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Interview with Leon James

South County Journal in King County south of Seattle Mike Archbold  August 2000

Road Rage at Road Construction Sites

I'm doing a story on a major road closure that began Monday that has motorists abusing flaggers on each end of the closure, from verbal abuse to spinning wheels to throw gravel at them. I wonder if you might have a comment or two on why people behave so poorly. Obviously  they are inconvenienced but the flagger didn't close the road. Is this just human nature? Road closures tick people off and should cities design projects to minimize disruption? The city did  a lot of work with fliers and signs telling people of the closure but they didn't seem to help.

A road closure, or other street construction work, creates an immediate new challenge for the majority of drivers who have adjusted to traveling through that route and are counting on it as part of their schedule. When the blockage begins there is an immediate and overwhelming emotional demand placed on the drivers who have come to rely on that route.

Many drivers possess the personality resources that they can put into play, ways they have learned in the past to manage themselves when emotionally challenged. They act rationally, taking steps to cope, like finding about alternate routes, making changes in their normal schedule, giving themselves more time, re-adjusting their expectations about how long it takes to get there, and being prepared with doing what they consider productive activities in the car, whether it's listening to some recording or preparing for the next appointment, or talking on the car phone. These skilled or excellent drivers are in the minority.

The majority of drivers are unprepared to handle it emotionally when the gridlock hits them. What they do then as an unexamined habit is to perform a series of mistakes that chain themselves together to produce in them the symptoms and ravages of rage.

Unprepared to handle the slowdown, sitting there fuming and venting and complaining, and creating huge stress on themselves. The traffic is not their worst enemy, because they injure themselves emotionally and physiologically, creating massive amounts of stress and unhappiness. As they perform these automatic mental habits acquired in childhood, they also take risks and act aggressively as an ineffective attempt to escape the emotional pressure they put themselves under. They act impulsively to escape the panic of getting stuck, and in that action they take risks, make mistakes, and add tremendously to the emotional difficulty of the other drivers around them who are forced to meet their irrational level of risk.

Under the emotional panic, many drivers who have not prepared themselves--the majority of drivers--will also express hostility and act aggressively and forcefully and regrettably. Other drivers are scared or injured, pedestrians are put at risk, passengers suffer, the highway becomes a war zone, as we document and describe in our new book ROAD RAGE AND AGGRESSIVE DRIVING:  STEERING CLEAR OF HIGHWAY WARFARE by Leon James and Diane Nahl (see our Web site at: http://DrDriving.org).

Here is what we recommend: TO THE DRIVERS WHO ARE AFFECTED

1) Leave earlier and expect to arrive later. Most drivers will discover this way that the traffic doesn't have to be stressful. In fact, many can learn to love it and appreciate it as quality time alone during which they can relax with their thoughts.

2) Before you start your engine take one minute to relax, to calm yourself, to prepare for what to do when you feel emotional panic rising within, and you're frantically acting out to escape or seek relief from it. At that point say STOP IT! Breathe slowly. Make funny noises. Sing. But don't give in. Don't vent. Remain in control of yourself and of the vehicle. This way you retain control of the situation and you arrive alive and unbothered vs. bothered and possibly injured. Give yourself a reward each time you gain victory over your emotional self.

3) Use this opportunity to take a good look at yourself as a driver. Most drivers are unknown to themselves, ignoring their own mistakes while noticing the mistakes of others and being very judgmental about it. Get to know yourself by keeping records for each trip. You can do a recording while you think aloud behind the wheel and give a running commentary of what's in your mind. Listening to the tape later on becomes both informative and therapeutic. Or else you can stay in your car for a couple of minutes and write a few notes about the trip, like how you felt or reacted and how strongly. Later you can read your notes and ask Why? Why do I have to feel this way?

We need to remind ourselves that we started our driver education as infants and children riding in our parents' cars, or with other adults. Add also a good dose of TV scenes in which drivers are behaving badly, laughing at it, making it look like fun and getting away with it. By the time we start driving, we've had years of exposure and learning to the hostile environment on the road. It becomes natural to be a road warrior or a rushing maniac. The majority of drivers make frequent mistakes and choose to violate the law on a routine, daily basis.

The federal government and transportation professionals have declared that congestion due to construction and more demand will increase significantly in the next 10 years and beyond. Drivers cannot escape this emotional challenge by complaining or taking it out on each other or construction workers. The only solution they have is a driving personality makeover, that is, learning how to get rid of some old anti-social habits and learning how to substitute new ones.

For more details, please visit the Web site: http://DrDriving.org

Aloha!

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