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What causes road rage? And how can drivers control it?

80 percent of drivers experience some form of aggression behind the wheel. Try these tips to keep calm.
Rude gestures, honking, tailgating and texting while driving are among the 12 behaviors identified in a survey about road rage and what provokes it.
Rude gestures, honking, tailgating and texting while driving are among the 12 behaviors identified in a survey about road rage and what provokes it. Frank Franklin II / AP file

Driving can be dreadful, and not only because it’s teeming with risk (nearly 1.25 million people die every year in car accidents) and the roads are increasingly crowded (ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card found that more than two out of every five miles of U.S interstates are congested, with traffic delays costing $160 billion in wasted fuel and time), but also because it can make us pretty angry.

I’m talking about road rage — and not just the dramatic potentially deadly blow-ups implied by the term (which fittingly was coined in Los Angeles, in the late ‘80s) — but also the more passive and subdued iterations of anger, petulance or just pure carelessness that can prove dangerous.

It's not just honking — even texting provokes road rage

A new survey from Farah and Farah, a personal injury law firm, identified 12 behaviors that drivers might interpret as road rage.

The list includes making rude gestures, honking, tailgating and texting while driving, among others.

“Texting while driving was an instance where we saw a high proportion, [nearly 60 percent] of people who considered it to be aggressive,” says Matt Gillespie, a project manager at the PR firm Fractl, who worked with Farah and Farah on the survey.

“Years ago, the term ‘road rage’ only centered on outlandish driving behaviors — like getting out of your car to fight — but there are many other types of behaviors that may not feel aggressive to the people doing them, but are felt as aggressive to others, and ultimately that’s dangerous,” says Gillespie. “We were interested in the whole aggregate of driving behaviors, specifically in how they correlate with accidents — whether they look like road rage or not.”

Yes, other drivers are frustrating, but that’s not what’s causing the aggression

Road rage is alarmingly common, with an AAA report finding that nearly 80 percent of drivers experience some form of aggression behind the wheel.

I use the word “experience” and not “enact” because as someone who can flare up in frustration at another driver’s action (or inaction), my road rage has felt more like a subjective happening than an intentional act. The “rage” feels like a reflex, rather than a choice, and one that is powerful enough to cause me to switch from a pleasant mood to a foul one in the blink of a turn signal light.

Why do the mistakes or thoughtless acts of other people upset me and millions of others to such a degree? How can we get over it so that we don’t add to the risks off the road?

Ana Jovanovic a psychotherapist and life coach at ParentingPod, links road rage to a deeper lying resentment or other negative emotion that isn’t planted by the offending driver, but triggered by it.

Imagine pumping a balloon until it bursts. This can be a good illustration of how anger fills up the mental space of a person to the point it makes them snap.

“The initial turn [in our mood] usually has nothing to do with the traffic,” says Jovanovic. “We can be feeling upset over something that happened at work, or with a friend or a partner. The ‘turn’ we make is allowing angry thoughts to occupy our minds [such that it] infiltrates into the very thing we are doing at that moment, even if that thing — such as driving — has nothing to do with the reason for our anger. We start perceiving relatively neutral behaviors of other drivers as insulting, disrespectful, upsetting, invalidating, frustrating, etc. The emotions we’ve previously been feeling get attached to the situation we are in.”

Simply put, “we project our negative feelings onto the actions of others,” Jovanovic says. “One angry thought leads to another one, spiraling out of control before we even have a chance to check whether the intentions of other drivers are really malicious or disrespectful. Just imagine pumping a balloon until it bursts. This can be a good illustration of how anger fills up the mental space of a person to the point it makes them snap.”

A little soul-searching can help eliminate road rage

Laura Louise, a speaker, mentor and author describes herself as having previously been “an extreme road rage crazy woman.”

“I was so angry inside that any opportunity to release my anger was a welcome explosion of rage,” Louise says. “I would chase people down in my car, yell at them for cutting me off or even get out of my car if they escalated the situation. Looking back, it’s pretty embarrassing.”

To solve her rage issues that were manifesting on the road, Louise committed to getting to the root of her general anger. She found that much of it was rooted in buried resentment towards her father.

“I wrote letters to myself and began to work through the emotions of not having the childhood I wanted, coming to terms with reality and envisioning my father's side,” she says. “I meditated to calm my emotions and experience an internal quiet place, and stopped drinking alcohol.”

Imagine what the other driver might be going through

Louise still gets irritated by the erratic behaviors of fellow drivers, but she doesn’t let it get the best of her. Instead, she tries to imagine what these people might be going through to cause them to drive so irresponsibly.

“I create a story about the other drivers so I may continue on my way with peace,” she says. “I will imagine the person needs to use a restroom so badly they are in a panic. If they made a really bad error in judgment, I imagine they are rushing to a hospital. I will often say a prayer for them and continue on my way without anger. I am happier and healthier because I no longer allow other people’s driving errors be the cause for me to explode.”

The rules of the road apply to everyone, but focus only on your part

Jim Dailakis, a comedian and voiceover artist whose driven in five countries through all sorts of conditions, says the way he deals with his road rage is by taking a “Zen-like approach.”

“I just accept that the minute I get into the car, the road rules only apply to me and not to anyone else,” Dailakis says. “They can do whatever they want which makes me cautious and alert. It also helps with anticipating other drivers’ moves.”

Podcasts and audiobooks can be calming

Dakota Kim, a writer in Los Angeles, says she used to experience minor road rage, and zapped it simply by focusing on something other than the road — namely podcasts.

“My response to my road rage is to turn on an engrossing podcast,” says Kim. “I remind myself that this flaring up of temper is a somewhat irrational response to physical and mental frustration, and that if I preoccupy myself rather than trying to weave through lanes, the relativity of time will ease.”

Stephanie Hammell, a financial advisor in Orange County, California, has also coped with her road rage by listening to a story on the car speakers. She vouches for audiobooks.

Listening to books in the car is super valuable, and when you're tuned into what the next topic is you'll be learning on and developing your skills with, it puts your attention on the wisdom you're taking in rather than the rage, and you're still paying attention to the road,” Hammell says.

Leave earlier and ride-share when possible

“I used to constantly find myself cursing at other drivers for their mistakes, giving them the finger and trying to retaliate,” says Tarez Dennis, a podcaster in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “I decided to change my attitude towards road rage when I noticed the dangers behind it. I took a moment to analyze why I was getting so upset and most times it was because I was in a rush to get to my destination. I started allowing myself more time to travel so I wouldn't get so upset when minor road issues happened.”

If able, you might want to take a break from driving altogether.

Garin Flowers, a director of media relations in L.A, had terrible road rage when working in Florida and decided to give up driving when he moved out west.

“I've been using ride sharing apps and the train system to get around,” Flowers says. “It has absolutely changed my life. Riding [as a passenger] in a car every day, you learn that most things aren't in your control, such as traffic and other bad drivers. So, why get so upset about it? Yes, I still wish road conditions were better, especially here in LA, but I'm a much calmer person when getting around.”


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