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When anger on the road erupts into violence it can leave us shocked. And for those involved, the fallout can include injury, expense, fines and even jail time. 

Thanks largely to greater use of dash cams and social apps, extreme road rage incidents have increased in the media over the last five years or so, says Dr Amanda Stephens, senior research fellow at the Accident Research Centre at Monash University.

In one recent example at Nerang (reported by 7News) a child was left injured by smashed glass after an FJ Cruiser was forced off the road and pummeled with objects by men in two cars. 

In a separate case this year a 23-year old male was filmed punching a 67-year-old man in the face following a minor traffic incident on the Gold Coast.

Fortunately, most road anger doesn’t escalate into assault. 

However, a new survey by Budget Direct suggests more of us have been on the receiving end of mild aggression from other drivers. 73 percent of 1,000 Australians surveyed said they’d experienced rude gestures, shouting or swearing on the road over the past 12 months. This compares to 65 per cent the previous year. 

On the upside, significantly fewer participants reported being a victim of intentional violence, harm or threat.

More revealing insights from the study

  • The biggest source of angst for most? Dangerous driving such as tailgating and cutting in front.
  • Queenslanders were the most cranky on the road. Tasmanians were the least.
  • Music affects some people’s likelihood of behaving aggressively on the road, with young people most likely to say so. 
  • 40 per cent felt bias against the drivers of certain models of car.
  • Western Australians were least likely to experience road rage from others despite the fact they spend more time in the car than people in other states.

What’s defined as road rage?

For most, road rage refers to angry actions directed at others on the road (including pedestrians and cyclists). However, confusion surrounds the term.

Dr Stephens prefers the expression ‘driver aggression’. 

“Driver aggression is on a continuum,” she explains. On the extreme end of the scale are those incidents where people willfully try and engage in a fight or violence. “That's what we [academics] would refer to as road rage,” she says. “But most people refer to any sort of driver aggression as road rage.” 

The scale of driver aggression

Mild driver aggression 

  • Honking
  • Rude gestures
  • Swearing and shouting
  • Flashing lights 

Dangerous driver aggression 

  • Tailgating
  • Speeding
  • Dangerous overtaking
  • Blocking
  • Sudden braking

Road rage 

  • Getting out of the vehicle to engage in a fight
  • Violence against another person or their vehicle
  • Threats of harm 
  • Throwing objects
  • Trying to force someone off the road or into a dangerous situation

What’s fuelling more driver anger? 

Angry driver honks car horn

Dr Stan Steindl, clinical psychologist at Psychology Consultants and an adjunct associate professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, has some theories. One of the key factors in road rage is internal stress. He speculates that additional specific stresses around Covid and lockdown are making us more at risk of expressing anger on the road. 

Our sense of social safety and bonding has also taken a massive hit, he says. “We’re wearing masks, social distancing and feeling fearful. And I think this translates into the traffic. We’re seeing people through this lens of social threat. So we’re more likely to have that high level of arousal. We’re a little bit more primed. There’s irritation and agitation and things boiling away. So every now and then, it comes out as a rude gesture or yelling from the cockpit type thing.”

Equally – and potentially feeding into why extreme road rage may have lessened – we might be less inclined to get out of the car, he speculates. “We’re feeling more threatened by each other. There might be more police presence. Social distancing rules are there in the back of one’s mind. To get out of the car means to put a mask on. You can imagine that people are more agitated and irritated but also more cautious.”

A cocktail of triggers

Road rage is caused by anger arising from the ‘threat’ or ‘fight/flight’ system of our brains in response to perceived danger, Dr Steindl says. ‘You cut me off’ or ‘you could have killed me’ is a common thought process. We interpret a situation as threatening and fight back,” he says. 

The anger associated with driver aggression can also surface from the ‘drive’ system of the brain, he says. This governs competitive motives around acquiring, achieving or obtaining things. It’s the ‘get out of my way, I’m in a hurry’ type thing, he says.

The anonymity of being in a car amplifies the situation, making us less inhibited. “The sort of things we say and do in the anonymity of our own car you would never do to somebody in a lift,” he says. 

Internal factors like stress and beliefs or attributions we make about others influences a person’s likelihood of committing road rage, he says. “They might believe others are a threat or are foolish, ‘I don’t tolerate fools lightly’ – those sort of things. There can be a judgmental and critical aspect to how the person might approach others in traffic.”

Dr Stephens has spent two decades researching road rage. She summarises the main causes as the following.

Common internal factors

  • A bad mood when getting in the car (such as stress or anger)
  • A perception of danger and hostility from others

Common external triggers

  • Hostility or dangerous driving from others 
  • Travel delays

Is there a typical offender? 

We all know the stereotype of young, hot-headed male thugs in cars. But road rage can affect anyone. However, males aged up to about age 39 are more likely to display greater road aggression than female drivers of the same age, Dr Stephens admits.  

According to research, most drivers who are aggressive aren’t always aggressive. “It's just that on a particular day, there's been a particular combination of circumstances and it's led them to get angry in the car,” Dr Stephens says. “People underestimate how much your stresses and anger travel with you and shape how we drive,” she says. 

Her research also reveals those driving for work are no more aggressive on the road than people travelling for leisure. 

It’s complicated  

Most drivers don't plan to be aggressive on the road. 

It’s important to remember that driving is in itself a high-risk, potentially life-threatening activity. “To become angry in a situation that you feel is putting you in danger is perfectly natural,” Dr Stephens emphasises. “It's how we then deal with that anger.”

“When we’re driving our cognitive resources are often quite full,” she explains further. “It's a really complex task, we have to make evaluations really quickly. So it's really easy to make incorrect evaluations, especially when our goal is safety. There can be time pressures or stress around the experience of driving.” 

Anger doesn’t help you

A common false perception is that venting anger helps us. According to Dr Stephens: 

  • Getting angry causes distraction that reduces attention. 
  • Aggressive tailgating increases our crash risk by 14 times.
  • Aggressive overtaking increases our crash risk by 13 times.
  • General aggression increases our crash risk by 35 times.
  • Road anger negatively affects our mood, wellbeing and relationships at home and work.

Cultivating driver compassion 

“In every vehicle is another person,” Dr Stephens reminds.

Along with mindfulness stuff – like slowing your breathe, correcting your posture and staying calm, Dr Steindl suggests developing a warm, friendly composure within ourselves towards others. “Try to connect with that common sense of humanity, less judgement, or perhaps even forgiveness of others.”

Patrick MacDonald
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