Congressional Testimony on Aggressive Driving 

Dr. Leon James
Professor of Psychology
University of Hawaii

Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Infrastructure, US House of Representatives (Washington, DC), July 17, 1997. Testimony by Dr. Leon James, Professor of Traffic Psychology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu (Original Government Document can be accessed here)

The Symptoms of Road Rage

In the course of my research in traffic psychology I have analyzed thousands of messages written by drivers to each other on electronic discussion groups on the Internet. I would like to begin this testimony with a classic example of a typical road rage incident I believe everyone here will find all too familiar. It's the story of a driver who failed to acknowledge the courtesy of another, and in no time flat this assumed slight escalated to just short of physical violence. The offended driver reported that

Just before the on-ramp entrance I let a car go in front of me. I thought I had saved this person a great deal of trouble and that he would be thankful that I let him go ahead of me. But instead of getting the wave, I got nothing. I didn't even see a quick gesture of thanks. I scanned my memory back to make sure I hadn't missed anything. Regardless of how hard I looked for a sign of gratitude, I found none. Immediately, I became infuriated.

Physiologically, anger is a momentary flare-up that quickly dies down. Up to this point she was simply angry. Now she started to fan the flames with righteous indignation:

I don't understand why some people are so rude. I feel like tailgating this person to let him know how I feel. What would society be like if everyone were like this rude person. Maybe I should've just made him wait for his turn. How hard is it to wave anyway. Any civilized person would do it. But this person is hardly civilized. I didn't have to do this person a favor, and I felt as if that rebuff ruined my whole day. I felt hurt and insulted as well as angry. All I could think about was revenge.

Her anger quickly turned into uninhibited road rage:

I wanted to teach that person a lesson. I wanted that person to crash, to run out of gas, or get pulled over by the police. I wanted that person to feel like I did, angry. I knew the chances were pretty small that he would be plagued by any of my curses. So I decided not to leave it to other forces to teach him a lesson. I had to be the punisher.

Her road rage developed into a classic confrontation that might have had very serious consequences for all concerned:

By this time we were both on the freeway. I tailgated him in the fast lane going 60 mph. I must have been no more than a few feet away from his car. I was aware how dangerous it was in the stop-and-go traffic of rush hour. Then as I passed him, I revved my V8 engine and gave him the meanest glare I could muster.

She accused the "uncivilized" driver of rebuffing her and ruining her day. Because she felt hurt by him, she wanted to retaliate, to avenge the injury. She chose to be driven by her angry emotions, which she attributed self-righteously to the man's rudeness. She didn't perceive the self-fulfilling prophecy of her road rage. She did not question the legitimacy of her anger. She never considered that the other driver might simply have been oblivious to her initial gesture of generosity. She never gave a thought to how he might respond to her provocation.

Road Rage Around the Nation

Road rage is ubiquitous in America today. Evidently the average commute in our cities, towns villages and on our highways across the country is filled with anxiety, stress, antagonism, discontent, and fear that encourages such incidents. Most of the victims recognize a dramatic increase in road rage. They have different solutions:

A New York City driver complains:

I live in NYC, a town with a seemingly complete lack of driver courtesy (ever drive the Westside Highway or the FDR Drive?). This is definitely an extreme example. But how many times, on any highway, is someone passing on the right, or conversely sitting in a left lane forcing people to go around them? I wonder how many traffic jams could be eased or eliminated simply by observing protocol on the road. Not to mention accidents and their attendant costs. All this is especially underscored after having been in Germany recently, and seeing how things could be.

A Washington, DC, driver appeals to Christian charity

I want to talk about neighborhood driving. It is getting out of hand here in DC. I try to drive within 5 mph of the limit on side streets and have gotten so many dirty looks and gestures while doing so. The bad part is *everyone* seems to be doing it, even rather nice looking women. Children live in these neighborhoods. So do mothers and fathers. What is the rush? You might save a few minutes but is that worth hurting someone? If you are Christian you cannot drive this way (Give unto Caesar and all that). You must consider those around you. Based on the driving habits of the people in the DC suburbs, most cannot be considered Christian at all. Most are willing to risk the safety of others to promote their selfish desires. This is not meant to be a liberal/conservative argument, just a call for common sense. Please think of your faith before you get behind the wheel.

