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The Psychology of Road Rage

What's the solution for this type of stress?

If you need proof that we are no longer living in a 24/7 world, but more like a 72/7 world, look around the highway as you drive to and from home, work, or school. The current pace of life finds many of your fellow drivers with eyes locked on their phones and feet stomped on the gas pedal.

These days, it’s hard not to feel like the drivers to your left and right have become more territorial, more aggressive, and just plain meaner when they get behind the wheel. Is this affliction, known as “road rage,” a larger symptom of a general anger problem?

You see it every day on our roads: people speeding, changing lanes with no signal, weaving dangerously across three and four lanes of traffic, passing too closely on either side of your car, speeding up to block you out, not allowing you to change lanes or merge on or off the highway, racing other drivers (i.e., two maniacs who think their car-handling skills are better than they actually are), roaring up behind you as if they might intentionally rear-end you, constant tailgating, horn honking, flashing high beams at your mirror when you are in “their” fast lane, finger flipping, screaming out the window, causing or creating accidents, and even pulling over to fight.

What used to be a largely male problem has crossed gender lines. Women may not get into roadside fistfights or point guns at each other, but they can drive just as aggressively, rudely, and even dangerously. It’s the rare instance when male and female aggression is on display in near-equal amounts. For many men, aggression is supposed to be overt; for women, it is more covert. But put them both behind the wheel, late for something, angry about something else, and in no mood for courtesy, and their behaviors will compare.

What factors cause a usually mild-mannered person to see red? Some people who are ordinarily even-tempered admit that they have a tendency to easily lose control of their emotions when they get behind the wheel. Their fuses are lit when they put their keys into their ignitions.

For some road ragers, it’s a need for control, to counter other drivers whom they feel violate their proxemic space, or it's a need for possession of their lane or their part of the road. For others, it’s unchecked anger and aggression. It’s hormone-based, primitive, small-brain thinking, bringing a lack of emotional intelligence and the need to dominate someone else and their unsharable space. Add in unchecked egos, the need for superiority, narcissistic pride, and male genital one-upmanship (my vehicle is bigger than yours).

Mental health professionals define certain behaviors as problematic when they have consequences. Road rage, and especially those acts which lead to confrontations, can have significant consequences, including getting cited by the police, being arrested for reckless driving (three or more moving violations in a row), having your license suspended or revoked, losing or raising your auto insurance policy, damaging your car or the other driver’s car, getting sued, or injuring or killing someone in the other car or someone in your car, including your spouse or children. Road rage victims and perpetrators have been pepper-sprayed, stabbed, beaten, run down, and shot by each other.

The minor consequences are that you continue to let one isolated event on the road ruin your whole day or get you a traffic ticket. And don’t discount the not so insignificant matter of embarrassing your family as you act like a spitting, cursing, raving lunatic. If you show that side to your kids too often, they could learn to see that behavior as somehow “appropriate” when they get old enough to drive. Or, just as bad, they think Mom or Dad is an immature idiot.

Solutions are easy to say and often hard to follow. Some people don’t have the will or wherewithal to try to cure themselves, even under the threat of an injury, a crash, a citation, an arrest, or a lawsuit. They suffer from “It’s the other driver’s fault” syndrome.

But one simple answer to road rage is to simply concentrate fully and intently on your own driving, and not to make eye contact or care about the people around you, even when their own skills leave a lot to be desired.

Another easy tool is to practice stress breathing: inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and repeat the cycle as many times as necessary to bring your pulse rate and blood pressure back to normal levels.

Perspective is an important part of road rage prevention too. You are you. The other driver is the other driver. Only you can let someone ruin your day or push your hot buttons. Focus on being “relentlessly positive,” and realize you can’t control, coerce, or fix other people. You can only manage you. Practice kindness, starting with you first.

WWDLD? What Would the Dalai Lama Do? Go forth down the road, and be yourself, with compassion towards others. Stop caring about your “space.” Tint your windows. Get a subscription to satellite radio, and enjoy your music without commercials. Realize road rage is ridiculous, life-threatening, and not something you have to participate in, ever.

Dr. Steve Albrecht is a San Diego-based speaker, trainer, and author on high-risk HR and security issues.

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