What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

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On Thursday night, a 51 year old San Francisco man was hospitalized after suffering life-threatening injuries in an apparent road rage dispute. Unfortunately, in the United States such incidents are not uncommon: Ricardo Martinez head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has declared road rage to be the number one traffic problem in the nation. According to the NHTSA 66 percent of all annual traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving. In fact, the evidence shows that there has been a 51 percent increase in aggressive driving incidents since 1990; resulting in an average of thousands of men, women, and children injured or killed each year.

What exactly is road rage? The term has not been legally defined, however it is generally thought of as a loss of temper in reaction to what is perceived as a hostile traffic situation. This definition is deceptive, however, because of course typically road rage is sparked by trivial events such as being "cut off" in traffic or loosing a parking space to someone. Thus violent traffic disputes are rarely truly the result of a single incident but are in reality the cumulative result of a series of stressors in the motorist's life.

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Some of the increase in road rage is due to the increase in amount of driving in our society - the more we are on the road the more chances there are that incidents will occur. But there is also speculation that road rage is a culturally acquired phenomenon. For example, after concluding his research in 1997, Dr. Leon James, Professor of Psychology, from the University of Hawaii stated: "I discovered that many drivers I've worked with haven't learned the emotional skills they need to handle such routine emergency situations. The violation of their sense of personal freedom instantly arouses negative emotions that escalate in sequence from frustration to hostility to hatred. The fact is that aggressive driving is a cultural norm because our culture condones the expression of hostility whenever we feel wronged." For some, road rage is a result of intermittent explosive disorder (IED), a behavioral disorder characterized by extreme expressions of anger, often to the point of uncontrollable rage, that are disproportionate to the situation at hand.

How do we prevent road rage from happening? There are a couple of prevention tips worth mentioning:
1. Get enough rest, as the national epidemic of lack of rest (sleep, meditation) is a contributing factor to road rage.
2. Plan ahead and add some cushion of time to your travel.
3. Your car is not an extension of you - work on having a healthy relationship with the vehicle that is simply a method of travel.
4. Don't use driving as a way of cooling off.
5. Don't listen to aggressive music or upsetting broadcasts that may increase your level of anger.
6. Loosen up your grip on the steering wheel, breathe, and take time to cool off if you find yourself getting upset.
7. Don't take traffic moves personally - bad driving is not about you!
8. Be polite and practice kindness, which can diffuse a situation and calm everyone down.
9. Work on your anger issues. This may involve going to therapy or group to help with anger issues.

 


Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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