A Hoboken driver wrote to the New York Times editor asking for stronger law enforcement:

My neighbors constantly complain about high auto insurance rates, yet the same individuals get into their high-velocity cars and run stop signs and red lights, tailgate, weave and speed, and cut others off in order to be "first." Considering the number of pedestrians and automobile drivers and passengers maimed and killed every year on New Jersey's roads and highways, "gun control" should be put on the back burner and "auto control" on the front, so that not only the news media would get after these reckless drivers but also the New Jersey police departments would get needed public back-up in their effort to make our highways safer.

Illinois drivers have a reputation for outrageous driving:

Passing on the right, passing on the left, passing on the shoulder, passing on the sidewalk, making U-turns on the sidewalk, parking on the sidewalk, driving in reverse the length of a city block, sometimes two, to grab a parking spot...any others I missed? Illinois drivers are highly creative, that much I must say.

Drivers often focus their fury on presumed "outsiders":

Here in the Northwest the stupidity of the typical driver is beyond description. I'm sure you can relate. But at the same time, most of these poor excuses for drivers have moved here from elsewhere and brought their skills (or lack of) with them. I've driven coast to coast in roughly half the states and one thing is certain, all larger metropolitan areas have the same problems. People who commute around here are constantly complaining that there is far too much traffic for the existing roads to handle. A true statement but one which applies to most cities. It is a condition which I'm sure you've heard of: Road Rage.

Or like California drivers in the rain:

When I went to Montana and Wyoming this winter, most of the accidents (mostly cars on the side of the road) were Californians. A little rain and everyone forgets how to drive. A reporter on KFI in LA even stated "Californians can't drive in the rain." When I was in LA, I avoided the freeways during rush hour in any rainstorm; there would be a huge number of accidents, and this was especially true during the first big rainstorm of any rainy season.

Drivers see the rise of road rage take different manifestations. Here's an example of passive aggression:

Probably the most disturbing *trend* I notice (I work near a hospital) is that it seems like no one will respect an ambulance any more. I've seen ambulances held up at an intersection for half a minute, maybe a full minute, flashing their lights and creeping forward a foot at a time, while people continue to try to make it across, turn, whatever, right in front of them.

For San Diego drivers aggressive driving is a game:

I live in San Diego too, but I see it a little different. Yes, it's more tense, the "one car length per 10 mph" is a joke, but I find drivers up there "more" competent. They know where they are going and they know where the turnoffs are. Sure, everyone flies in real tight formation with very, very little margin for error. When someone changes lanes right in front of someone, the guy behind does not slam on his brakes, as might happen elsewhere. I think it's because they spend so much time on the freeway --that helps them keep in practice.

One driver gave a cogent analysis of why his style of driving should be considered "assertive" rather than "aggressive":

The competitive aspect manifests itself not in speed, but in position. There are clumps of cars traveling slower than the prevailing traffic flow, necessitating lane changes. Gaps in traffic come and go quickly, making such lane changes challenging at times. Standing waves aren't uncommon, and everyone will sometimes slam on their brakes without warning and for no apparent reason. Slowdowns appear out of nowhere: "Can I get to that upcoming exit in time to escape, or will I be stuck in this mess for a while?" The competition is in being able to deal with all this stuff effectively by maintaining a higher degree of situational awareness than the other guy. Does that mean driving like a maniac? I certainly can't see that it does, necessarily. If you find the sort of mindset that acknowledges this reality and seeks to thrive in such a milieu dangerous and aggressive, then so be it.

The difference between being assertive vs. aggressive was given further support by this driver, whose views are shared by many:

The other thing I do is constantly test my driving habits by thinking, If I were that guy that I just flashed my lights at, passed on the right, cut close in front of to get through a tiny "hole," slipped by on a shoulder on a secondary road because a turning lane was ahead 70 ft or so--how would I feel? Am I truly being inconsiderate (impeding them or endangering them beyond what is inevitable) or is someone pissed just because I am doing something that they don't think is right. Yes, I drive by what some people call "aggressive." I call it "Driving for Progress." But I am constantly aware of how my driving is affecting others. And no, I am not perfect, I do make mistakes and occasionally make inconsiderate maneuvers.

Sometimes the anger is generational:

I hate the 17-year-old guy in the "hot rodded" Civic or Eclipse that believes he can safely navigate Southern California roads at 95, or that his 800 lb. car will withstand a collision with a dual-trailer big rig at that speed. I mean, I'm currently forced to putt around in a Geo Metro, and I move along at about 75 (a little fast, but that's what traffic in general does), but I also realize that if I get hit, they'll probably never be able to separate me from my car, so I try to keep it a little more reserved. But these kids with their tiny little imports and whopping 6 months (whoa!) of driving experience that believe they could outdrive Mario Andretti with their eyes closed, well, they make me want to savagely and mercilessly inflict permanent and debilitating pain upon their person while their slut girlfriend looks on in abject terror.

