The Naked Truth About Road Rage

We need to flip the narrative on our perspective of the actions of others.

Posted Sep 02, 2018

Honk! Beep! Honk! The middle finger salute. Aggressive stares out the window. Swerving in front or beside your vehicle. Rapid stops. All examples of folks raging on the road.

Chances are if you have ever driven or ridden in a vehicle on a road or highway you have seen such examples (plus more) of "road rage" directed at your vehicle or others. You may have even raged a bit yourself. As my Psychology Today colleague Romeo Vitelli wrote a while back, road rage is becoming more and more prevalent.

But why does this happen?

I've been thinking about this a lot because I just had such an experience the other day. For the record, I was the "ragee", not the "rager". And that event got me to thinking about a couple other events in my life that have really stuck in my memory.

I was stopped at a traffic light trying to make a right hand turn from a side road onto a very busy highway. Just when there was a break in traffic flow that would have allowed me to turn an ambulance with lights and siren blazing and blaring came along and halted all traffic. After the ambulance passed through the intersection there were a few moments during which vehicles were getting back in lanes and moving again. And, of course, an outcome of this was that I no longer had a safe gap in traffic in which to turn.

But the fellow behind me didn't care and began inching closer and closer and constantly beeping on his horn. He also leaned out his window to add some shouting and waving at me. I ignored that and waited for an opportunity to turn. When I was able to turn, this vehicle came close behind me and almost clipped me while speedily passing me. He had at least one young child in the vehicle and an unsecured dog in the back of his truck. To say this was dangerous driving would be quite an understatement.

He then pulled in front of me and slammed on his brakes, almost causing a rear ender. Constant lane changes in front of me then unfolded as we both made our way down the road. He stayed in front of me and when we'd come to an interchange light, he changed lanes to get in front of me.

So what did I do? I got close enough to allow my passenger to take a picture of the license plate so I could report the erratic and dangerous driving behaviors. This was a much better approach than trying to discuss the actions on the road directly with the driver. Anyway, not the greatest way to start my 5 hour drive!

In 2008, Evelyn Rosset at Boston University published a paper in the journal "Cognition" entitled "It's no accident: Our bias for intentional explanations".  This neat research suggested that "adults have an implicit bias to infer intention in all behavior". Importantly, even when actions in scenarios are clearly ambiguous and there is no way to gauge whether outcomes are deliberate or unintentional, we humans tend to think they were done on purpose.

A quick apology might be helpful to deflate the rising tide of anger, but we don't really have an accepted Morse code of honks or light blinks that we could use to signal that when we are driving. Until we get a new addition to vehicles of a special signal that we can activate to say "my bad! sorry!", we need instead to change our perspective. Not everything that happens to us on the road (or anywhere in life) is a deliberate action or outcome. By the way, if any inventor out there is working on a signal for this, my preference would be of a Mad magazine Alfred E Neuman image that pops out of the roof, but that is open for discussion!

Things happen and folks often regret things that happen "accidentally" or unintentionally to others. We need to change our "intentionality bias" from one where we assume a deliberate malevolent action to one where maybe we can see that nothing was purposefully done against us.

It may sound trite, but it's worth a try. What do we have to lose but a load of unhealthy anger?

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2018)