It’s summertime and the driving ain’t easy. With the nation baking in the August heat and its highways packed with vacationers, the AAA Traffic Safety Foundation has just released its first-ever survey of aggressive behavior behind the wheel: Nearly 80 percent of U.S. drivers say they committed at least one antisocial act on the road in the past year.
Remember that reckless idiot who cut you off intentionally the other day? Twelve percent of drivers admit they’ve done the same thing. The bozo who tailgated you on the Interstate? More than 50 percent own up to that one. In addition, 44.5 percent say they’ve honked their horn to show annoyance or anger, 32.5 percent made an angry gesture and 46.6 percent yelled at another driver.
On the more dangerous side of the ledger, 3.7 percent of drivers say they’ve gotten out of their car to confront another driver and 2.8 percent have bumped or rammed another vehicle on purpose. That 2.8 percent figure works out to roughly 5.7 million drivers in the U.S. who are angry enough to start their own demolition derby, according to the report. Jurek Grabowski, director of research for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, was surprised by these numbers. “The percentages may seem small,” he says, “but when you think about the magnitude of the problem and the number of individual incidences, you realize it’s a lot. It’s millions of people who are doing these really serious things.”
The Roots of Road Rage
According to AAA, 64 percent of drivers say the problem is worse now than it was three years ago. So where does this behavior come from? Psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists and sociologists are all parsing the roots of aggressive and angry driving, and dozens of studies have been published in the last couple of years. For example, earlier this summer, researchers from the Center for Accident Research and Road Safety–Queensland in Australia presented the first study to explore the relationship between moral disengagement—detaching from one’s usual code of behavior—and angry driving. After analyzing the results of an online survey of 294 drivers, the researchers found that moral disengagement was a stronger predictor of aggressive driving than driving anger itself. “The pattern of results,” they wrote, “suggests drivers with higher tendencies to morally disengage in the driving context may respond to others more aggressively on-road.”
Like most work in the field, the study builds off research by Jerry Deffenbacher, a psychologist at Colorado State University who was one of the first to seriously investigate driving anger, starting in the early 1990s. He began his career in psychology looking at general anger but tightened his focus to “situational” anger, which is triggered by specific circumstances. “We landed on angry drivers because people either were one or knew somebody who was an otherwise reasonable human being until you gave them car keys,” he says. Deffenbacher created two essential measurement tools. The 33-question Deffenbacher Driving Anger Scale asks drivers to rate the intensity of their anger in certain situations (such as when someone speeds up as you try to pass them). The 49-question Driving Anger Expression Inventory asks how often the test taker behaves in certain ways—for example, “I call the other driver names under my breath.”
Since the creation of those surveys Deffenbacher and others have found that, like most human behavior, aggressive driving occurs along a spectrum—from mild to annoying to troubling to homicidal. “I generally try not to use the term road rage,” says Christine Wickens, a University of Toronto psychologist who has studied driver aggression since the early 2000s. Full-blown road rage, the violent demonstration of unchecked fury, is rare, she adds. The rate at which it happens also varies with gender: “The difference between males and females when it comes to driver violence is quite large but when you look at driver aggression, the gender difference is much less,” she says. In the AAA study three times as many men as women left their cars to confront another driver. When it came to tailgating, however, 46.1 percent of women admitted to the practice—not far behind the men’s 55.5 rate.
Some research suggests that the most extreme road rage behavior may have a different cause altogether than the much more common aggressive driving described in the AAA report and other studies. Specifically, the people involved in road rage incidents may come closer to fitting the criteria for intermittent explosive disorder, a psychiatric condition described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, the American Psychiatric Association’s encyclopedic guide to mental illness.
For the rest of us, the combination of the seemingly private domain of our automobiles and the publicly shared highway can create problems, Deffenbacher says. People tend to behave less aggressively in public because there are social cues to follow, but those cues may not count for much when we’re sitting in our car, listening to our music or talking with a member of our family. And if someone cuts us off, we just might take it very personally. “If I’m responding like it’s private, even though it is public, I may respond more territorially or aggressively,” he adds.
In the same vein, research shows a common tendency among aggressive and angry drivers is to let themselves off the hook by blaming external factors for their own behavior (“I had a really bad day at work.”). Meanwhile those same drivers attribute the behavior of other people on the road to things like character flaws (“He’s a bad person.”). The good news is this “cognitive distortion” lends itself to one of the few effective interventions for aggressive and angry driving—attributional retraining, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Studies have shown cognitive-behavioral therapy and relaxation training to be effective as well.
Stop the Madness
Out on America’s busy highways, most of us are the targets—not the aggressors—of angry driving. Ray Faiola, director of audience services for CBS Television Network, logs 1,000 miles a week commuting from his home in the Catskills to his Manhattan office. He has trained himself to remain calm at all times but it is not so easy when someone is hovering inches from his bumper at 60 miles per hour. “I get scared,” he says. “I don’t get angry, I don’t get annoyed because I know that they have no business behind the wheel. That’s their problem. My problem is getting away from them.” Faiola’s approach is consistent with the advice of Sgt. Jeff Flynn, a spokesperson for the New Jersey State Police. “The main thing is to not engage with a road rage driver,” Flynn says. “Don’t provoke them, don’t feed the anger.”
According to the AAA, the main intervention for aggressive driving is “deterrence through enforcement.” But the odds of getting caught in the act are slim, with a limited number of the country’s roughly one million state and local law enforcement personnel policing its 214 million licensed drivers. Wickens, who says there has not been as much research into solutions as there has been into the problem, would like to see more work done on public education. New drivers in particular should be taught about the dangers of aggressive driving. “The earlier you get to them, the better chance you have of them taking that information with them for the rest of their driving lives,” she says.
There are also possibilities for external solutions. Engineering strategies include identifying and modifying poorly designed intersections, badly coordinated traffic signals and other environmental “triggers” that can foster aggressive driving. And Deffenbacher thinks the electronic billboards currently used for Amber alerts and other traffic information could play a bigger role. “There’s a detour ahead, let’s be cool,” is one message he suggests.
To find the best solutions, more research will have to go into why and how aggressive driving arises. Interestingly, the drive to understand that anger depends almost completely on the angry drivers. Virtually all of the data in the field is self-reported, including the numbers in the new AAA report, which is based on an online survey of 2,705 drivers. Deffenbacher has not found this to be a problem. “Anger is an internal, cognitive-emotional-physiological experience, and one of the best observers of it, with all the inherent biases of reporting, is you. You’re the one who knows how angry you were at that intersection this afternoon,” he says. He adds that there probably is some “little bit of a built-in bias for underreporting,” which, if true, only means that the numbers are even worse than they appear to be.