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Warfare on the Highway: Road Rage

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
 
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Warfare on the Highway: Road Rage

Road rage. You've seen it happen as you drive to work—someone tries to merge onto the freeway and a driver in the right lane speeds up to cut off the incoming car. You've read about it in the newspaper—two drivers chase each other down the highway for three or four miles, waving and cursing at each other. And you've seen it on TV—two motorists leave their cars and continue their dispute in a parking lot, sometimes even brandishing a gun.

"I'm sure that years ago, it was called horse and carriage rage," says Len Tuzman, DSW, a specialist in road rage who is the director of social work services at Hillside Hospital at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York. "In that respect, it isn't anything new. But what is new is that it seems more newsworthy than ever before."

It's Got Little to Do With Traffic

Road rage, say people who have studied the subject, is essentially an expression of anger that usually has nothing to do with traffic or driving. It is probably a behavior related to "acting out," common among teenage boys who lose their temper and don't have any real idea of why they go around the house slamming doors and cursing their parents.

Regardless of the source, road rage is a release of anger that may have built up during the day and comes out when you get in the car for the drive home. When you wave your fist at someone who cuts you off, you may be mad at your boss. When you're cut off by another driver as you try to change lanes, you may be the client who stiffed him on a big order.

"It's not always a good idea to get into the car after you've had a fight with your mate," says Krishna Gujavarty, MD, the chairman of the psychiatry department at Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow, New York. "That's when you tend to drive faster and more aggressively, and that's how the trouble starts."

A Global Problem

And trouble is a good way of describing it. Road rage has cropped up across the globe, from the normally sedate highways of Britain to every part of the United States. Incidents have been reported on the east coast and west coast, in cities and rural areas.

"Much of this is part of the American mentality," says Dr. Gujavarty. "After all, this is the country where we believe that we can accomplish anything with just a little more effort. So if we're stuck in traffic, we don't understand why we have to wait our turn."

Why road rage became a hallmark of the 1990s is anyone's guess. There are hints and theories, but little firm evidence. There are also some interesting contradictions. In a study by the American Automobile Association (AAA), researchers found that the typical road rage incident involved at least one 18- to 26-year-old man who was less educated and had a history of either arrests or drug or alcohol abuse. But that doesn't account for the seemingly normal middle-class professionals without any history of violent behavior who are also involved.

"I think a lot of the problems of road rage are just a manifestation of what we face in our everyday lives," says Tuzman. "We seem to be living in a more violent society, with more constraints and more pressures. And there seems to be more traffic on the highways."

How to Overcome It

The key to overcoming road rage—whether it's dealing with someone who comes after you or avoiding doing the same thing yourself—is patience, say the experts. Realize that traffic is going to be bad. Recognize that it's going to take longer to get to where you're going, and allow extra time. And, says Dr. Gujavarty, it's not a bad idea to listen to a radio station that plays something more calming and soothing than "Born to be Wild." Also consider listening to tapes of nature sounds or waterfalls, and don't forget the breathing exercises that always come in handy in stressful situations.

You might want to think about buying a smaller car. No one is ready to assert that the rise in road rage incidents is proportional to the increase in the number of larger, sport utility vehicles on the road. (Although, some people who have studied the phenomenon say it's possible, given that drivers feel more powerful in bigger cars.) But there does seem to be a relationship between your chance of being involved in an accident and the size of your car. A number of insurance companies have discovered that larger vehicles are more likely to be in a wreck than smaller cars, and have discussed adjusting their rates accordingly.

Finally, try to have a little compassion.

"I'm more inclined to feel sorry for the guy who cuts me off on the road than to get angry with him," says Tuzman. "I realize he's a Type A personality, and he's living in a more stressful world than he needs to be."

RESOURCES:

The American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety
http://www.aaafoundation.org/home/

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/default.htm

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Healthy Canadians
http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca

Transport Canada
http://www.tc.gc.ca/en/menu.htm

References

Controlling road rage. The American Automobile Association website. Available at: http://www.aaafoundation.org/resources/.



Last reviewed March 2008 by Theodor B. Rais, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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