Road rage is something that we’re all familiar with today, but why does it occur, and why does it affect so many people? Is there a driving sociological or psychological force behind road rage? This sample essay asks what is it about sitting in a metal box for hours at a time every day which causes us to lose our tempers so spectacularly?
Road Rage in America
Online videos and personal experience have demonstrated that road rage and dangerous driving can lead to physical confrontations, either from inside of our vehicles or outside of it, and even death in some cases. Road rage is not restricted to cars and trucks, but is also prevalent between motorcyclists and cars, since motorcyclists are much more vulnerable to injury. Here we will examine the difference between normal rage and road rage, dealing with road rage, the psychology and biology of road rage, and how driverless cars might affect the road rage epidemic.
Normal rage versus road rage
In a normal rage situation, there is usually an option to remove yourself from the situation that is angering you; leave the room, walk around the block, or simply step outside for a breath of fresh air. When we are in our cars, we can’t “take a break,” and must continue to pay close attention to the road and the vehicles around us. Many different types of stresses can lead to road rage, just like normal rage, but road rage is singular because we are behind the wheel or faring of a vehicle which can kill or injure another person as a result of that rage. Is it just this ability that causes road rage?
Thorin Klosowski of Lifehacker doesn’t think so. He points out that people “feel anonymous in cars;” thus the makeup application, nose picking, and other unsavory actions that go on while people are driving. In sociological terms, anonymity increases the likelihood of antisocial behavior because of “deindividualization.” Deindividualization causes people to stop thinking of themselves as individuals, and begin thinking of themselves as part of a large group. This is the exact opposite of the individualistic meaning of life we like to live by when outside of our vechicles.
Similar to mob mentality, deindividualism causes occurrences of aggressive behavior in traffic to increase. We feel less human and more protected while inside our cars, which leads to behavior such as frequent honking of horns (which increases when we can’t see the driver of the vehicle holding up traffic). This depersonalization of other drivers and riders is also at the heart of road rage; road rage is akin to being angry with the entire government for allowing a certain bill to pass. It is not specific and therefore it is easier to lash out at other anonymous drivers.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study showed that drivers were less likely to honk at a driver if the driver could clearly see them, for instance, if they were in a convertible, or on a motorcycle. The anonymity of being in a car on a freeway with thousands of other drivers allows us to act in a more primal way which is normally unavailable to us; after all – we will probably never see that other driver again – at least we hope not.
Another way that riding in car infuriates us, is the inability to clearly communicate with other drivers. We must resort to hand signals, or exaggerated facial expressions, some of which can be very blunt or rude. Our emotions must be limited to the basic two emotions of happiness (think the thumbs up sign) or extreme anger (think of using the middle finger in a particularly offensive way). Other ways in which we express ourselves are similar to angry actions while outside our cars, but when performed from inside or on a vehicle, these actions become much more dangerous.
The actions I am referring to are, following a person too closely in order to intimidate them or demonstrate our anger, honking at other drivers, speeding up to cut other drivers off, taking our frustration out on the next person we see, or shouting and gesturing in our car.
The affect heuristic is a mental shortcut which entails relying on our emotions to tell us if something is good or bad. Instead of thinking a situation through, for example a road rage situation, we stick to our first or past impression of the situation. Regardless of whether or not future situations are different, we use the affect heuristic to make a snap judgment of a current situation regardless of any new data.
It is rare for drivers to consider why other drivers are acting as they do – there may have been an unavoidable situation they were reacting to, but not many of us consider that. We simply react angrily and with extreme impatience. We, as drivers, are focusing only on the effect of other drivers’ actions on us and not the reasons for their actions.
Dealing with road rage
While we are in our cars stuck in horrendous traffic, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has some recommendations for dealing with road rage. They recommend learning to deal well with road rage in order to stay safe on the highways and avoid angering other drivers to the point of personal injury or death. First, avoid confrontation with aggressive drivers.
While driving, we are in control of our actions, but cannot hope to control another driver’s actions, not matter what we do. Dropping back behind the aggressive driver is the safest move; it also helps avoid further confrontation and allows time to think about the situation without fear of immediate retribution. Think about avoiding a drunk or clearly impaired driver on the road, and treat a road rage driver with the same avoidance and even reporting to authorities, if necessary. Venting frustration in the car verbally or after the fact to a coworker, family member, or friend is an effective way to expel negative thoughts.
Second, the DMV recommends familiarity with your own driving style. Aggressive drivers and defensive drivers are the two most common types. Aggressive drivers continuously tailgate other drivers, honk, flash headlights, change lanes often and rapidly, talk on their cell phones, and gesture to other drivers. The DMV suggests changing driving habits slowly if a driver has aggressive tendencies; there are also driver’s education courses and personalized training which can help. Instigator drivers infuriates aggressive drivers by consistently driving under the speed limit, not using turn signals, slowing down far too early for exits, accelerating unevenly, and practicing lane hogging.
