Difficult People 101, Part 5: Road Rage to Road Sage

Part 5 of the Difficult People series

Posted Jul 12, 2012

Part of a multi-part series on difficult people and situations. 

Difficult People part 1:  The DP Challenge
Difficult People part 2:  The Eightfold Path of Dealing with Difficult People
DP part 3:  21 practical tips for dealing with difficult people
DP part 4:  Coping with difficult people

July 12, 2012

Who hasn’t experienced road rage? From the mildest form — a curse under the breath uttered at the car that just cut you off — to more serious and hostile actions — we’re all at risk of being an abuser or victim. 

AAA reports that “at least 1,500 men, women and children a year are injured or killed each year because of ‘aggressive driving’.” Some drivers get aggressive on the road, and then become furious when they don’t get their way. These drivers are downright dangerous, and the first step to being safe on the road is to avoid them — avoid eye contact, avoid confrontation (even hand gestures), obey posted rules and regulations, avoid driving more dangerously to flee an angry driver, and call 911 if you see a truly reckless driver.

Why are road rage and aggressive driving such problems? The roads are more crowded, and life is more hectic, certainly — conditions that stress us all out and push some people over the edge. Some folks can’t tolerate slower drivers blocking their way, even if it only means an extra minute or two on the road.  “Better late than never” is tossed aside as they push the pedal to the metal.  A significant number of aggressive drivers have personal problems and are described as “odd, disenfranchised, or a loner.”  But many others are “regular people” who just “snap” at what they perceive as an aggravation or insult.

Others would point to a general breakdown of civic values — perhaps we are less concerned with the safety and well-being of others, and are more self-centered in general. 

I believe we also become much more self-centered behind the wheel.  When we get behind the wheel, our egos become inflated. On some deep unconscious level, we think we are our cars.  The inherent threats of driving trigger our limbic systems, and our reptilian brain “crocodiles” take charge, hypervigilant for risks and always pushing for their own way. The crocodile is liable to become angry at the drop of a hat. We also feel anonymous in our cars. We forget we are social beings at the core, vulnerable to and dependent on interactions with others. It’s a paradox:  in some ways, we are most dependent on others when we’re on the road, and yet that’s also when we feel most powerful, independent and egotistical.

The car, an essential part of our lives, not only has environmental, but psychological, social and cultural impacts on all of us. We must be aware of those impacts. With awareness and mindfulness, you can change an annoying commute to an opportunity for self-transformation and renewal. Instead of experiencing road rage, you can be a road sage. And who knows — if there were more road sages, we might actually shift bigger issues in our society that are sorely testing our human nature.

Instead of being in a hurry — be patient.  Remind yourself that it’s “better late than never.”  Of course, leave yourself ample time to get to your destination and find parking, but realize that everyone is occasionally late. Forgive yourself for being human, and be gentle with yourself.  You don’t have to take on the role of the irritated, late driver — that’s a choice. And you don’t have to take it out on everyone else with your horn, hand gestures, and crocodile rants. Sharing the road means JUST THAT.  Just as in the rest of life, you are not entitled to getting your way. In that sense, it’s not about you. It’s about being part of a safe driving experience for everyone. Be a team player when you’re behind the wheel.  Practice being happy for the other driver when they get a parking space, for example. Yield the right of way, when it’s safe and appropriate.  Being on the road is a team sport — it’s not you against all the other drivers.  But you do have to be on the lookout for the out-for-themselves crocodiles and the clueless road hogs.

In another sense, it is about you — the care and keeping of you as you move from place to place. You can use your time in the car to tune into the world and yourself. So much of life is lived on autopilot — our minds wander, future- and past-trip. Reminding yourself to stay in the moment can be very important — not only for your safety in the car, but also for your general happiness. Recent research showed that those who were able to pay attention more were also happier.

Paying attention does mean being on the lookout for dangers while driving, of course. That means being very awake and not distracted from the road. Try focusing your attention on what’s potentially dangerous about your own driving and those around you. When you identify a problem, adjust your driving accordingly — getting angry at the guy in the car next to you won’t help, and might hurt matters. Paying attention also means being aware of all the factors that are arising for you when you drive. Are you caught up in anger at someone? Are you really safe to drive right now? What do you need to do to be safe and sane on the road? There are external and internal dangers to which we need to pay attention.

One helpful technique to focus your attention on the road is to practice “taillight meditation.”  When your mind wanders, bring it back by bringing your awareness to the lights of the cars ahead of you.  Scan around you and be aware of all the road’s conditions. You can even remind yourself that every car has a person in it, on their own voyage in the world. For extra credit, you can send that person your lovingkindness and wishes for their safety. Send yourself lovingkindness and wishes for your own safety. Remind yourself that we are all travelers here, vulnerable and connected. Being fully present, with friendliness, compassion and acceptance is a key not only to safety but also to happiness. And being happy is a long trip from road rage.

I think you’ll find that the anger that’s most fruitful (i.e. meaningful) is the anger at others who act dangerously behind the wheel:  the entitled, self-centered driver who doesn’t care about the safety or rights of others. The person who thinks they own the road. But it would be good to recognize that nearly all of us have been that person at one time or another. Driving can be a practice for letting go of that self-centered ego, bit by bit, bump by bump — to see the bigger picture. To see not just the road in front of you, but even your path in life. 

You can make driving a pro-social, and not anti-social, activity. And may we all become more aware of ourselves and each other.

(For further practice, Sylvia Boorstein, noted Buddhist teacher and author, offers a soothing and helpful teaching, coincidentally called “Road Sage:  Mindfulness Techniques for Drivers” )

©  2012 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

Occasional Newsletter to find out about my new book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks:
Private Practice:
Twitter:  @going2peace 
Facebook:  Sangha Francisco-The Pacific Heart
For info on books and books in progress, see here and