I've found that commuters commonly fantasize their special revenge. One driver wrote:

In a perfect world, once a year they would put all the inconsiderate, incompetent and rude drivers in little Subaru Fiori's, and we would get to drive all over them in big HumVees.

And another driver in a similar vein:

All motor vehicles should come with rockets and heavy weapons installed, so all drivers could express themselves to other drivers in a more creative fashion.

Which led to this cynical echo:

I'd thought that putting steel I-beams along the sides, front and rear with Boadicea type spikes out of the wheels would be enough but it messes up the resale value.

Anatomy of an Epic Road Rage Tragedy

The natural cycle of verbal road rage begins with an explosion of invectives and accusations, silent or out loud, reaching a rapid peak that lasts a few seconds, then lessens with a temporary feeling of relief from the pent-up pressure of frustration or fear. What happens next depends on conditions. In some minor but annoying events, conflicting exchanges die down after a few moments when the physiological symptoms of anger dissipate, receding into the subconscious, put to sleep, but ready to awaken at the next opportunity, maybe only a minute or two later. The cycle of anger can be rekindled just by seeing the other car, or it can die down if the target driver avoids eye contact, verbal replies, and other forms of provocation.

But if the two drivers amplify and re-cycle their combative emotions, their verbal rage can transform itself into epic proportions. The further the cycle of hostility turns, the more intense it becomes, and the individuals are less inclined to back down. This is because the intensity of road rage is determined by rationalizations and justifications, and the more "rounds" the antagonists go with each other, the more reasons they will find for continuing and escalating the feud.

Understanding road rage requires the ability to analyze a road rage incident and see its natural steps of development or escalation. Each step allows the drivers a choice point: to continue the conflict or to back out of it. To help you see these steps, we will analyze a road rage battle that involved two aggressive women drivers in which provocation led to provocation, ending in tragedy.

Note: if interested, see this recent survey showing that women drivers are now getting more aggressive.

We were able to reconstruct the incident in 10 steps or choice points. The following sequence of events are reconstructed from a Court TV broadcast of the case of a 24 year old mother of two in Cincinnati who was the defendant in a criminal suit for road rage homicide.

Sequence of
Road Rage Steps

Emotional Intelligence (EI)
Choice Points

Step 1: Woman, 24 year old mother of two in Cincinnati, driving alone in a GrandAm, is following a woman driver in a VW. In front of them are several cars behind a truck going 35 mph. The GrandAm pulls into the left lane in order to pass and speeds up to 55 mph.

Overtaking a line of vehicles is always risky. You must expect that other drivers in the line also want to break away, so don't speed up excessively.

EI Choice 1: Pull into the lane and increase speed moderately in case someone pulls out in front of you. Takes the skill of restraining yourself and accommodating others' movements.

Step 2: The VW suddenly pulls out into the left lane, in front of the GrandAm, going 20 mph slower and forcing the GrandAm driver to apply the brakes suddenly.

This provocative maneuver suddenly creates a dangerous incident. Trial records show this was done deliberately to annoy the GrandAm driver for tailgating her. It's an aggressive act, in direct opposition to another driver already engaged in a lane change maneuver.

EI Choice 2: Avoid engaging in power struggles with other drivers. It takes the skill of backing down from a challenge, of being less competitive, and intending to facilitate rather than oppose what other drivers want to do.

Step 3: The VW gradually overtakes the slow truck, passes it, and pulls back into the right lane.

This is a proper maneuver, but doesn't by itself defuse the power struggle that is in progress.

EI Choice 3: Be prepared to pacify hurt feelings. It takes tools of self-regulation to remain calm in the face of a potential backlash. You can predict that the other driver will likely retaliate your provocative move.

Step 4: The GrandAm, still in the left lane, now overtakes the VW, honks several times, makes obscene gestures, and flashes her lights as signs of outrage ("to let her know that she almost caused an accident just then").

One of the worst things a driver can do is openly duel with another driver. She uses all of the behaviors known to be acts of war on the road.

EI Choice 4: Retain self-control by refusing to fan the flames of your righteous indignation. Resist the temptation to teach other drivers a lesson. Valuing motorists as fellow human beings gives you the inner power to resist the impulse to retaliate.

