high resolution, 150-degree viewing angle, and even dual recording angles. Hank O’Hop over at The Drive went searching for the best dash cams and came up with a solid list to choose from.
Car Bibles answers all your burning questions.
Q: What should I do if I witness a road rage attack?
A: Pull over to a safe space off the roadway and call local law enforcement, whether that’s highway patrol, the sheriff’s office, or the police. You will be asked the location and direction of travel, descriptions of vehicles and people involved, and details of the incident. If you have footage from a dashboard camera, let them know.
Q: Is there a law against road rage?
A: Road rage is a blanket term used to define emotion-based acts of reckless, aggressive, and intimidating driving that has led to or could lead to injury or worse.
Q: I come across aggressive motorists quite often, but my son never does. How could this be?
A: You could be driving in a manner that is infuriating to other drivers. Avoid tailgating slower drivers, honking your horn excessively, flashing your headlights, cutting off other motorists, or other behaviors that could be deemed offensive. Drive safely and go with the flow.
Video of Road Rage in Action
For some reason, it’s easier to see bad behavior in others than in ourselves. The video below is from a television news program in Alberta, Canada. See if you can spot the errors made by both drivers.
Comments Are Open
Have you had a particularly frightening road-rage experience or perhaps your own strategies to stay calm and cool on the road? Share it with the whole class in the comments section.
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