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Driving While Angry

Things to think about to avoid being a victim or perpetrator.

Frank was driving his car on the freeway when he noticed another driver was tailgating and honking the horn at him. The other driver looked angry, so Frank decided to change lanes. The tailgater sped up and shouted an obscenity at Frank. Frank had just experienced an instance of “aggressive driving.”

A 2009 study conducted by the American Automobile Association found that aggressive driving occurred in 56 percent of fatal traffic accidents from 2003 through 2007, with speeding as the primary factor.

According to research, aggressive driving is not the same as “road rage,” even though we tend to use the terms interchangeably. Road rage is an extreme form of aggressive driving when an individual intends to commit a criminal act of physical violence.

Aggressive driving may include:

  • Tailgating
  • Speeding
  • Changing lanes without signaling
  • Running a red light or stop sign
  • Obscene gestures or verbal insults
  • Weaving in and out of traffic
  • Cutting a driver off after passing

Road rage can include:

  • Intentionally hitting another person or vehicle with your car
  • Traffic dispute turning into a physical fight
  • Running another driver off the road
  • Using a weapon to harm another driver

Although there are far fewer incidents of road rage as compared to the milder forms of aggressive driving, it doesn’t mean that aggressive driving doesn’t have the potential to be deadly.

Generally, aggressive driving is a behavioral expression of the driver’s anger; however, it can also occur when we “zone out,” enjoy taking risks, or feel emotionally distressed. For example, you may be tailgating because you’re preoccupied with your thoughts and not being attentive to your driving. Or, you may be speeding because you like going fast and enjoy the thrill. Or, you may keep changing lanes in order to avoid “stopped traffic” because you are running late, which is making you feel anxious and stressed.

Anxiety or other stressful emotions may lead to feelings of anger and hostility when you are thwarted in accomplishing your goal. For instance, you’re late and even though you’re speeding, you still can’t go fast enough to get to where you need to be, and so you may become angry at other drivers and roadblocks. Think about it—when you’re running late, have you ever said to yourself, “Get out of my way” (directed to other drivers) or had disparaging thoughts about them because they weren’t moving fast enough?

Traffic congestion is one of the prime examples of how anxiety can lead to frustration and anger. However, drivers can enter their car already angry because of events or circumstances unrelated to driving and traffic.

Traffic congestion, gridlock, long traffic signals, and road conditions and design are not the only factors that contribute to drivers’ anger. Other drivers may do things that give the impression that they’re inattentive to the traffic or inconsiderate to others. For example:

  • Talking or texting on their cell phone
  • Putting on make-up
  • Not using their turn signals
  • Being engrossed in conversation with their passengers
  • Brake checking

It’s unrealistic to presume that people don’t get angry when driving. The important issue for all of us is to cope with frustrating situations and diffuse our anger appropriately. For example:

  • Instead of tailgating, honking, and flashing your lights at Tortoise Toby, who’s driving way below the speed limit (which can be a hazard), accept that he’s staying where he is and simply wait until it’s safe to go around him.
  • Instead of chasing after Weaving Walt who cut you off and then gave you “the finger,” say to yourself that he’s a fool and be thankful that now he’s far away from you.

Remember, going after someone who “did you wrong” may provoke the situation into a highly dangerous scenario. You don’t know the other driver and what he or she is capable of.

What can you do to reduce your risk of further inciting another who is driving aggressively? Here are a few recommendations, some of which come from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety:

  • If you make a mistake, acknowledge it to the driver with an apologetic gesture.
  • Some angry drivers won’t accept an apology. If so, let it go, and let them drive on. You don’t want to pursue someone who’s that offended.
  • If someone is tailgating you, move over and let them pass—regardless of whether you’re driving at the speed limit.
  • Don’t tailgate—regardless of the reason for doing so.
  • Use your horn for safety reasons and not as a retaliatory response to an inconsiderate driver because this could infuriate them to a dangerous degree.
  • If you are being followed by another driver, drive to a populated place (ideally a police or highway patrol station) where others are present who can intervene, if necessary. NEVER DRIVE HOME IF FOLLOWED.
  • If you are so “hyped” that you cannot diffuse your anger or arousal after experiencing a “close call,” safely pull over as soon as possible, stop the car, and wait until your heartbeat slows down and you feel more composed before resuming your drive.
  • If you see another driver who’s placing others at risk, you can call the police or highway patrol and inform them of the hazardous driver.

What can you do to reduce your risk of being an aggressive driver?

  • Don’t drink and drive.
  • Try to drive at less congested times or leave early enough to give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination.
  • Engage in relaxing (stress-reducing) behavior while driving—music, books on tape.
  • Be comfortable—temperature, seat, clothing, non-offending odors.
  • Be rested.
  • Carefully admire the scenery.
  • Try to refrain from “deep” or “intense” thinking (e.g., what deductions to itemize on your tax return; all the names of people you’re going to invite to your wedding), which places more focus on these thoughts than on your driving.

Remember that we all share the road. We don’t own it; but, if another driver acts like it’s theirs, then let them have it. The cost of trying to rectify a wrong is not worth the price.


1. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. (undated) Road rage: How to avoid aggressive driving.

2. Insurance Information Institute. (2017). Aggressive Driving.

3. Szlemko, W. J., Benfield, J. A., Bell, P. A., Deffenbacher, J. L. & Troup, L. (2008). Territorial markings as a predictor of driver aggression and road rage. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 1664–1688.

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