When our fuses are already short, driving can push us over the edge
I got back in my car and called the police. The others were still carrying on when they got there.
Many of us are feeling and seeing more rage on the road these days. Psychologists say our deteriorating moods are fueling this increased aggression. For two years, we’ve been stressed, scared, anxious and sleep-deprived. We’re increasingly frustrated—at everything from gas prices to another Covid-19 variant. Then just when we thought we were getting the pandemic under control, an ugly war has broken out.
When our fuses are already short, driving can push us over the edge. Often, we’re in a hurry and have no patience for traffic. If another driver does something that we think is wrong, it can offend our sense of fairness. And because we can’t always see the other driver’s face, we don’t have as much empathy as we should.
“We’re already stretched to the breaking point, and then someone else’s driving becomes the last straw,” says Alex Korb, a neuroscientist and personal-development coach.
The data on fatalities involving road rage are small and inconclusive. In 2020—the most recent year for which statistics are available—the number of fatalities officially linked to road rage or aggressive driving was just over 660, according to preliminary data in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System data collected by states from official records and shared with Businesshala by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2019, that figure was 505. NHTSA warns against making year-to-year comparisons, because the way states classify road-rage incidents varies. Data may not be representative of actual occurrences, NHTSA says.
Experts are clear, though: Anger on the road is on the rise. “The driving behavior we’re seeing during the pandemic is extremely problematic,” says Daniel G. Sharp, retired chief of police in Oro Valley, Ariz., and chair of the Highway Safety Committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He says people are driving much more aggressively than before, and that the trend is increasingly dangerous. Loretta Worters, vice president of media relations at the Insurance Information Institute, says the industry trade group is seeing anecdotal evidence of the same trend.
NHTSA defines road rage as an intentional assault with a motor vehicle or weapon that occurs on the road or that started on the road. It’s a criminal offence. Aggressive driving is the broader term the agency uses for a pattern of driving that puts other people in danger, such as following another car too closely, weaving through traffic or driving much faster than the rest of traffic.
Yet, most of us think of road rage as the colloquial term for any type of angry driving. And although it can be dangerous, there’s a reason we do it, Dr. Korb says. “It’s a release valve, a way to relieve and express our emotions,” he says. “In that moment, we feel like we’re asserting power and control over the situation.”
Dawn Avagliano is careful not to drive dangerously or get in a fight with someone who seems scary. But the Rutherford, NJ, saleswoman says she does get mad while driving, especially when she thinks someone is going too slow or is unfairly cutting in line. Often, she says, she pulls up alongside the other car, glares at the driver, and hollers: “What an idiot!” or “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Ms. Avagliano, 50, once got into a shouting match with another woman over a parking spot at Starbucks,
(She doesn’t remember who started it, but says it ended with the other woman throwing coffee at Ms. Avagliano’s windshield.) Another time, she yelled, “I don’t have all day!” at the driver of a black SUV stopped in the middle of a street, after being stuck behind it for several minutes. He turned out to be a police officer—she saw the gray lettering of the word “police” on the side of the car as she passed it—who promptly gave her a ticket.
Ms. Avagliano tries to be more careful now. Still, she says she generally feels better when she lets her anger out. “It’s an emotional release,” she says.
It can be hard to resist the temptation to express our anger when we’re on the edge. But it’s important to keep our cool behind the wheel. In reporting this column, I heard from people who listen to comedy routines, repeat a mantra (“Stay calm and carry on!”) or remind themselves that road rage is dangerous. A man in New York meditates twice a day to keep his anger in check. Another in Michigan asks himself what his always-polite wife would do in the same situation. And a woman in Florida makes herself smile at drivers that cut her off—and sometimes blows them a kiss. “It makes me feel like I’m the better person,” she says.
Sarah McCue, a consultant in Reston, Va., says she used to get mad when she drove. But now that she has kids, she uses humor to keep her from raging when other drivers cut her off. “I ‘over wave’ at people to show thanks, dramatically bow or grandly wave someone to go before me,” she says. She also sings “Let It Go” from Disney‘s
“Frozen” at the top of her lungs. “It helps me immediately disconnect from the situation and reconnect to something important: my kids,” she says.
How can you stay calm behind the wheel?
First, create a plan for how you’ll behave in the heat of the moment. Psychologists call this an “implementation intention.”
It’s best to have an “if-then” plan, says Ethan Kross, a neuroscientist who studies emotional regulation at the University of Michigan and the author of “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It. ” An example: “If another driver cuts me off, then I’ll take a deep breath and let them go.” Research shows that creating a plan that links a specific situation to a specific action makes it more likely that you’ll follow through with it, he says.
You’ll also need strategies to deal with your anger if it does bubble up. Brad Bushman, a professor of communication at the Ohio State University in Columbus, who studies aggression, offers these: Reduce your arousal. (Take deep breaths or count to 10 before you react.) Distract yourself. (Think of something pleasant.) Distance yourself psychologically. (Talk to yourself in the third person, as another person would: “Elizabeth, just let the jerk go.”) Studies show this helps people perform better under stress.
Lean back in your seat. Anger is an “approach motivation”—it makes you lean in, to try and do something about what made you mad, Dr. Bushman says. Research shows leaning back reduces anger. You can also try doing the opposite of being angry: Smile or let another driver into traffic.
Finally, reframe the situation. Ask yourself: Is this brief moment going to matter in an hour or a day or a year? If the answer is no—and it should be—let it go.
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at [email protected]
Credit: www.Businesshala.com /