Step 5: The VW driver responds by flipping the bird and shaking her head.

The worst thing to do in a road rage power struggle is to continue the duel. By not defusing the situation, she is irresistibly drawn into the duel.

EI Choice 5: Use every opportunity to "come out swinging positive" by appearing to be calm, like you're no longer taking a fighting stance. It takes the skills of switching to a non-confrontational posture, and of rationally predicting the consequences of road rage.

Step 6: The GrandAm now tries to pull ahead in the left lane in order to re-enter the right lane, but the VW accelerates, blocking the way.

The die is cast for a tragedy, with both drivers locking themselves into a pathological game.

EI Choice 6: Desist. Recognize that you are in an insane power struggle that you instantly need to back out of. This takes self-witnessing to help you realize how far gone you are in your emotional hijacking.

Step 7: The GrandAm slows down and pulls in behind the VW and now keeps up the pressure by tailgating dangerously.

Having no choice, she's forced to back off momentarily, but hasn't calmed down. She escalates the fight.

EI Choice 7: Use a lull in the fight to calm down and pacify the other driver by not appearing hostile. You need to train yourself to be able to back out of a fight by practicing "an attitude of latitude" or forgiveness.

Step 8: Now the GrandAm suddenly pulls out into the left lane again, overtakes and cuts off the VW, then gives her a "brake job," slamming on the brakes to punish the VW driver behind her.

She uses her experience as a driver to wage war. She's no longer just getting even. She started out by getting upset that the VW driver almost caused an accident, but then ended up herself creating a major battle.

EI Choice 8: Realize that the law of escalation exacts tragedy. This takes an overhaul of the aggressive driver's personality and driving philosophy.

Step 9: The VW driver applies her brakes suddenly and they lock, causing her to veer sideways to the right where she hits truck parked on the shoulder. She is thrown from the car, taken to the hospital where she recovers from surgery, but she was pregnant and her unborn child dies.

She started out nearly causing a crash by pulling out in front of the GrandAm. Instead of pacifying the driver, she flipped her the bird, and ended up losing her baby.

EI Choice 9: It's too late to do anything. It's gone too far.

Step 10: The GrandAm driver continues her trip to the office where she told her supervisor that she'd been in an accident, that "the other driver had it coming" and that "she wasn't going to take **** from no one." Later, she was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide for causing the death of an unborn child.

Not only did she have no remorse, but she was proud of what she did, and bragged about it. This came back to haunt her when it was brought out at the trial through the testimony of her supervisor.

EI Choice 10: She needs a complete driving personality make-over, which will take years, and will involve examining and changing her self-image, her ego relationship to cars, her values about human rights, her anger management, and her caring about fellow human beings.

The Trial and the Verdict

The trial of Tracie Alfieri took place in
Hamilton County in Cincinnati before Judge Patrick T. Dinklelacker between April 28, 1997 and May 2, 1997. The jury found Alfieri guilty of both the aggravated vehicular homicide and aggravated vehicular assault charges. Alfieri was sentenced to a one-and-a-half-year prison term on May 21. (Court Library, Ohio v. Alfieri (5/97)

Our analysis of other road rage incidents reported in the media confirms that this sequence of events is typical, clearly reflecting the choice points drivers have. These steps show that road rage is an inability to let go of a desire to punish and retaliate the other driver. Drivers need emotional intelligence training to gain this ability. Our research has uncovered different types of road rage which we were able to classify in three broad types.

Alarming Numbers

There's growing official alarm about road rage. The
US government has named "aggressive drivers" as one of the most serious transportation challenges facing State legislatures today. Ricardo Martinez, federal administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has declared that road rage is now the Number One traffic problem. The New York Times reported a poll in Washington, D.C., showing that 42% of the residents rate aggressive drivers as the biggest threat on the road, followed by drunk drivers (35%). The problem is so serious that insurance companies are devising ways to deny insurance to aggressive drivers and cut rates for peaceful drivers.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released data in 1996 showing that the average number of violent incidents reported between drivers in the US. has increased annually over the past eight years, 51% since 1990. In 1996 alone about 2,000 violent incidents were formally reported by police nationwide. But this is considered the small tip of a very large iceberg, according to safety officials who believe that for every aggressive driving incident serious enough to result in a police report or newspaper article, there are hundreds or thousands more which never got reported to the authorities.

