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What Causes Road Rage?

How to spot and avoid deadly drivers.

Key points

  • Road rage can be caused by environmental factors and psychological factors.
  • Self-identified high-anger drivers engage in hostile, aggressive thinking, express disbelief about how others drive, and consider revenge.
  • Impatience may lead to erratic driving, as vehicle operators prioritize speed over safety.
  • Anonymity may fuel bad behavior behind the wheel, because drivers who interact don't expect to see each other again.

In June 2021, a man and woman were charged with the shooting of a 6-year-old boy on a Southern California freeway,[i] involving firing at the victim’s car after a traffic dispute. People across the nation are asking: Why? What factors cause driving disputes to turn deadly? Research has some answers.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay
Source: Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Driving While Angry

Most people instinctively avoid drivers who drive erratically. But over the years we have become increasingly wary of drivers who break even basic traffic laws including speeding and failing to signal. This instinct is well-founded.

According to the American Psychological Society (APA) in a post aptly entitled “The Fast and the Furious,”[ii] road rage can be caused by environmental factors such as crowded highways, psychological factors such as high life stress and displaced anger, as well as factors such as youth. They also note what some people might expect instinctively given the emotional aspect of road rage, that research has linked road rage and alcohol and drug abuse.

The APA post quotes counseling psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher, who lists several ways in which self-identified high-anger drivers engage in hostile, aggressive thinking, express disbelief about how others drive, and consider revenge—sometimes including physical harm. Deffenbacher also mentions specific ways in which angry drivers take more risks on the road, including exceeding the speed limit by 10-20 miles per hour, rapidly switching lanes, tailgating, and running red lights.

He explains that high anger drivers become angry more quickly and behave more aggressively, resorting to honking, yelling, or swearing at others. But as we might imagine, this anger is not limited to behind the wheel. Deffenbacher notes that road ragers are more likely to be angry throughout the day. He explains that drivers with shorter fuses are more impulsive and anxious as well.

The dangerous link between negative emotions and actions behind the wheel may be exacerbated by conditions on the road.

Causes of Road Rage

Some road ragers are angry before they get behind the wheel. But traffic conditions can exacerbate the situation. Most people have experienced the stress of an unexpected freeway closure or traffic break; it is the response to such stressors that distinguishes people prone to road rage from others.

According to other researchers, road rage involves both emotion, and the ability to regulate emotion.[iii] Bjureberg and Gross (2021) propose a working definition of road rage as “a form of fairly intense behaviorally maladaptive anger often cued by driving-related stimuli while operating a vehicle or riding in one as a passenger.” They observe that anger experienced while behind the wheel has been defined as “anger that occurs in response to driving-related stimuli while operating a vehicle or riding in one as a passenger.” Nonetheless, they note that driving anger does not always result in bad behavior, because some people are able to deal with anger constructively. They also note, however, that in the same way that anger is often linked with aggression, it is also sometimes linked with aggressive driving.

But not always. What makes the difference? Sometimes operator emotions are driven, so to speak, by both predisposition and preparedness.

How to Ensure You are Not a Road Rager

How can you ensure that you are not that angry driver? Here are a few helpful tips. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to reach your destination so you are not driving recklessly or aggressively. Make sure you have a full tank of gas, your cell phone, an address pre-programmed into your GPS, and anything else taken care of that would otherwise complicate your journey. And emotions matter too. Don’t get into the car to “blow off steam.” Instead, make sure you are level-headed enough to get behind the wheel and not under the influence of anger.

In addition to avoiding negative emotion, highway homeostasis is enhanced through positive emotion. Safe driving involves patience and empathy. There might be a good reason someone is traveling too slow for your liking or is hesitant to proceed even on a green light. Let’s all consider the larger goal of protecting each other on the road, and arriving safely at our destination for the sake of ourselves and our loved ones.




[iii] Bjureberg, J. and Gross, J.J. (2021), Regulating road rage. Soc Personal Psychol Compass, 15: e12586.