Road Rage: What It Is, How to Avoid It

Aggressive driving -- to the point of endangering others -- is on the rise. Do you know how to stay out of harm's way?

Medically Reviewed by Patricia A. Farrell, PhD on March 10, 2012

A year ago, according to news reports, Corrine Leclair-Holler, then 29, was talking on her cellphone while driving in Concord, N.H. Another driver, Carissa Williams, then 23, yelled at her, then pulled ahead. When she reached a freeway on-ramp, Williams stopped her car, got out (leaving her own baby in the car), climbed into Leclair-Holler's car, and shot her with a stun gun -- despite Leclair-Holler's cries that she was pregnant.

Leclair-Holler and her baby were fine. Williams was convicted of assault as well as criminal trespass and endangering the welfare of a minor. She now faces up to 20 years in prison.

Hundreds of road-rage incidents like this one are reported every year in the United States. Road rage, defined by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety as "any unsafe driving maneuver performed deliberately and with ill intention or disregard for safety," includes cutting people off, hitting one car with another, running someone off the road, and shooting or physically assaulting other drivers or passengers.

"With road rage, you're basically driving under the influence of impaired emotions," says Leon James, PhD, a professor of psychology at University of Hawaii and co-author of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving.

Young men initiate most road-rage incidents, but anyone can feel rage behind the wheel. That's because anyone can take offense at what they think another driver is doing. "Our emotions are triggered by mental assumptions," James 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? James says recognizing and controlling aggressive thoughts, feelings, and actions are key. Cultivating compassion may also help. In a recent study, 312 of the 400 men in a court-ordered domestic abuse program had prior convictions for aggressive driving. A year after taking compassion classes, only seven had received additional convictions.

Getting over road rage entails a "lifelong program of self-improvement, plus a driver personality makeover," James says. Try these tips from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

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 fuels the fire. Instead, put distance between yourself and that driver. If he or she becomes truly threatening, drive to a police station or crowded public place.

Manage your own anger by empathizing with the other driver (assume he or she is having a hard 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.

Remember that you can't control other drivers. You can only control your reactions to them.

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Show Sources


American Automobile Association: "Road Rage."

RoadRagers web site.

Leon James, PhD, professor of traffic psychology, University of Hawaii; co-author, Road Rage and Aggressive Driving, Prometheus Books, October 2000.

American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety: "Aggressive Driving: Research Update."

Szlemko, W. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, June 2008.

Psychology Today: "The Solution to Road Rage? Find Compassion."

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