On one Internet site used by professionals who drive for a living it was recently;y noted that most professional drivers regularly experience road rage incidents, some of which end in physical damage or injury:

Road rage is becoming a major problem for motorists and especially high mileage company car drivers. 78% of company car drivers said that at some time another driver had verbally abused them, while 21% said that another driver had forced them to pull over or off the road. However, although most cases of road rage did not lead to physical injury - only 3% suffered from physical violence -- 10% suffered damage to their car from road ragers.

Road Rage: A Culturally Acquired Habit

Driving and habitual road rage have become virtually inseparable. Why? What causes aggressive driving and habitual road rage? And everybody points to the same factors: more cars--->more traffic--->more frustration--->more stress--->more anger--->more hostility--->more violence. More cars leads to more aggression on the roads, sort of like rats fighting in a crowded colony.

Given this logic the standard solutions are: more and better roads, better cars, better laws, better enforcement, and better public education campaigns. Even individual and group therapy. All of these approaches have been helpful, but in my opinion, they are not sufficient to contain and eliminate the epidemic of road rage.

The culture of road rage has deep roots. We inherit aggressive and dangerous driving patterns as children, watching our parents and other adults behind the wheel, and by watching and absorbing bad driving behaviors depicted in movies and television commercials.

I was astounded the first time I listened to drivers who had tape recorded their thoughts and feelings in traffic, speaking their thoughts aloud while driving, giving a sort of play-by-play of what it's like inside the private world of the driver. This was the first time in the history of psychology that self-witnessing data became available through hundreds of drivers speaking and recording their thoughts in traffic. One feature that particularly amazed me was the pervasive negativity of their thoughts and feelings. In a kind of Jekyll and Hyde effect perfectly ordinary, friendly, good-hearted people tend to become extremely intolerant and anti-social as soon as they get behind the wheel. Behind the wheel their personality undergoes a rapid transformation, from polite and tolerant to inconsiderate, intolerant and emotionally unintelligent.

As a result of my studies, I've concluded that aggressive drivers need other behavioral modification techniques to manage their competitive impulses on the road. I refer to this set of emotional management techniques as "inner power tools" for smart driving.

It took several years of research for me to understand the psychological mechanism of emotionally impaired driving. The car is not only an object of convenience, beauty, and status. It is also a cultural and psychological object, associated with the driver's internal mental and emotional dynamics, our ego. Cars are an extension of the self, they are ego-laden objects that can be used both positively and negatively to get our own way on the road. The automobile offers us a means to exercise direct control over our environment. When we enter the car we use it as an outlet for regaining a sense of control. Automobiles are powerful, and obedient. They respond instantly and gratifyingly to our command, giving us a sense of well being that comes with achieving control over one's environment.

The pace of life has increased for the majority of the population. Many have commented on the general feeling of loss of control in their lives. And yet it is human and natural to seek a sense of control in our lives, we want to feel we're getting somewhere, that we're not wasting time, that we're doing the right and just thing, that we're free to pursue our own interest- unfettered.

What happens when someone thwarts our sense of freedom? For example, while driving along in a pack of vehicles, a car in the left lane suddenly darts into your lane just ahead of you. Your foot automatically lifts from the gas pedal and taps the brakes, just enough to maintain distance. At this point, aggressive drivers feel thwarted because they were forced to alter what they were doing. That driver forced you to lift your foot two inches. "What a moron. What an idiot." You feel an explosion of fury inside. It gets very hot. You might even begin to perspire. You grip the wheel harder. Now you've arrived at the decisive moment: you can let the emotion die out, or you can fan the flames with thoughts of indignation and retaliation. Aggressive drivers do not let the momentary emotional flare die down.

I discovered that many drivers I've worked with haven't learned the emotional skills they need to handle such routine emergency situations. The violation of their sense of personal freedom instantly arouses negative emotions that escalate in sequence from frustration to hostility to hatred. The fact is that aggressive driving is a cultural norm because our culture condones the expression of hostility whenever we feel wronged.

The Need to Recognize and Accommodate to the Diversity of Drivers

A symptom of road rage everywhere is the unforgivingly narrow latitude drivers cut each other for making mistakes. Emotionally intelligent thinking empowers drivers with an inner power tool we call the 'attitude of latitude.' It allows people to think more objectively and realistically about drivers' inevitable mistakes and bad moves. It empowers them to think of alternative explanations for motorists' mistakes--not being stupid or careless or incompetent--but being momentarily overwhelmed, scared, confused, or unprepared. And it enables them to deal cautiously with selfish drivers who intentionally do "stupid" things.

