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Why Road Rage Is a Two-Way Street

Awareness for parents of teen drivers.

Wherbson Rodriguez/Pexels
Source: Wherbson Rodriguez/Pexels

A perusal of daily headlines tells us driving-related violence still thrives. At one time, researching it was, pardon the pun, all the rage in social/behavioral topics. After the early 2000s, though, it seems road rage has, despite no lack of incidents, become an increasingly muted interest. Being Teen Driver Safety Week, it's a good time to resurrect the topic.

What’s most interesting about road rage history is that it was known long before the term was coined in the 1980s. However, even if not well-known, pop culture was introduced to the phenomenon 30-plus years prior. Brace yourselves, for, of all creatures, it was Disney's character of Goofy in the 1950 cartoon Motor Mania.

Media accounts of road rage may make it seem like road ragers are sociopaths just wringing their hands every morning, anticipating whose day they can ruin in traffic. Disney, however, did a great job of capturing a more realistic perception: Goofy, an otherwise even-keeled family man (dog), becomes annoyed by other drivers on his way to work. Anathema to his otherwise good nature, Goofy's aggressive demeanor mounts until he becomes impulsively assaultive on the road.

It was my very first private practice referral that piqued my interest in the phenomenon. Not only was Aaron (name disguised) memorable for being my first referral, but also because I discovered that, unlike the angry inmates I regularly worked with, Aaron's aggression of any proportion, like Goofy, was solely unleashed on the road.

Aggressive driving versus road rage

Though the terms tend to be used interchangeably, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) informs us there is quite a difference. Aggressive driving is a traffic offense. It's defined as operating a vehicle in a manner that is endangering, or likely to endanger, others or property. Examples include speeding, tailgating, running red lights, and weaving in and out of traffic.

Quince Creative/Pixabay
Source: Quince Creative/Pixabay

Road rage, on the other hand, is a criminal offense. NHTSA (2000, 2001) defines it as, "An assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by the operator or passenger(s) of one motor vehicle or precipitated by an incident that occurred on a roadway.” In other words, there has to be harmful intent. Examples include ramming another car, shootings, tailgating with harmful intent, and flashing headlights. Gestures and threats are considered more minor expressions of rage, and may not be criminal. However, they are supplied with ill will behind them and certainly fit the road rage mold.

Where one is found, the other may follow. One person's poor driving habits provide potential ragers something to rage at, if they are so inclined, like the following example:

The case of Aaron

“There’ve been many other incidents,” Aaron confessed. He continued, “Yelling at people, flipping them off, making threats; I never got to the point of making damage."

Aaron explained he felt untouchable in his car, freely letting people know he was displeased with their actions. Now he was scared, recognizing he could’ve really hurt someone, or been hurt himself if the person was armed.

Aaron explained, “This guy was on his phone and cut me off, didn’t even use his blinker, talking away. At the light I pulled beside him and got his attention, telling him what I thought of his crappy driving. He started talking tough, and all of a sudden, I had tunnel vision and was hot with anger. I noticed I was close enough for my car door to hit his, so I opened my door as hard as I could and dented his car. As I took off, shaking at what I'd done, I realized someone probably got my plate number. I was pulled over not far from home.

D'Vaughn Bell/Pexels
Source: D'Vaughn Bell/Pexels

It goes both ways

While the victim's poor driving is an irritant (who can't empathize with such an encounter?), it of course does not justify Aaron's actions. However, it's rare that I've encountered someone with road rage who wasn't reacting to something irritating in their driving environment. Road rage generally is a two-way street: someone behaving irritatingly in traffic, giving rise to confrontation by someone so inclined.

Who strikes?

Certainly, people of all temperaments strike. There are those whose anger doesn't discriminate in terms of time and place. Others with sufficiently low frustration tolerance can erupt in the frustration that traffic can present. Correlations have been found between road rage and people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The most recent road rage research was actually on just this topic (Desmuhk & Patel, 2019). Not surprisingly, it was noted that the poor impulse control, low frustration tolerance, and tendency for higher risk-taking behaviors inherent in ADHD made sufferers more prone to road rage.

A third category of road ragers is more like Goofy and Aaron — a real schism from the person's general temperament and character (James, 2000; Lawton & Nutter, 2010). Why might this be?

Let's consider the old Freudian concept of displacement. In this case, it is taking out anger on a readily-available, and safer, target than the one you have issue with. Have you ever had a bad day at work and you couldn't let your boss have it, so you came home and found yourself being nasty to your family? If so, you've experienced displacement.

Some people who rage are more passive folks and may suppress the aggressive emotion of anger. However, being in a vehicle gives the perfect opportunity to feel safe expelling pent-up frustration provided the opportunity. This can range from feeling slighted by someone who didn't use their blinker, to feeling held up by someone on their phone and driving slow in the left lane.

The otherwise well-adjusted driver unleashes because they may feel untouchable in their vehicle. Researcher Deborah Lupton (1999) noted some drivers experience a "cyborg effect," feeling half-machine, half-human, and the car is a more powerful extension of the self. Others have told me they muster the gumption to be confrontational in traffic because they feel anonymous and it's like being encased in armor they can speed away in.

Awareness is key

Clearly, there is more to the dynamics of road rage than bad attitude. Being an angry person, having ADHD, or low frustration tolerance can prime a rager. So can stuffing down anger; it might find an opportunity to release itself when feeling anonymous and safe in a vehicle. On the flip side, know that motorists with poor driving habits invite ragers to target them.

Parents of coming-of-age drivers, pay attention

1) Notice your own driving habits. If you drive aggressively or rage, chances are so will your teen, setting them up for future trouble.

Andrea Piacquido/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquido/Pexels

2) Pay close attention to your kids' driving habits. Are they:

  • Easily frustrated behind the wheel?
  • While driving, do they look like the person in this photo, swear, clench the wheel, or say what they'd like to do to the person in front of them?
  • Acting entitled, as if "owning the road," demanding people go faster, or perhaps speeding up to prevent others from passing?
  • Distracted by their phone?
  • Like to speed, tailgate, or fail to use signals?

All the above are signs of pending danger for new drivers. Stay tuned for next week's post detailing simple actions that can help reduce the chances of being an irritating driver or raging.


Deborah, L. (1999). Monsters in metal cocoons: `road rage' and cyborg bodies. Body & Society, 5(1), 57–72.

Deshmukh, P., & Patel, D. (2019). Driving and road rage associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (adhd): a systematic review. Current Developmental Disorders Reports, 6(4), 241–247.

James, L. and Nahl, D. (2000). Road rage and aggressive driving: steering clear of highway warfare. Prometheus books.

Lawton, R. and Nutter, A. (2002), A comparison of reported levels and expression of anger in everyday and driving situations. British Journal of Psychology, 93: 407-423. doi:10.1348/000712602760146521

National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (2000, 2001). Aggressive driving: introduction.…). (2020, October 22). Aggressive driving and road rage.

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