A man and woman have been charged with the shooting of a 6-year-old boy on a California freeway, involving firing at the victim’s car after a traffic dispute. People across the nation are asking: why? What factors cause driving disputes to turn deadly? Research has some answers.
Driving While Angry
Most people instinctively avoid drivers who drive erratically. But over the years we have become increasingly wary of drivers who break even basic traffic laws including speeding and failing to signal. It turns out that instinct is well-founded.
According to the American Psychological Society (APA) in a piece aptly entitled “The Fast and the Furious,” road rage can be caused by environmental factors such as crowded highways, psychological factors such as high amounts of life stress and displaced anger, as well as factors such as youth. They also note what some people might expect instinctively given the emotional aspect of road rage, that research has linked road rage and alcohol and drug abuse.
The article quotes counseling psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher, who lists several ways in which self-identified high-anger drivers engage in hostile, aggressive thinking, express disbelief about how others drive and consider revenge — sometimes including physical harm. Deffenbacher also mentions specific ways in which angry drivers take more risks on the road, including exceeding the speed limit by 10-20 miles per hour, rapidly switching lanes, tailgating and running red lights.
He explains that high anger drivers become angry more quickly and behave more aggressively, resorting to honking, yelling or swearing at other drivers. But as we might imagine, this anger is not limited to behind the wheel. Deffenbacher notes that road ragers are more likely to be angry throughout the day. He explains that drivers with shorter fuses are more impulsive and anxious as well.
The dangerous link between negative emotions and actions behind the wheel may be exacerbated by conditions on the road.
Road Rage and Road Conditions
Some road ragers are angry before they get into their vehicle, others become impatient once they are behind the wheel. An article in Top Driver recognizes several road-related causes of road rage, including heavy traffic, which may more significantly impact impatient drivers, also recognizing that impatience itself may lead to erratic driving, as vehicle operators maneuver to get where they need to be the quickest, prioritizing speed over safety.
But they also note that anonymity may fuel bad behavior behind the wheel. They compare the road to the internet, in the sense that drivers who interact with each other on the road are unlikely to see each other again. They recognize that this type of attitude may embolden drivers, causing them to have less reservations about honking or cutting off other drivers.
They also note that other drivers may become angry with something most of us have observed firsthand over the last several years — driving while texting or otherwise distracted. Witnessing vehicles swerving or other types of erratic driving, which can result in someone cutting you off without warning, can cause some drivers to become angry with the reckless driver that potentially endangered their safety. They note that in this situation the best course of action is to stay calm and call the authorities or even pull over rather than to confront the traffic violator.
How to Ensure You are Not a Road Rager
Top Driver also gives a few tips on how to ensure you are not that angry driver. These include leaving with plenty of time to reach your destination so you are not driving recklessly or aggressively to make it somewhere on time. Another piece of advice they give is that instead of taking a drive to “cool off,” recognize the value of cooling off before you get behind the wheel, to make sure you are not set off by other drivers.
Specifically, they include tips such as avoiding honking and tailgating, which most people appreciate can create conflict in addition to safety issues.
Safe driving involves patience and empathy. There might be a good reason someone is traveling too slow for your liking or is hesitant to proceed even on a green light. Let’s all consider the larger goal of protecting each other on the road and arriving safely at our destination for the sake of ourselves and our loved ones.
This column was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, PhD, is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance and style. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
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