The fact is that most drivers will appear incompetent under certain circumstances. When motorists are unfamiliar with the road environment they inevitably will experience some information overload and disorientation, resulting in slower reaction times and less efficient lane changes and turns. Other drivers have to cut these people more slack.

The American Association for Retired People (AARP), has a national program of driver re-training for older motorists (55 Alive). I was told that tailgating is the chief problem they're experiencing from aggressive drivers. I have gathered data from electronic discussion groups for drivers on the Internet from around the country. Their chief complaint, which arouses fury both on the road and in the discussion, is slow drivers in the passing lane. So, we have a situation where older drivers are terrified by tailgaters who rage against them for not getting out of the way.

Some drivers might be experiencing temporary physical difficulties, like a sprained back which reduces their range of motion when looking over the shoulder. Other drivers may have kids in the car who behave unpredictably, vying for the attention of the driver. Older drivers with valid licenses do have slower reaction times, and they have a right to use the roads, and to expect a safe environment. Finally, daily physical and emotional stress can itself reduce the alertness of drivers.

There is a greater diversity of road users now than at any time in history, therefore the streets are not reserved for the optimum, skilled driver, but accommodate a variety of driver groups with varying skill, acuity, and emotional control. Raging and venting their indignation against these "idiot drivers" or "bad drivers" only leads to stress, confrontation, and worse. These drivers need help and motivation for developing emotionally more intelligent thinking.

Thinking of alternative explanations for a driver's mistake is more realistic, more intelligent, less stereotyped and hung up on subjective attributions and undemocratic solutions ("Get them off the road.") An attitude of latitude as a driver is of great benefit because it counteracts one's tendency towards hostile judgments and righteous indignation--sure symptoms of road rage. People's driving philosophy can include the idea that making mistakes is routine in driving, and for most drivers, a mistake doesn't mean inherent incompetence.

The psychology of making mistakes, known among professionals as error analysis, reveals that to err is both common and human (at the rate of 4-10% on the average for any human activity). It's extremely unlikely that complex activities such as driving could be error-free. Of course, errors are scary, especially in driving. Feeling like you just barely escaped a collision due to some motorist's "mistake," there's an almost irresistible urge to explode in a desire to retaliate. Yet this anger is of such a brief duration that it can die down quickly as we realize that we're safe, this time. It's venting the anger that rekindles it, the feeling that we have the right and duty to retaliate and punish, since we've been wronged by selfish and inconsiderate conduct. This is road rage against mistakes. It's an emotional liability.

Defensive Driving is Part of the Problem

Many people believe in the trigger-theory of anger which sees road ragers as maladjusted individuals who need therapy to help them manage their intense anti-social emotions. For this reason, anger management therapies and stress control programs have been around for decades for those who can afford psychotherapy. However, in my view applying this psychotherapeutic approach to drivers in general will have limited success because road rage is a generic, cultural problem and not an individual mental problem. In my view, the problem is not so much the presence of anger itself, but uninhibited aggressiveness. Our cultural norms permit the expression of hostility among drivers. This became clear to me when I analyzed the self-witnessing reports of many drivers. They felt justified in their road rage. They were proud of their aggressiveness. There was no consciousness of unfairness or wrong doing.

The fuel that drives aggressiveness on the road is the false assumption that it's the action of the other driver that makes us hostile, that triggers our aggressive response. But the offending act does not automatically trigger the aggressive response, it merely creates an opportunity for an attack in order to express righteous indignation. If other drivers were the trigger, you'd have no choice but to be aggressive every time something goes wrong. Yet this isn't what happens according to the drivers we worked with. They only retaliate sometimes when they feel insulted, not every time. Some drivers never retaliate overtly, though they want to.

Everyone can list their driving pet peeves on the road. These are the behaviors of other drivers that "get us going" or "push our hot buttons." We all uphold certain rules of the road that we expect others to follow. Driving pet peeves are those "official occasions" when we give ourselves permission to rage because someone has broken "an important rule." Drivers may already be in a stressful state of mind when they get behind the wheel. Faced with a combination of congested traffic and hostile motorists, drivers slip into a habitual road rage mentality.

Surprisingly, the defensive driving philosophy advocated by safety officials and taught in driving schools, may contribute to aggressive driving instead of helping the problem. The reason is that defensive driving does not teach a cooperative and supportive philosophy. It simply says, expect the worst from everyone and avoid trouble. Aggressive drivers who rage against other drivers often see themselves as defensive drivers, but in reality, they have become offensive drivers.

