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Getting a Grip on Roadway Anger


WebMD Health News

April 21, 2000 -- He was a college freshman, a hothead who drove a pickup, very often on someone's bumper. He sometimes forced drivers off the side of the road. In his back seat was a baseball bat -- to defend himself, and to threaten those who angered him.

One night, a young girl did just that. She cut him off, trying to pass him on a mountain road.

"I jumped out of truck, had the baseball bat in my hand ? and then I realized how stupid it was," he later told his therapy group. "This woman was scared to death. She was shaking like a leaf. I threw the baseball bat back into the truck, then went back and talked to her."

"He changed from public menace to public helper," says the young man's therapist, Jerry Deffenbacher, PhD, a professor of psychology at Colorado State University. "He was still mad at the young woman for not passing safely and bumping his truck, but he calmed himself down. He told us, 'I realized I didn't have to behave this way.'"

So-called "high-anger drivers" like this young man are twice as likely to engage in risky behavior, like drinking and driving and driving without seatbelts, Deffenbacher says. They are also 1.4 times more likely to have accidents or speeding violations. But his research shows that relaxation therapy can help these drivers feel less angry and change their dangerous ways.

Deffenbacher's paper on hostile drivers appears in this month's issue of the Journal of Consulting Psychology. He has spent nearly two decades studying anger and road rage.

Road rage takes many forms, and not all are aggressive, Deffenbacher says. Sometimes, it can simply make life miserable.

One typical scenario involved a woman with a 45-minute commute in Denver. "She would get so mad on her way to work, it impacted her work environment for about an hour. She got angry on the way home and withdrew from her husband and kids, because she would be so tired and mad," Deffenbacher tells WebMD.

The result: "She had stomachaches, she had headaches. Her doctor said she needed to manage her anger better, that it was impacting her health. She said, 'I've got to get a handle on this, because it's impacting my health, and my family doesn't like me any more, either,'" he says.

Although one of the studies described in Deffenbacher's article explored the emotional, behavioral, and accident-risk characteristics of high-anger drivers, a second looked at treatments for the problem.

The studies included 57 college freshmen and sophomore students (23 men, 34 women) enrolled in introductory psychology classes at Colorado State. Each scored high on a driving-anger scale, Deffenbacher tells WebMD. "They had to personally identify their own driving anger as a personal problem they wanted counseling for."

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