David Stallings isn't the kind of person you'd expect to succumb to road rage. He is calm and mild mannered, a longtime Zen Buddhist. Plus, he's professionally dedicated to safe transportation — he works for Seattle's Metro Transit.
But years ago, while trapped in traffic in his truck, he happened across his daughter's white plastic toy ray gun, complete with flashing lights. On a whim, he surreptitiously used it to zap a car that had just cut him off.
"I thought, 'Well, that's kind of satisfying,'" he says. The satisfaction lasted a year. Then, "it dawned on me that I was sort of giving vent to some of the same [aggression] that I was condemning."
Road rage and roadway congestion are familiar scenarios for millions of American drivers, and they're not getting any better. A 2006 Transportation Research Board report noted that congestion is increasing in intensity, extent and duration. Average one-way travel time for commuters in 2000 was 25.5 minutes, three minutes more than in 1990.
Certainly anecdotal reports of aggression behind the wheel are increasing. Consider the case of the Raleigh, N.C., driver who allegedly circled the block and ran down a pedestrian who had dared to yell at him to slow down. Or the driver who ran a fellow motorist off the road in Peoria, Ariz., for talking on his cell phone. Or the off-duty Detroit police officer facing charges for allegedly firing shots at an SUV driver who had accidentally hit his Dodge Magnum. And those are just incidents from the past few months.
Fight or flight
Exact figures for incidents of road rage are hard to come by, partly because the behaviors are difficult to define precisely. A 2002 survey done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 40 percent of drivers felt other drivers had become more aggressive in the past year, compared with 30 percent who felt that way in 1997.
Normally, when stress becomes overwhelming, experts suggest taking a break from the situation or setting aside time to exercise. But in a car, your options are limited.
"Stress is a fight-or-flight reaction," says New York psychologist Carol Goldberg. "If [people] can't flee, like they're stuck in a traffic jam, they fight and get road rage."
So how can you keep from succumbing to blood-pressure-raising fury when you're crammed behind the wheel? These tips from experts can help you change your body and your mind:
Get comfortable. Gerry Matthews, a psychology professor at the University of Cincinnati who has studied driver behavior, says driver comfort "plays into driver fatigue and there's a close relationship between fatigue and stress. Stress makes you fatigued and fatigue makes you stressed." Adjust the temperature so you're not too warm, loosen your tie or other tight-fitting clothing and make sure your seat is positioned so you're relaxed to avoid the physical tension that comes with stress.
Distract yourself — but only a little. "Instead of honking your horn and trying to find shortcuts and giving everybody the finger, you could say, 'Look, I'm going to use this time productively,'" suggests Dr. Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress. Listening to soothing music, audiobooks or foreign-language tapes is a way for drivers to block out the annoyance of traffic. But be careful. As Matthews points out, talking on a cell phone, hands-free or not, "is distracting and dangerous when driving."
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Breathe deeply. You don't need to be an expert in meditation to benefit from deep breathing. Rick Waranch, a part-time psychology faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, recommends simply taking seven or eight slow breaths per minute from the diaphragm, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Don't make assumptions. It's easy to think that the guy in the BMW cut you off maliciously, but that doesn't mean it's true. Social psychologists have a name for this kind of assumption: the fundamental attribution error. It's our tendency to ascribe behavior too much to underlying personality traits and too little to the particular situation. Maybe the Beemer driver is a doctor rushing to surgery to save a life. Assuming the worst will only add to your stress. Also, remember you're equally prone to mistakes. One study Matthews cites asked people to rate their own driving safety and the skills of other drivers. The result? "People overestimate … their driving ability," says Matthews.
Think of the big picture. Does it really matter if your 15-minute drive takes you 20 minutes, or if you let in that merging SUV? Rational thinking is difficult when you're seeing red, but with practice, it's doable. Waranch has helped several patients suffering from driving-related stress. "It's largely convincing yourself that it's pretty stupid to [drive aggressively], that it's unhealthy, and that it's not going to serve any purpose," he says.
Be self-aware. Knowing what triggers stress in you is key to reducing it, Matthews says. Accepting that other drivers are beyond your control can improve your attitude. It's also good to recognize that driving a car conveys a false sense of invulnerability and adds a degree of anonymity that can make the best of us behave less than graciously. Applying the common courtesy you'd exhibit in the grocery-store checkout line while on the road can make driving in traffic less confrontational and even collaborative.
For Stallings, the toy gun wasn't the answer. His Buddhist leanings made breathing exercises a natural solution.
"It's a way not only to let [the irritation] go but to feel engaged … in a positive way," he says. "All you have to do is just kind of turn a corner."
Patrick Enright is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in MSNBC.com, Mr. Showbiz, Wall of Sound, Movies.com and Seattle Weekly.
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