The Components of Aggressive Driving

Here is one of the test-yourself inventories I use for drivers who volunteer to try to change their driving style. By reading the items and how they are organized and scored, you can identify the specific elements that constitute aggressive driving. The following 20 items are arranged along a continuum of escalating degrees of hostility experienced by drivers, beginning with relatively milder forms of aggressiveness (step 1) and going all the way to ultimate violence (step 20). How far down the uncivilized road do you sometimes allow yourself to go behind the wheel? The majority of drivers we tested go as far as step 13. How about you?

1. Mentally condemning other drivers.
2. Verbally denigrating other drivers to a passenger in your vehicle.
3. Closing ranks to deny someone entering your lane because you're frustrated or upset.
4. Giving another driver the "stink eye" to show your disapproval.
5. Speeding past another car or revving the engine as a sign of protest.
6. Preventing another driver from passing because you're mad.
7. Tailgating to pressure a driver to go faster or get out of the way.
8. Fantasizing physical violence against another driver.
9. Honking or yelling at someone through the window to indicate displeasure.
10. Making a visible obscene gesture at another driver.
11. Using your car to retaliate by making sudden, threatening maneuvers.
12. Pursuing another car in chase because of a provocation or insult.
13. Getting out of the car and engaging in a verbal dispute, on a street or parking lot.
14. Carrying a weapon in the car in case you decide to use it in a driving incident.
15. Deliberately bumping or ramming another car in anger.
16. Trying to run another car off the road to punish the driver.
17. Getting out of the car and beating or battering someone as a result of a road exchange.
18. Trying to run someone down whose actions angered you.
19. Shooting at another car.
20. Killing someone.

I divide the range into five zones of aggressiveness:

  • The Unfriendly Zone: Items 1 to 3--mental and verbal acts of unkindness towards other drivers.
  • The Hostile Zone: Items 4 to 7--visibly communicating one's displeasure or resentment, with the desire to punish.
  • The Violent Zone: Items 8 to 11--carrying out an act of hostility, either in fantasy or deed.
  • The Lesser Mayhem Zone: Items 12 to 16--epic road rage contained within one's personal limits.
  • The Major Mayhem Zone: Items 17 to 20--uncontained epic road rage, the stuff of newspaper stories. Would you like to take another Self-Evaluation of aggressive driving tendencies?

Three Methods for Dealing with Aggressive Drivers
Because aggressive driving is a cultural trait, we need to apply social cultural techniques to alter the negative cultural norm of hostility and competition on highways. Only a cultural approach will have the power and authority to convince millions of drivers to change their style and philosophy. For years I have supervised drivers in their driving personality makeover projects and have discovered that the group context is a powerful method for social change.

In the group, drivers are exposed to more positive role-models and can identify with them as a motivation for changing their value system. It is important to have a variety or diversity of role models so people can chose those that are appropriate to them and harmonious with their reputation and character. A particularly useful approach is the generational group culture in which all members contribute their self-witnessing reports to the group and are used by new members as models.

(1) QDCs or Quality Driving Circles

Small groups of drivers meet together regularly, and discuss their driving situation, influencing and learning from each other. All participants are encouraged to contribute their self-witnessing reports and tapes for common use and discussion. A generational library of self-witnessing reports thus accumulates and forms the basis for change. The self-witnessing reports are prepared by members according to models and instructions. They include

  • thoughts and feelings behind the wheel
  • driving personality makeover projects using behavioral techniques of self-modification
  • checklists, tests, and inventories to help keep track of changes and patterns in one's driving

Each QDC would have access to the traffic data from the self-witnessing reports produced by other QDCs as well--a sort of community grass roots organization.

QDCs may also be a good vehicle for the Courts who are always looking for driver re-education programs more effective than watching driving safety movies, or doing unrelated community work. The dynamic power of groups to influence individual behavior is well known to social scientists. We should be using this power for re-educating aggressive and emotionally impaired drivers.

QDCs are principally cultural motivators for a value change. QDCs are re-education delivery mechanisms for changing aggressive driving into supportive driving. But they also are the best source of continuous data for tracking the level and intensity of aggressive driving. Trained volunteers tape record themselves in traffic and later analyze the data, using approved checklists for the presence or absence of certain emotions, and their intensity. These data would be a measure of the level of aggressiveness or stress that drivers regularly experience on that stretch of road, and the nature of these emotions and thoughts, so they may be dealt with on a public basis. These data would be anonymous and published on a regular basis.