This type of driving inevitably leads to road rage from other drivers. Holding up traffic just to anger others is inconsiderate; the DMV suggests pulling over to let others go by. Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) has been identified as the medical cause of road rage – it can now be treated beginning in the early teenage years. The main characteristic of IED are repeated outbursts that are out of proportion given the driving situation, according to the DMV. Finally, the DMV states that avoidance of confrontation is key to avoiding possible injury or death due to road rage.
If someone is in a hurry, pull over to let them pass; they may be speeding to the hospital or to help a friend or family member. If someone attempts to tailgate or antagonize, simply avoid the situation by dropping back and letting the person pass. Many situations can be avoiding through defensive driving practices and skills – also keep an eye out for erratic drivers.
The Iowa Department of Transportation takes defensive driving a step further than the DMV, recommending specific practices to prevent road rage in drivers. A detailed list of “common motorist irritants” includes racing to beat a yellow light that’s about to turn red, traveling in the passing or left lane at a slower speed, making it impossible for others to pass, driving with high beams on behind another vehicle or toward oncoming traffic, slowing down after passing another driver, not making a right turn in the right-hand turn lane, and failing to react quickly enough after the red light turns green.
The IDOT website is based upon the “He/she who drives away, lives to drive another day” tenet, and recommends basic driving behavior modifications or practices to avoid road rage incidents. Some of these include putting physical distance between the road rage driver and the car being driven, driving at a safe following distance (one car length per 10 miles per hour of speed), being polite and courteous of other drivers, staying mostly within one lane, avoiding cell phone distraction, avoiding eye contact and reaction to an aggressive driver, keeping music at a low level, and being tolerant of other drivers.
Road rage: How it affects the mind and body
Emil Coccaro is a University of Chicago professor and psychiatrist who has studied Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) for years, and notes that while not all road rage drivers have IED, road rage can be a symptom of the disorder. Psychologically, IED is rooted in Hostile Attribution Bias (HAB) or the belief that every occurrence or threat is purposefully and personally targeting the victim.
IED sufferers over-personalize all interactions and thus overreact immediately and aggressively. According to Lauren Kirchner of PSMag, people with serotonin or dopamine levels that are low or inconsistent are often impulsive and aggressive. Coccaro likens road rage to being in a state of denial and a sense of heightened power. Coccaro states,
“I say that to people all the time, ‘Don’t assume that the other person is you…you don’t know how nuts they are. You don’t know that they don’t have a gun in their glove compartment.’”
Kirchner reported that a Harvard School of Public Health’s study found that the presence of a gun in a car might cause road rage situations to escalate faster. The study also found that young adult males, binge drinkers, distrustful people, those driving with guns, and those arrested for non-traffic violations were most likely to demonstrate road rage.
Coccaro added that the car is “like a second home” for people, and therefore a threat to that safety or object is considered very serious by drivers; almost as serious as an assault on their homes. Driving mistakes are generally just that, mistakes, but when they are perceived as purposeful by other drivers, confrontations can become dangerous. Some Canadian researchers have suggested aggressive behavior screening for new drivers, increased innovation in city design and vehicle technology, and stricter, more specific aggressive driver punishments under the law.
Driverless cars: Will they save us or make things worse?
Driverless cars, according to Bloomberg Business, is as old as the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. The current vision for the driverless car includes modern technology such as cameras, lasers, and radar, which have already been incorporated into today’s vehicles for safety. Speedy processors allow all inputs to help cars react quickly to obstacles or dangerous conditions. Proponents of the technology tout less traffic, fewer collisions, and more transportation options for the elderly.
In addition, autonomous cars could drive much faster and closer together without fear of wrecks or traffic jams. Ford motor Executive Chairman Bill Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford, believes that personal freedom is being threatened, however.
“Global gridlock is going to stifle economic growth and our ability to deliver food and health care, particularly to people that live in city centers, and our quality of life is going to be severely compromised,” Ford states.
Chris Borroni-Bird is GM’s Director of Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts, and believes that
“Autonomous driving is almost like an evolution of technology rather than a revolution, if you think about the technologies that have been put on vehicles recently.”
Despite Ford’s belief in the human desire for personal mobility, the realities of increased pollution and population coupled with the decrease in natural resources may end up driving the autonomous car business forward in the near future. Having a car that drives itself doesn’t mean one can’t tell the car where to go and when; it simply means that human concentration and distraction will no longer be a factor that leads to extreme and dangerous road rage.
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