How to steer clear of road rage (Q&A)

If you're involved in an accident or receive a ticket for speeding or tailgating caused by road rage, there’s a good chance your car insurance rates will increase, says Loretta Worters with the Insurance Information Institute in New York City.

We asked Dr. Leon James, an expert on road rage, to help understand it better and how it works. He's been studying the topic since 1985. He's professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii where he's been teaching a course on traffic psychology for almost thirty years. Dr. James is the co-author with his wife, Dr. Diane Nahl, of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving (2000). He's counseled individuals who've committed road rage.

road rage We asked him about road rage – what it is, why it's on the rise, where it starts, and what to do if you start losing your cool behind the wheel.

How to steer clear of road rage

In a nutshell, what is road rage?

It's a mental state. Road rage is characterized by impaired thinking and judgment of a driver due to emotional reactions to driving situations. In this state, drivers are unable to control their behavior. They behave in high-risk actions. They might use their vehicle as a weapon of attack, or use other weapons to attack, injure or kill another driver.

There are three kinds of road rage:

  • Physical (assault and battery.)
  • Verbal (yelling, gesturing and muttering.)
  • Mental road rage such as emotional explosions, negative thoughts and fantasies of violence.

What causes road rage?

A large factor is our culture, which fosters disrespect and hostility on highways and streets. This negative driving culture is acquired in childhood from parents. It's then reinforced by TV commercials and video games where aggressive and risky driving behaviors are portrayed and practiced.

Why is it on the rise?

Road rage and aggressive driving are transmitted by adults to children in traffic situations. I call the back seat of the car “road rage nursery.” Our driver education starts when we're infants and passengers in cars driven by parents and other adults. 

We subconsciously (learn the driving style) of parents and other adults such as aggressive driving, speeding, changing lanes and verbal insults against other drivers. All of these influences cause each generation to act more aggressively than the previous one.

Are road rage and aggressive driving linked?

Yes. Statistics aren’t readily available. In most jurisdictions, road rage is not a distinct criminal offense, so you won’t see statistics on it. Instead the expression “aggressive driving” is used. In the news and police reports, (the expression) “road rage” is often used when some physical violence has occurred.

If you're pulled over by a law enforcement officer for road rage, how is the driving charge classified? What kind of fine and/or punishment could an offender expect to receive?

It falls under the category of aggressive driving. So far, legislatures in 15 states have addressed aggressive driving and eleven of those spell out actions that constitute aggressive driving. Aggressive driving laws prescribe specific and more serious punishments that include fines, license suspension and jail terms.

What advice would you if you’re driving along the highway and are confronted with a very angry fellow driver, who's cursing and swearing at you?

Don’t do anything that may be seen to the other driver as a challenge or insult. If you feel like doing that, quickly start making funny animal sounds, or start singing. This will allow you to calm down and regain control.

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