If you need proof that we, as a society, are gradually losing our social skills, look around you on your next drive. If you drive through any congested area during heavy traffic you will more than likely encounter a case of road rage. You see it every day. People speeding past, changing lanes with no signal, weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating and even intentionally locking others out of traffic are all versions of road rage. Some angry drivers have even planned ahead and created nasty little signs to hold out the window as they speed past you before cutting in front of you only to slam on their brakes because of the same slow traffic ahead that you were patiently waiting behind. Obscene gestures and horn honking communicate their displeasure to other drivers who may not be close enough to read their signs. Drivers are displaying aggressive and even territorial behavior on the roads. Some drivers are even just plain mean when they get behind the wheel. It makes you wonder if road rage is not simply a symptom of a larger, more general anger management problem.
What is it about getting behind the wheel that turns some people into horn blowing, screaming, gesticulating, speed-demons? It is as if they assume that their 3,500 lb car will protect them from the consequences of their actions. Getting in the car and pulling into traffic suddenly makes them more important than other drivers on the road. These generally mild-mannered drivers seem to suddenly see red when they pull into traffic. These same people do not react with the same vehemence in other, equally frustrating situations. How often do you actually see road rage type behaviors in a grocery store or in line at the bank? For some drivers, this behavior may stem from a need to control and counter other drivers who they perceive as violating their personal space. For others, it could be unchecked anger and aggression. Whether it is hormone-based, primitive reactions or the need to dominate someone else and their unsharable space, the behavior is unacceptable in other areas of society and is just plain dangerous when exhibited on the road at highway speeds.
From a mental health perspective, these behaviors can certainly be described as problematic. Road rage can lead to physical confrontations which can have significant consequences such as receiving a ticket, getting arrested, losing your license, damaging your vehicle or another driver’s vehicle, injuring or killing yourself or someone in one of the vehicles. Mental health providers now refer to road rage as part of a broad category of behaviors known as intermittent explosive disorder (IED) and, a new study suggests that it is much more common than they realize. Current estimates suggest that up to 16 million Americans are affected by the disorder. IED is characterized by temperamental outbursts that are out of proportion to the situation. These outbursts often include aggressive actions or threats and property damage with the initial outbursts occurring in adolescence. The study findings cite an average age of onset at 14. Situational triggers can include stress, anxiety, or even simple frustration. Intermittent explosive disorder is just as real as depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.
While road rage is frightening to experience, knowing that it is part of a larger mental health classification highlights the need for treatment options. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common treatment for people with IED with the goal of educating the patient on recognizing the behaviors associated with their aggressive attacks and providing them with proven strategies to reduce future attacks. By understanding the larger implications of road rage, and the symptoms associated with it, it is possible to realize when your behavior, or the behavior of a loved one crosses the line from reaction and over reaction to potentially dangerous explosive behavior. In addition, knowing that road rage can stem from IED further highlights the need to avoid a confrontational situation with rage fueled drivers.
With that in mind, there are some steps you can take to prevent a confrontation from escalating. First, make sure that when you are on the road you are behaving with civility and practicing the common courtesies of the road. Use your signal lights appropriately and leave plenty of room between your car and others. If you become frustrated or angry with other drivers and time permits, pull off the road to remove yourself from the situation. Take advantage of rest stops and markets to get out, walk around, and stretch to relieve your own driving tension. If stopping is not an option, use controlled breathing to maintain your composure: inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and repeat the cycle as many times as necessary to regain your self-control.
Keep in mind that you are you and the other driver is an individual as well. Only you have the power to let someone else ruin you day or push your buttons. Focus on maintaining a calm perspective and remember that you cannot control, coerce, or fix other people. The only person you can change is you. Road rage is ridiculous, life threatening, and not something you have to participate in. Go down the road safely and show compassion towards other drivers. Always be kinder than you feel, even in your car.
If you are ever tempted to participate in a road rage event, just consider one final thought: the person in the other car is somebody’s mother, father, son, daughter, or spouse. The next time you begin to actively participate in road rage, imagine that they are yours. Somebody cares as deeply for them as your family and friends care for you. As Robert Brault so aptly put it, “It helps if you don’t see it as traffic but rather as thousands of individual resolved to press on another day.”