You know that familiar tightening feeling, the red tinge to your vision -- some bozo cuts you off, slows down as you are about to pass, is going under the limit in the left lane, doesn't signal, is on the phone, keeps you from making the light -- and it's showdown time at the "I am not OK Corral." Makes you tense up just to read it, doesn't it?
One study estimates that more than half of all drivers have experienced a surge of road rage at some point, although not all bang into the offender's rear bumper, pull a pistol, or hurl a helpless puppy into oncoming traffic. Still, tens of thousands of accidents happen each year because of aggressive driving, which is also a leading cause of death for young children.
"You know those studies of overcrowding in rats?" asks Barry Markell, PhD, a psychotherapist in Park Ridge, Ill., who has treated many perpetrators and victims of road rage. "Well, rats are usually OK until there is one rat too many in an enclosed space and then they all turn on each other. There are far more people on the road than ever before. Crowding causes aggression."
Of course, as Markell points out, people in a grocery store line can also get stressed and annoyed. But in grocery store line, everyone involved is a person. The woman with the screaming kids is clearly a mother. The woman fumbling with the credit card machine is someone's grandmother.
Road ragers don't see the offender as a person. "They 'thingify' the person," Markell says.
Ava Cadell, PhD, a psychologist and instructor at the Institute fir the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, agrees. "The heavy metal of a car is a safe haven. Road ragers don't think about the consequences or even about other people on the road as real people with real families."
Road Rage Intensifiers
"Road ragers are selfish, power hungry, angry, and vindictive," Cadell explains. The average offender has raged at least 27 times, according to one study.
Besides overcrowding on the highway, there also may be several chicken-and-egg scenarios at work. First, the rager may be violent in other parts of his or her life, for instance at home or with a family. Or the tension of the commute may make domestic violence worse.