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Protecting Yourself From Road Rage

by Dave Decker M.A.

It's getting scarier out there on Minnesota roadways. Or, at least it seems that way, as we hear more and more horror stories about drivers assaulting, ramming, and shooting one another.

In fact, road rage really is not a new phenomenon. It has happened in Los Angeles for decades. And, as a psychologist who has worked with thousands of angry people in both counseling sessions and community workshops, I have seen and heard numerous accounts of road rage in Minnesota for much of that time as well.

One newspaper article from as long ago as November 1990 that I often use with clients talks about a 33-year-old man who was shot in the chest by another motorist when the victim did not clear a lane for the other motorist on Minnesota 280 in the middle of the Twin Cities. The assailant was never apprehended. In another more recent incident in July 2001, a 38-year-old driver was charged with assaulting a 75-year-old man on the Crosstown Highway in Mpls. The younger man was driving on the highway shoulder and cutting other drivers off when he rammed his vehicle into the older man's car and then whipped the senior with a belt when the two pulled to the side of the road and got out.

Road rage also seems to be getting worse, with more and more high profile stories in the media. What is happening? Road rage is a fact of life in modern society. It can be defined as an extreme form of aggressive driving. It starts with the emotion of anger, moves to a cynical, controlling, and punishing attitude that leads to aggressive and dangerous driving and eventually becomes a road rage incident that has the potential for property destruction, injury, and even death. Almost all drivers get angry at times but road rage goes well beyond the normal and natural feeling of anger. Road rage is frequently attributed to a variety of different causes:

  • more cars, more drivers, increased use of highways, and more congestion;
  • our vehicles becoming a representation and an extension of who we are;
  • the size,power, and anonymity of today's automobiles;
  • our hectic and fast-paced lifestyle and other related day-to-day stressors;
  • cultural messages about how to drive from movies, car commercials, video games, and cartoons;
  • messages about driving that we have received from our parents and our peers;
  • individual drivers' anger management problems;
  • the attitude of "rugged individualism" that exists in the United States; and
  • an overall decline in respect and civility in this country.

So what can you do to avoid becoming a victim of road rage? Think about putting the following suggestions into your driving repertoire.

Don't take traffic problems and other drivers' behavior as a challenge or a personal affront and don't become reactive: get out of the other person's way as quickly as possible.

Don't engage by looking at other drivers or responding to their provocative behavior. They may be trying to "get a rise out of you." Don't give them the satisfaction. Be the person you know you can be.

Remember the "Golden Rule:" treat others as you would want to be treated on the roadways. Don't tailgate, change lanes abruptly, flash your bright lights at others, and block the passing lane (even if you're going the speed limit). Use your horn sparingly (if at all) and use your turn signals whenever you need to. Wave in a friendly way to express gratitude for others' positive driving behaviors.

If you have a cell phone, dial 911 and report aggressive driving behavior to the police, whether it affects you directly or other motorists around you.

But what if you're the person who has problems with anger on the highway. It isn't just "kooks" and "crazies" who get themselves involved with incidents of explosive anger in the car. In 1994, a 54-year old Baptist church deacon and retired auto worker from Rhode Island ended up shooting and killing a paramedic with a cross bow he used for target shooting after he became angry that the paramedic and a friend were tailgating a woman two lanes over from him. The deacon was respected and loved by his church and community and had no previous record of trouble with the law. He is now spending the rest of his life in prison with no possibility of parole. The wife whom he claimed to be defending filed for divorce.

Although the majority of aggressive drivers tend to be males between the ages of 18 and 26, many of us, for some of the reasons cited above, are finding ourselves getting angrier in the car than is good for us, our family members, and other motorists. This anger manifests itself in several different ways. But once anger starts, it always has the potential to escalate to aggressive driving and eventually to a road rage incident if you don't make the choice to handle it in an effective way.

To recognize whether you're having problems with your own anger when another driver does something you don't like, take the time to answer the following questions.

Have you ever started muttering or cursing under your breath, saying things like "What's the matter with that jerk" or "I'm not going to let that 'SOB' get away with doing what he just did"?

Have you ever sped up to block someone's lane change, slowed down in the left lane to frustrate a driver who was tailgating you, or abruptly changed lanes without using your turn signal?

Have you ever yelled and cursed at other drivers, made obscene gestures to communicate your anger, or moved your car toward another vehicle to intimidate or punish someone else?

Do you feel entitled to "special treatment" when you drive, which means that others should "clear a path and get out of the way?"

All these attitudes and behaviors, in the right set of circumstances, can set up a road rage incident where someone can be injured or killed. After all, you're not just driving a vehicle. It's can also become a lethal weapon. An important part of changing the increasing atmosphere of fear that exists on today's roadways is to take a good look at yourself. What can you do if your anger gets the best of you, at times, when you are the one doing the driving? Think about trying some of the suggestions below on for size

  • SLOW DOWN your car's speed, your heart rate and physical self, and your mind and emotional process. Give yourself more time to get places and learn to relax when you're driving, taking deep breaths and listening to calming music when you're feeling tense, stressed, or threatened.
  • BE AWARE THAT YOU ARE CONTINUALLY MAKING CHOICES. Think about your choice points. These are the times when you can disengage from your escalation or decide to continue the power struggle.
  • NOTICE WHAT YOU'RE SAYING TO YOURSELF. Your thoughts and verbalizations are powerful and can either escalate you more and increase the potential for aggressive driving or help you look at other drivers and driving situations with a more positive attitude.
  • DON'T TRY TO CONTROL OTHERS. "Put yourself in the other person's car." Allow for the idea that people may make mistakes. Admit to yourself that even you have made mistakes when you've been driving. And don't retaliate: you will never be able to effectively "teach them a lesson" or correct their bad habits. This mindset could cost you or others your lives.
  • STAY AWARE OF THE POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES. Ask yourself: "Is reacting to someone else's anger or driving problems worth legal problems, property damage, and injury or death to me or another person?"
  • THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE COMMUNICATING TO YOUR PARTNER AND YOUR CHILDREN. Ask yourself: "Do I really want to frighten the people I love or to teach them to respond to other drivers' behaviors with their own road rage?" Because that is exactly what you're doing when you allow yourself to escalate and act out in the car.

If you think you might have a anger problem when you drive, get some help. If someone who knows you thinks that you might have a problem, listen to their feedback and then get some help. It is available and it works. I have seen countless people change how they handle their anger, on the highways and elsewhere. Make a commitment to yourself and to those who love you that you will not become just another road rage statistic.

Some things to think about related to this article


© 1988 David J. Decker, MA, LP
Phone: 612-725-8402 or 651-646-4325 -





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