You Drive Me Crazy
Get a Grip on Your Anger Behind the Wheel
“Okay, lady. Which way are you going? Right or left? Make up your mind,” I grouse at the indecisive driver in front of me.
Sitting in the line of cars at the next traffic light, I grumble, “It’s green. Somebody go!”
As we finally wait to make the left turn into the baseball park for my 12-year-old son’s game, he barks, “Would everybody get out of the way!”
I turn to him, struck by the intensity in his command, and ask, “Why are you so mad?”
“We’re in a hurry,” he replies.
I explain that, no, we have plenty of time; he doesn’t need to worry. Confusion clouds his face. He asks, “Why were you fussing at everybody then?”
I realize that he is taking cues from me. I maligned every driver between our house and the baseball park without really thinking I was doing any harm. The other drivers couldn’t hear me.
But my son did.
Defining Road Rage
For 35 years, Timothy Dimoff, CEO and president of SACS Consulting and Investigative Services, Inc., has studied aggressive behavior. In his book Life Rage, he explores how aggressive behavior has permeated all aspects of our daily lives, including the benign tasks of commuting to work and driving carpool.
Road rage, which he defines as “aggressive behavior of one driver against another driver,” is unique because of the psychology and physical element of it. When people are physically close to each other, they are far more guarded about expressing anger. “But people feel very secure in a car,” he says. This explains why someone, perhaps you, who normally would not behave aggressively may do so when behind the steering wheel of a car.
Hostile or antagonistic driving includes things like tailgating, braking abruptly and cutting off another driver.
Thomas Crafton, senior trooper and safety education coordinator with the Georgia State Patrol, says, “Road rage is when a person uses a vehicle as a weapon with intent to do harm. It’s a physical assault on a person, as a result of a traffic incident.” Both aggressive driving and road rage can lead to a traffic ticket or worse. If an accident occurs in the course of aggressive driving and an injury or death results, a driver risks very serious charges of aggravated assault or homicide by vehicle.
Causes of Road Rage
According to Crafton, road rage incidents can begin with a simple misunderstanding. One driver makes an error, such as failing to indicate a turn, driving too slowly in the fast lane or making a poor maneuver, and another driver overreacts.
Aggressive driving can also be a direct reaction to another driver intentionally making unsafe decisions that could potentially cause an accident. The victim, explains Dimoff, decides to “teach the offender a lesson” or “get back at him.” It becomes a tit-for-tat situation that will likely not end well. “You’re endangering other people when you’re going back and forth with another driver,” warns Dimoff.
Frustrations unrelated to what’s happening on the road can also lead to aggressive driving. “Road rage can happen when someone has ongoing issues that have built up,” says Dimoff. Crafton agrees, noting that work, family and daily life stressors can sensitize a person to traffic issues beyond his control, such as traffic congestion or delays or orange barrels narrowing the lane, and light a fuse primed to burn.
Responding to Aggressive Driving
Most drivers, even when highly perturbed, don’t resort to vehicular battling. So it may be tempting to dismiss yelling at other drivers or displaying unfriendly hand gestures as harmless.
First of all, little eyes and ears in the backseat are also getting a taste of Mom’s or Dad’s temper. “Kids mimic what they see, not what they’re told,” says Dimoff. They’re learning firsthand how to handle irritation. Not just that, they’re learning driving techniques for when they’re behind the wheel.
Second, the physiological response to increased stress may damage the body. Dimoff warns that aggressive drivers can experience a rise in blood pressure and heart rate as well as headaches and nausea.
Third, yelling, crude hand gestures, tailgating and/or cutting off an annoying driver may elicit a heightened, more aggressive response from the target, putting you and your family in peril.
If you become agitated while driving, calm down before things go too far. “When another driver cuts you off, how you react will determine what happens next,” says Crafton. “Attitude is the most important function in driving. Adjust your attitude. Forget winning and put yourself in the other driver’s shoes.”
Dimoff suggests slowing your speed and getting away from the driver frustrating you. Taking 10 deep breaths or turning on the radio can also help. Another strategy is to pull over in a safe place and get out and walk around. “Break the mold of what you’re doing,” advises Dimoff. Gain some perspective. Glance in the rearview mirror at the faces of your children. They’re counting on you to get them from point A to point B without incident.
If you feel threatened by an angry, aggressive driver, stay calm. Crafton says, “Steer clear, avoid eye contact and call for help (*GSP,* 477 or 911). Drive to a public place (Police, Fire or McDonalds). DON’T GO HOME!” Diffuse the situation without engaging the aggressor. Slow down, speed up, exit the highway or turn off of the road. Usually, the anger deescalates when the drivers separate.
Teach Your Children Well
It is especially important to set a good example and engage in defensive driving discussions with teenagers. Talk out various driving scenarios with them and effective ways to manage those situations. Talk about aggressive driving, what it is and the range of consequences, from established parental punishments to fender benders to serious accidents.
Of course, driver education starts when children are watching Mom and Dad from the backseat. Parents who white-knuckle the steering wheel, growl at other drivers and tailgate relentlessly teach their kids to use a car as a tool for expressing emotion. Furthermore, says Dimoff, “It’s teaching them that when dealing with confrontation in life, aggression is the way to go.”
So the next time the lady in front of me indecisively straddles two lanes, I think I’ll strike up a conversation with my son about his baseball game instead of berating the other driver.
Lucy Adams is a freelance writer and the author of If Mama Don’t Laugh, It Ain’t Funny. She lives with her husband and four children in Thomson, Ga. Email Lucy at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her Web site, www.IfMama.com.