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A very American road rage shooting crisis

The increasingly deadly effects of Covid psychology mixed with millions of guns.
A boy is killed in road-rage freeway shooting in Orange
The California Highway Patrol closes the northbound lanes of the 55 freeway in Orange as police investigators walk the freeway looking for evidence following a shooting in which Aiden Leos, 6, a was shot and killed during a road rage attack on May 21, 2021.MediaNews Group/Orange County Re / MediaNews Group via Getty Images

The U.S. is experiencing a huge number of road rage incidents. And the list of potential provocations are almost endless — tailgating, illegally passing on the shoulder, horn honking, cutting drivers off, yelling, flashing one’s high beams or making obscene gestures. But too often, these incidents don’t end with an epithet. Last week, a man in New Jersey was arrested after allegedly running over a woman multiple times in a suspected road rage incident. And it gets worse: In 2021, 45 people were wounded and 11 were killed in road rage shootings — in Dallas alone. Across the country, last year was one of the worst years on record for these kinds of deadly outbursts.

Across the country, last year was one of the worst years on record for this kind of deadly outburst.

There is no one factor at play here, but we know psychology plays a key role. The more drivers engage in aggressive “anger rumination,” the more upset they become, and the more they engage in dangerous driving behaviors. This can lead them to become and stay angry during and after what they perceive as a driving provocation, as well as their having more intense thoughts on how to get even.

This psychology intensifies when an individual is already prone to anger. There’s plenty of research that shows that people with a high, long-standing disposition toward anger have an inclination to view others’ bad driving behaviors as intentionally aggressive, viewing the other driver as a malicious perpetrator. These expressions of road rage are usually not the first time these individuals have committed an aggressive act. Antagonists may view the roads as their territory and lack the ability to control their temper. They also tend to be male. Obviously, driving under the influence of alcohol or cannabis increases the odds of aggressive driving.

For the past few decades, Brad Bushman, a social psychologist and communication professor at The Ohio State University, has studied the causes, consequences and solutions to human aggression. Bushman told me he believes there are two related factors for the uptick in road rage. The first is frustration. “In 1939, a group of Yale scholars proposed the frustration-aggression hypothesis,” he said. “Frustration is defined as blocking goal-directed behavior. The pandemic has blocked many goals for many people.”

The second factor is also related to the pandemic, but in a different way. There has been a dramatic rise in gun sales over the past few years. “Although guns don’t directly cause aggression, they dramatically increase the likelihood that any situation involving conflict will be fatal,” Bushman notes. This makes sense. We all have a built-in emergency system. This system has likely been inflamed by pandemic-related isolation, the disinformation that has spread on social media and our nationwide access to lethal weapons.

I also spoke with Tara Galovski, one of the co-authors of the book “Road Rage: Assessment and Treatment of the Angry, Aggressive Driver.” She told me that there are often warning signs with this type of behavior. But being in a car can make aggression worse. “Unfortunately, bad behavior can be amplified in driving situations due to anonymity (drivers are not easily identifiable or known to other drivers) and because the car offers a quick getaway,” she said. This makes accountability even harder.

“Understanding why someone is driving aggressively can help determine how to change his/her behavior,” Galovski explained, noting that it is possible to adjust those aggressive or dangerous mindsets. Self-aware angry drivers can try things like planning ahead and leaving more time to get to their destination or improving their driving experience by listening to an audio book or taking a scenic route. It’s also important to keep one’s own stress levels low and practice relaxation tips like deep breathing or counting to 10 — and if it’s not working, pulling over.

“In the long run, noticing your thoughts and understanding how they contribute to your anger and angry behaviors is important,” Galovski says. “If someone thinks that drivers are all ‘idiots,’ for example, then that person is likely to notice any examples of driving that support this thought. A simple intervention is for people to intentionally look for examples that contradict this negative and erroneous belief. A more accurate thought is that most people drive well, some people make mistakes sometimes, and there are a few bad drivers out there.”

To be fair to the U.S., road rage is a serious public health issue around the world, including in Australia, Denmark, France, China and India. But what is unique to the U.S. — and particularly dangerous — is a phenomenon some researchers call the weapons on wheels effect, which describes how drivers act and react when they have gun with them in their car. The psychology behind this effect was first demonstrated in a seminal 1967 study, which found that students placed in rooms with guns acted more aggressively. What this study tells us is that stimuli associated with aggression can arouse violent responses in those who are already prone to act destructively. This research finding has been replicated many times over many years since.

Road rage is both a personal and collective problem. On the one hand, we need a multifaceted public health approach to stop these drivers from making life perilous for the rest of us, and raise awareness of red flag behavior. Aggressive drivers need to learn that they don’t “own the roads,” and we can help them more appropriately manage their thoughts, feelings and actions. But we also likely need to increase the penalties for road rage behaviors as well as engage in public education to inform all drivers of the risks. In a civilized society, it should be a national outrage that hundreds of people a year are being shot over actions as minor as tailgating. And yet here we are.