The science behind road rage

Kwik Fit | Thursday 7th March 2019 4:15pm

Angry driver in red car

Road rage is a term believed to have originated in the United States, but it’s a problem across much of the world, including the UK. Isolated and extreme cases make the headlines from time to time, but the truth is that road rage is happening on a daily basis. From motorways and A roads, to traffic-choked intersections throughout the country, drivers are giving into road rage or being subjected to outbursts of it.

We’ve all witnessed an altercation between drivers by the roadside or been a passenger in a car while an impatient person curses and complains behind the wheel, but what behaviour actually classifies as road rage, why does it happen and what can we do to avoid it?

What is road rage?

Road rage is defined as a ‘sudden eruption of violent anger in a driver triggered by the direct actions of a fellow motorist’. This rage is expressed on a scale of aggressive reactions. At the milder and more common end of the spectrum such displays include horn honking, shouting (sometimes words of verbal abuse), and rude and impatient gesticulation.

Road rage is defined as a ‘sudden eruption of violent anger in a driver triggered by the direct actions of a fellow motorist’. This rage is expressed on a scale of aggressive reactions. At the milder and more common end of the spectrum such displays include horn honking, shouting (sometimes words of verbal abuse), and rude and impatient gesticulation.

Unfortunately, cases of road rage are all too common. In fact, a survey conducted by black box insurer Ingenie found that seven in 10 motorists polled had been subjected to a road rage incident in preceding 12 months. Meanwhile, although 65 per cent of respondents said they didn’t think of themselves as a ‘road rager’, nearly nine in 10 admitted to showing signs of road rage occasionally.

What causes it?

Speaking to Auto Express, Dr Lisa Dorn, a reader in driver behaviour at Bedford’s Cranfield University, suggested that people who are naturally angry can easily become aggressive and show signs of frustration on the roads.

Asked why some motorists tend to get enraged by other people’s behaviour on the highways, she said: “It’s like looking through a distorted lens, and the person in front of that distorted lens becomes someone who is trying to stop them from achieving their goal.” She added that road rage can be dangerous because when people are in this frame of mind, they are not focussed on the traffic conditions but instead on letting off steam. She also noted that when people are angered and rattled, they can’t process road conditions as effectively, and this has a negative impact on driving performance.

Some experts believe that extreme cases of aggression among drivers can be attributed to a condition called intermittent explosive disorder (IED) because the contextual stressors do not appear to be sufficient for the level of hostility found in drivers. IED is an impulse control disorder characterised by the failure to resist aggressive impulses. It can lead to verbal aggression, property destruction and assaults.

How can road rage be tackled?

While some instances of road rage may be a result of IED, many are not - and it’s important for drivers to make an effort to act as calmly and safely as possible at all times on the roads.

There are small but important steps that you can take when you’re behind the wheel to help you achieve this. For example, if you find yourself being tailgated by an impatient motorist, look for a safe place to allow them to overtake and pass - rather than becoming increasingly angered and distracted by their behaviour.

Another tip is to avoid making eye contact with an aggressive driver if you find yourself in a potentially confrontational situation.

Self-awareness is also key. If you get into your car when you are feeling very tired or stressed, you may be more prone to making mistakes on the road and to reacting angrily to others around you. Try to avoid driving if you’re too fatigued or wound up, and if you have to make a journey when you’re feeling like this, be conscious of the impact it may have on your mindset and try to make allowances for this.

Look at the bigger picture too. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re in the driving seat, but when something happens that irritates you, remember the things that are really important in your life. This can help you to act in a more disciplined, measured way and prevent you from getting into unnecessary altercations.

Here are some other tips that may help:

  • Breathe with a steady rhythm. A potentially dangerous situation causes shortness of breath putting us in a heightened state of emotion, which can escalate, so just slow everything down.
  • Try not to take it so personally. It can feel like the world is against us - and that driver who cut us off is too. He or she might be inconsiderate, but the truth is, they are not personally attacking you.
  • Know your own limits. Many of us overestimate our driving skills and the sense of superiority this can cause makes us believe we can take greater risks and can mean we are less tolerant of others.
  • Forgive. We are all human and will make mistakes when driving. Be understanding and don’t seek to punish other motorists.

By having greater awareness of the causes of road rage and actively taking steps to avoid it, you can help to keep yourself and others safe - and make your journeys less stressful as well.

For more suggestions on how to stay out of danger on the roads, check out our blog on how to become a better driver.

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