Consider the following recent sobering reports:
- A motorist shot and killed the driver of another car “because he was driving too slowly.”
- A large crowd was blocking the parking lot exit of a nightclub. A driver who was growing impatient with waiting for an opening drove his car straight into the crowd, seriously injuring seven people.
- When Jack Nicholson got cut off, the actor waited until both he and the other driver were stopped at a red light, then got out of his car, and hit the windshield and roof of the other car with his golf club. He returned to his car and drove away.
Of course, you wouldn’t do such things. Or would you?
You might, because road rage is remarkably common. In one survey of more than 500 drivers, 90 percent reported that during the past year they either were a victim of road rage or had witnessed it. These statistics actually may be underestimates. For one thing, many respondents may not want to admit to road rage because it is socially undesirable. Also, more people report being the target rather than the initiator of road rage, supporting the idea that initiators may not be fessing up.
Psychologist Elisabeth Wells-Parker of Mississippi State University and her associates have suggested that the term “road rage” implies specific incidents of anger and aggression directed intentionally at another driver, vehicle or object. When the behavior erupts, the presence of firearms can worsen the situation. As physician Matthew Miller of the Harvard School of Public Health and his colleagues have pointed out, 11 percent of a randomly selected sample of 790 drivers reported that they always or sometimes carried a gun (usually loaded) in their vehicle.
Who Are These People?
Anybody can be susceptible. Road ragers are men and women, young and old, rich and poor, mentally disturbed and healthy, people with and without generalized anger problems, and members of various ethnicities. Some become angry almost every time they drive, whereas others do so infrequently. Although aggressive retaliation, such as assault or murder, characterizes the extreme end of these behaviors, most crabby drivers engage in milder displays, such as verbal insults, obscene gestures, honking their horn, cutting off other drivers and chasing other cars.
Still, research does point to some similarities among those who are susceptible to belligerent acts when behind the wheel. People with aggressive tendencies across a variety of situations, including home and work, have an increased likelihood of road rage. Younger drivers are more prone than older drivers are. Men have historically displayed a greater predilection, although women recently have been catching up. Many road ragers are otherwise model citizens who are successful in work and in relationships and well respected in their communities.
Why do some people get angry and even violent in response to the irritating behavior of other drivers, whereas others do not? Psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher of Colorado State University has proposed that some people have a trait for, or predisposition toward, this type of behavior that is triggered by the poor driving of other motorists. Many of his studies have found that those who display lower levels of the trait are far less likely to respond with road rage, even when exposed to the same triggers.
Other researchers have tried to uncover the nature of this trait, and their studies have found that those prone to road rage may show one or more of a variety of characteristics: general aggression (not limited to driving), high levels of stress, antisocial tendencies, or low impulse control and frustration tolerance. Researchers have also demonstrated that road ragers are sensitive to supposed attacks on their self-esteem. For example, in the clinical practice of one of us (Arkowitz), people with road rage problems perceived the irksome behaviors of other drivers as a sign of disrespect and a personal insult rather than attributing those behaviors to the other drivers’ carelessness or recklessness. Arkowitz found it useful to help clients learn that “it is not about you.” Certain psychological problems have also been found to relate to the road rage trait, including antisocial and borderline personality disorders as well as alcohol and substance abuse.