Road rage: It’s more common (and dangerous) than you think
Friday, September 28, 2018
Let’s say you’ve just pulled out of your neighborhood Chinese restaurant with a takeout dinner when some idiot in a red Corvette suddenly veers in front of you. You hit the brakes hard. And, of course, your chicken chow mein and wonton soup go hurtling from the passenger seat onto the floor.
Impulsively, you let loose with a few choice expletives, lay on the horn to get the offender’s attention, and then flip him a bird for good measure. You feel mildly avenged but you can’t help noticing that your pulse is pounding and your hands are a little shaky.
Collecting yourself, you realize this isn’t the usual calm, collected you — the good and courteous driver you know that you are. Nonetheless, what you’ve just demonstrated is aggressive driving behavior, commonly known as "road rage." And you are hardly alone.
A 2017 study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety reveals that nearly 80 percent of drivers expressed significant anger, aggression or road rage at least once during the previous year.
The most common such behaviors, reported to AAA by nearly half of all drivers, were purposely tailgating another vehicle, yelling at its driver and honking their horn in a display of annoyance or anger. One-third of all respondents indicated they had made an angry gesture at another driver.
Approximately one in four drivers reported they had purposely tried to block another driver from changing lanes — and 12 percent reported they had cut off another vehicle on purpose.
A small proportion of drivers even admitted to engaging in behaviors beyond the scope of general aggressive driving, i.e., serious road rage: almost 4 percent of drivers reported they had exited their vehicle to confront another driver — and nearly 3 percent reported they had bumped or rammed another vehicle on purpose.
These most hostile types of behaviors represent only a small number of the 2,705 drivers sampled in the AAA’s nationwide study. But when you extrapolate those numbers to the nation’s 222 million licensed drivers, it is downright alarming to envision that there are anywhere from 6.6 to 8.8 million drivers out there on America’s streets and highways who are prone to serious road rage.
Analyzing the study’s demographics, it is no big surprise to find that a great majority of respondents reporting aggressive driving behavior — particularly the most threatening types — were males between the ages of 19 and 39. And most aggressors were urbanites and opposed to country folk. Regionally, drivers in the Northeast were the most likely to report having engaged in aggressive driving behaviors.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety summarizes its report by noting that aggressive driving behavior in the United States contributes to a substantial proportion of fatal crashes, is perceived to be a serious threat to safety, and appears to be increasingly prevalent.
Psychologists offer some plausible explanations for the causes behind road rage. Stan Steindl, a clinical psychologist and professor at Australia’s University of Queensland, says that "Threats like unexpected moves by other drivers, being cut off, or having to brake suddenly can trigger fight or flight responses. Given that in many traffic situations it’s hard to run away, you fight."
Dr. Leon James, a professor of psychology at University of Hawaii and co-author of "Road Rage and Aggressive Driving,"says, "Other factors that trigger road rage include preexisting stress and an innate feeling of intense territoriality that is suddenly threatened by another driver."
What’s the cure? "Recognizing and controlling aggressive thoughts, feelings and actions are key," says James. Having some compassion may also help. James notes that in a recent study, 312 of 400 men in a court-ordered domestic abuse program had prior convictions for aggressive driving. A year after taking anger management classes, only seven had received additional convictions.
Beyond the risk of being physically assaulted or otherwise injured in a road rage incident, angry outbursts aren’t great for you. According to a 2014 research review from the Harvard School of Public Health, it is possible that they could trigger a heart attack or stroke.
The authors postulate that the link between angry outbursts and cardiovascular problems comes from the tendency of psychological stress to increase heart rate and blood pressure. Such changes in blood flow could cause fatty buildup in blood vessels called plaques to loosen, leading to potentially dangerous blood clots in the heart or brain.
It clearly is in everyone’s best interest to avert incidents of road rage. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety offers the following tips.
Avoid angering others. Drive the speed limit, use turn signals, obey traffic signs and signals and yield whenever possible. Don’t gesture at other drivers — not even a headshake.
Get away from drivers who are angry or driving badly. Don’t stare, glare, honk or retaliate — that only fuels the fire. Instead, put distance between yourself and that driver.
Manage your own anger. Empathize with the other driver (assume he or she is having a bad day or made an honest mistake), leaving for your destination early so you’re not stressed by being late, and using deep breathing or soothing music to relax.
Above all else, remember that you can’t control other drivers. You can only control your reactions to them.
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