Road Rage Deaths Are On The Rise – But Why?

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Driving can be just plain frustrating. We’re stuck in traffic, we’re running late, we’re tired at the end of a long day of work, and the last thing we need is for someone to cut us off, tailgate, or swerve from lane to lane. Sometimes, that frustration boils over into full-blown road rage. Lately, the incidence of road rage has been on the rise. What’s fueling our automobile anger?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tracks the types and causes of accidents on US roads every year and reports that a whopping 66% of fatalities on the road are caused by aggressive driving. Worse than that, the number of fatal accidents caused by road rage has increased every year for a decade. It seems like even as cars are getting safer, the people behind the wheel are getting more dangerous.

So what’s behind the boom?

What Causes Road Rage?

Nearly anyone who has ever driven a car can sympathize with the feelings behind road rage. Driving is dangerous, which makes it stressful. It’s dead time between the place we were and the place we’re trying to go, so we’re impatient. It’s easy to slip into an unhappy mood behind the wheel, and other drivers behaving badly can be downright infuriating. However, most of us don’t do anything about it. We don’t chase down the person who tailgated us or attempt to speed around and cut off someone in revenge. We don’t get out of our cars and physically threaten or attack people. And yet, some people do just that. Just google “road rage videos” and you’ll find thousands of results, showing people jumping out of their cars to confront other drivers or even purposefully crashing into the other vehicle. Even those of us with no violent inclinations whatsoever have probably contemplated taking action to explain to another driver just how problematic their actions were.

Psychologists have an interesting explanation for why our emotions can get so out of hand on the road. It’s not just that driving is inherently frustrating, although that’s part of it. It has to do with 2 psychological phenomena: “reactivity” and “deindividuation.”

Reactivity refers to the differences in our behavior in public and in private. In public, we’re more likely to conform to the rules of polite society – we don’t often cut in line or hit people who annoy us when we’re out and about. In private, our behavior may be different because we’re simply not accountable to anyone else. We’re a lot more likely to pick up after our dogs if the neighbors are watching than if no one else is around.

This isn’t just anecdotal – there are studies to prove it. The most famous involved tracking the number of people that littered in a university cafeteria. After hanging up posters with eyes on them around the cafeteria, twice as many people cleaned up after themselves. In other words, just the suggestion that someone is watching is enough to make us follow the rules.  In fact, the difference in our behavior when we’re being observed is so extreme that psychological experiments have to be designed to circumvent it or the results will be skewed.

Deindividuation refers to a related effect – we tend to behave badly when we believe we’re anonymous. In one classic study by Zimbardo, experimenters had subjects administer shocks (they were fake, but the subjects didn’t know) to other people. When the participants wore large lab coats and hoods to hide their identities, they administered the shocks for significantly longer than when they wore regular clothing and name tags.

So what does all this have to do with road rage? Basically, cars are a in a sort of gray area between public and private space. We’re out on the road, in the world, around other people. At the same time, we’re in our own little automobile bubbles. We feel like our cars are private space, meaning we’re more likely to behave badly. We also feel like we’re anonymous, which also increases our tendency to misbehave. It’s a recipe for antisocial behavior – like acting out our frustration with another driver in a way we would never do in person.

So Why Is Road Rage Increasing?

Now we know why road rage happens, but why is it happening more and more? At the end of the day, road rage is most likely increasing simply because we’re spending more time on the road. In fact, our time spent in rush-hour traffic has increased by more than 5% since 2007 and 4/5 cities have worse congestion now than in 2007. Our stress levels are also increasing, which just makes it more likely that we’ll snap.

There’s no doubt about it – the road is a dangerous place as it is. And aggressive drivers contribute disproportionately to traffic fatalities. So, how do we keep our cool on the road? Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about traffic or congestion. All we can control is our own behavior. When someone does something aggressive that upsets you, focus on keeping a cool head. It’s ok to get frustrated – you can think up inventive names to call the other driver or just inventive ways to express your annoyance. But if you find yourself getting really angry, remember to think of the other cars on the road as having people in them. Remember that they have their own frustrations and annoyances and you’re all trying to get somewhere. The best tools for anger management are different for everyone, so you may need to experiment to find what works best for you. Deep breathing is always a good place to start!

The best way to stay safe on the road is to drive safely no matter what. Focus on that over everything else. That will help you avoid getting angry and it will also help you avoid becoming a target for other people’s road rage.

Drive safely!

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