The Root Cause of Road Rage

Road rage has happened to more than half of all drivers. Do you know what's causing you to be a road rager?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
4 min read

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 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 their life, for instance at home or with a family. Or the tension of the commute may make domestic violence worse.

Secondly, the road rager may be inflamed by the absent-minded or stupid driving of those talking on cell phones. This is common. But a person in an argument on a cell phone him or herself can also flare into a rage about something on the road, Cadell says. "Verbal confrontations on the phone can lead to confrontations on the road, she says It works both ways."

An inability to handle anger or deflect it can also be at fault -- thus the proliferation of anger management courses.

As a psychotherapist, Markell often sees people whose "significant others" are concerned or terrified by their mate's aggressive driving. If you or your spouse think this has become a problem, some possible steps to take include:

  • Get sufficient rest -- lack of sleep leads to loss of control.
  • Limit alcohol -- "Alcohol can make you rageful," Cadell says (not to mention impair your driving other ways).
  • Leave earlier for your destinations. That 10-second wait won't bug you as much.
  • Play soothing music. This can really help.
  • Be aware of your driving. Leon James, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and author of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare, recommends watching yourself -- what makes you angry, how long do you stay angry. Tell yourself, "It was not their fault -- it was the guy in front of them."
  • Put pictures of your loved ones on the dashboard -- you want to come home to them.
  • Remember, this behavior can cost you in more ways than one. "People don't think about that," Markell says. "This can have a high price tag even if no one is hurt or killed -- tickets, lawyers, court costs, damage to vehicles, insurance rates."

"People do some crazy things," Markell says. "They bump you, they run people off the road, they get a weapon, they yell, they make hand gestures. They go out of control. This is women, too."

Therefore, it's up to the victim to control the situation. Markell recommends:

  • If you are being tailgated, change lanes.
  • If someone wants to pass, slow down and let them.
  • Don't return gestures.
  • Stay behind the person who is angry at all costs (they can do less damage if you are behind them)
  • If necessary, pull off the road or take an exit and let them go on by.
  • Don't make eye contact.

There is a commercial company touting signs you can hold up that say SORRY. But Markell, says that may be distracting. Cadell also disagrees with the "don't make eye contact" advice. "I believe you must look at the person," she says. "See them as a person. And what if you have to identify them later?"

Cadell thinks anger management should be taught in every high school. "Many people," she says, "don't know there are alternative options and ways of releasing anger. Anger management is both educational and therapeutic and there would be a lot less road rage and domestic violence."

Markell recommends governments build more roads. Change the timing of lights, he adds. There is even a proposal on the table to install video cameras into cars to record the sequence of all encounters and accidents, though this is not an immediate prospect.

"Have a positive attitude and enjoy the drive," says Cadell.

"Don't be a jerk," is how Markell puts it.

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.