The Psychology of Road Rage

Experts explain how road rage gets the better of us and how to get it under control—even when it’s totally not your fault.

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Photo by Zero Creatives / Getty Images

Oblivious lane cutters, tailgaters, speed demons, and cellphone talkers can make anyone’s blood boil. But next time, you might want to take a breather before losing your cool. According to a new Australian study, the stress associated with road rage could even have adverse health effects.

What is road rage?

While the media tends to portray road rage as an outward expression of anger—anything from flipping the bird or shaking a fist to an actual violent assault—Robert Nemerovski, Psy.D., a San Francisco-based psychologist, has found in his research that many people identify road rage as a feeling they experience even if they don’t act upon it. In fact, a survey from CareerBuilder reported that 58 percent of commuters said they have experienced road rage while traveling to and from work and that nearly one in 10 have gotten into a fight with another commuter.

Traffic, long commutes, and the anxiety of running late can all contribute to driving frustration. But it’s the feeling of being anonymous and overly secure behind the armor of one’s car that can make us do things we wouldn’t do under normal circumstances. “This sense of safety combined with the power we get from driving modern vehicles with sometimes unnecessarily high amounts of horsepower and untold numbers of ‘power’ buttons and ‘controls’ can give drivers a false semblance of invulnerability, which can lead to acting out in ways that one would never do in face-to-face settings, such as in line at a coffee shop,” Nemerovski says.

So why do we feel compelled to shout out, “It’s called a ‘blinker,’ buddy!” when we know full well we can’t be heard? Nemerovski says, “We are seeking to make the other driver ‘know’ how we feel, to accept what he or she did wrong, and to validate our negative emotional experience.” However, because no one can actually hear each other, we’re forced to act out our irritation with contorted expressions, flashing lights or a one-fingered salute. It’s no surprise that this form of communication rarely leads to an apology, he adds.

And while we may all find ourselves vulnerable to bouts of road rage from time to time, counseling psychologist Jerry L. Deffenbacher, Ph.D., of Colorado State University, found that certain temperaments are more susceptible to aggressive driving and antagonistic behavior than others. His research shows that these high-anger drivers tend to be more impulsive, engage in hostile thinking, take more risks behind the wheel, receive more speeding tickets, and get angry faster (on and off the road). Because you never know what is the mental state of the driver you are interacting with or whether he or she has a weapon, deescalating a conflict should always be your first course of action.

How to curb road rage

Before you honk that horn, remember “PEST” to help you keep calm and drive on.

Play it safe.
Do your best to keep your distance from an aggressive driver and move to a different lane. Though, if you’ve been involved with a hostile back-and-forth with another motorist, Nemerovski warns not to take an off ramp because the driver may follow you. “It’s safer to pull over on the shoulder where other people can see you.” Also a good idea: report the make and license plate of the other car to the police if you can.

Enjoy the ride, no matter what.
You can’t control what other motorists do but you can do certain things that help you maintain a peaceful state of mind. Focus on the scenery, chat with your passengers, or listen to relaxing music (instead of potentially provocative talk radio). And if a fist-shaking power struggle breaks out anyway, take a few calming breaths and try to respond with humor (i.e. “He must be rushing to the hair salon. He needs it!”), rather than reacting with anger. It may also help to get in the habit of leaving 10 minutes early so that you won’t be rushed or stressed.

Step into the other driver’s shoes.
It’s all too easy to demonize the other person as a Mad Max renegade purposely out to run you off the road. But in all likelihood, he’s probably just running late for work (you know, like you were the other day) or perhaps suddenly swerved to avoid a pothole. And you should also be open to the possibility that, maybe, just maybe, you did do something to annoy him.

Take the high road.
In other words, let it go. Deffenbacher suggests looking at an aggressive driver as a kid throwing a tantrum in a supermarket. “You may not like the child's behavior, but you do not have to take it personally,” he says. And, really, is it that big of a deal to go ahead and allow that jerk to merge? You may even want to consider throwing in a friendly wave to avoid escalating the situation further.