Road Rage: It's Only Personal If You Make It So

Driving under the influence of outrage can be deadly

Posted Mar 13, 2017

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By Leonard L. Glass, M.D.

What Is Road Rage?

Road rage occurs when one driver attempts to intentionally intimidate or injure another driver. The motorist who reacts with road rage is often personally offended by the rude behavior of the other driver. A popular bumper sticker says it all: “Anyone who drives slower than me is an idiot; anyone who drives faster is a jerk.”

In Australia and New Zealand, a conviction for road rage can result in 5-7 year’s imprisonment. In the U.S., only two states (AZ and VA) have legislation specifically intended to combat road rage.

The recent killing of former N.Y. Jets player Joe McKnight in what looks like an incident of road rage reminds us that driving under the influence of outrage can be deadly, and yet it seems we’re unable to shake our proclivity for it. Because the impulse to retaliate against rude driving is something the vast majority of us can identify with, we can work towards a solution together.

Recently, Bob, an otherwise mild-mannered patient of mine arrived for treatment, relating a disturbing experience of road rage. A teenager in a high priced sports car tailgated Bob while his 4 year old son was with him. Bob got out at the next red light to insult the offender. The teenager emerged from his vehicle to meet his challenge. Although only verbal blows were exchanged, Bob returned to his car to find his son in tears, terrified by his father’s out-of-control eruption.

Bob had taken the tailgating personally, seeing it as an assault on his self-worth and reacted accordingly. The other driver retaliated. This illustrates the contagious nature of road rage. In fact, in a recent study, half of surveyed U.S. drivers who have been cut off, tailgated, or honked at admitted to responding aggressively themselves.

I replied to him, “Of course you recognize that the other fellow doesn’t know you or have any basis for evaluating you. It’s only personal if you make it so.” My first comment spoke to the reality of the situation. The second added perspective--that irrationality can lead to actions later filling us with shame and regret.

How to respond when you feel a bout of road rage coming on

  • When you feel irritation begin to bubble, empathize with the offending driver’s presumed stress. There are many reasons why a person might be driving aggressively and they may have nothing to do with you.
  • Acknowledge your part in aggressively reacting to highway provocation. We are tempted by the 300+ horses of phallic power of our seemingly impregnable steel chariots, imagining we can administer a sharp correction and feel righteous in doing so. In our anonymity, we act in ways we dare not with our boss or spouse.
  • Try to regain the perspective of self-awareness. At the very moment, we’re inclined to retaliate against the offending driver, we could invoke a version of the mantra, “It’s only personal if you make it so.” Applied when we need it most, it could help us, one at a time, use our self-understanding to shift our perspective to ourselves, enhance our self-control, and avoid becoming kindling for incendiary road rage.

Broader solutions involve driver education classes that emphasize the hazards of poor impulse control behind the wheel—similar to sex education classes that illustrate the hazards of unsafe and nonconsensual sexual behaviors. Likewise, a public service campaign featuring billboards that portray predatory drivers as immature, unable to contain themselves, objects of scorn and even shame, e.g., “Hot head drivers have lost their cool.” would appropriately stigmatize this antisocial behavior.

If, as individuals, we stop allowing ourselves to be goaded into responding aggressively, a kind of ‘herd immunity’ or protective group mentality could begin to emerge. That would diminish the dangers of road rage, even though all are not inoculated. As part of an energetic national and state-by-state public health initiative, our own personal recognition that “It’s only personal if you make it so,” would enhance driving safety for all of us.

About the author: Leonard L. Glass, M.D. is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Senior Attending Psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, Past President of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and a psychiatrist in private practice in Newton, MA.