Stationary witnesses are designated and trained volunteers who stand at certain spots and record incidences they observe, keeping track with an approved checklist form. Moving witnesses are drivers who are trained through Quality Driving Circles, or some other method, to use a tape recorder to record their observations of aggressive driving behaviors of other drivers. It's not intended to identify particular drivers, but to identify and log observable aggressive driving behaviors that occur in that region. By way of control, we first need to establish whether or not aggressiveness has increased in a particular area, relative to itself, and how it compares in average and range to other locales, nearby or nationally. These data can be used to plan treatment procedures, to guide agencies, and to reward locales that show improvements or levels above certain set standards.

Fortunately, there is always a small percentage of drivers who do not fit the norm. They constitute the role-model definition of what smart driving is like. For instance, while the usual aggressive driver is dangerous, anti-social, and intolerant, the smart driver is rational, predictable, considerate, and accepting of diversity among drivers. The smart driver is a supportive driver. Smart drivers have acquired emotionally intelligent skills that allow them to accommodate rather than oppose the diversity of drivers. My research has allowed me to identify many of the traits that smart drivers teach themselves. Some examples:

  • Using positive self-regulatory sentences.
  • Acquiring a supportive driving philosophy.
  • Acting as-if positive when you feel negative.
  • Adopting cooperative role models and symbols for cars and driving.
  • Practicing self-witnessing for objective self-awareness.
  • Regularly considering the effect of one's driving on others.
  • Come out swinging positive when getting into trouble with others.
  • Shrinking emotional territory.
  • Learning to satisfy the sense of personal freedom through smart driving.

I believe it is possible and necessary to actively teach emotionally intelligent driving skills to the current population of 180 million drivers, and to our children who form the next generation of drivers. External methods of dealing with aggressive driving, such as road improvement, automobile safety engineering, safety regulations, law enforcement, informational campaigns, traditional driver's ed. and defensive driving courses are all helpful. But in my view they cannot work without an internal solution--if we expect dramatic improvements in the culture of hostility on the road, we need a profound change of social attitude toward conventional driving psychology. We've seen drastic and rapid changes in public attitudes to unbelted driving, to speeding, to drunk driving. We've seen extraordinary pressure applied to the culture of smoking. There's no reason why similar pressure cannot be brought to bear on the disease of road rage. (See QDC article here)

(2) New Driver's Ed

It is a well known that the traditional driver's ed. has remained inadequate as the means for teaching full competence and knowledge of safety, and only satisfies the bare minimum for getting driver's licenses into the hands of millions of young people. Even less attention is given to teaching emotional intelligence skills. The result is that most drivers are ill-prepared to manage their intense emotions behind the wheel. In my opinion, the New Driver's Ed should be taught K-12 for Emotional Intelligence Skills on the road:

As pedestrians, how to behave towards drivers

  • How to behave as passengers (see details on this TEE card)
  • How to deal with hostility expressed by drivers (see details on this TEE card)
  • How to deal with peer pressure in highway situations
  • How to develop and sustain a positive driving philosophy (see details on this TEE card)
  • How to be acceptant of diversity and how to accommodate to it
  • How to practice self-witnessing behind the wheel
  • How to participate in Quality Driving Circles
  • How to use inner power techniques to manage emotions in traffic (see details on this TEE card)

(See new proposal here)

(3) CARR--Children Against Road Rage

Since aggressive driving is a culturally transmitted and sanctioned habit, we need to start with children to avoid breeding another generation of aggressive and violent drivers and pedestrians. I have evidence that children also have road rage against drivers and can behave very aggressively as pedestrians. Later they get a driver's license and drive aggressively.

CARR is a newly proposed organization patterned after MADD and SADD--Mothers/ Students Against Drunk Driving. Its purpose is to form local organizations of children, supervised by adults, in which they learn to develop emotionally intelligent road behaviors as pedestrians, cyclists, vehicle passengers, and later, as student drivers. CARR joins the many child advocacy groups that attempt to protect children from violence and abuse at home, in school, or on the streets.

CARR will be the first such organization specifically to protect children from road rage and aggressive driving. Since these are culturally inherited and generationally transmitted patterns of violence, only a generational approach can reverse the process. As passengers for many years, children witness the road rage thinking and hostile behavior of drivers. They are vulnerable to absorbing this type of violence and so they need a socially organized mechanism for learning how to stay clear of it with a positive counter-philosophy.


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