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Interview with Leon James and Diane Nahl:

San Francisco Examiner Judy DeMocker  December 2000

I'm interested in covering, at least cursorily, the psychological underpinnings of Road Rage, to better understand what makes it so difficult for drivers to share the roads with bicyclists, skaters, and pedestrians.

First, as founders of the new field of driving psychology we have studied for several years the thoughts and feelings of drivers in traffic. Our conclusion is that we are all rigged for road rage from childhood onward and most motorists drive around every day in an emotionally impaired state. We detail this argument in our new book: Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000) ISBN 1-57392-846-1

Every generation of drivers passes on the aggressive driving mentality to the children riding with the adults and picking up their mentality and hostility. As we begin our driving careers behind the wheel at age 16, all of that road rage comes out of us and we hardly know why we feel so strongly about those little incidents that torment us in traffic. Our violent thoughts and feelings frighten us. How far might we go some day?

Ordinary people shooting other ordinary people in road rage duels that starts with an offensive gesture, word, or car maneuver. In our book we show people how to carry out a successful driving personality makeover. It takes commitment and a lifelong involvement in becoming a supportive driver (the opposite of an aggressive driver).

We define aggressive driving as forcing on others one's preferred level of risk while driving. For example, switching lanes without signaling or failing to yield properly are aggressive because these acts raise the level of risk or danger on the road for everyone. This is a hostile act.

The holiday seasons may have an effect on road rage because it creates additional stress for motorists who aren't prepared for it. It's like congestion and construction--it makes gridlock worse forcing people to cope on their own level. You can expect more parking lot rage as well, even line rage (and of course air rage).

People don't know what is the opposite of aggressive driving. It's not passive driving. It's supportive driving. Aggressive driving (even defensive driving) is competitive and territorial, setting drivers apart from each other, competing, fighting. But supportive driving is to facilitate, not compete. It's a different way of defining driving and traffic. Instead of individual performance issues like who gets ahead or who gets there first or how long can you coast without putting on the brakes or how many cars can you keep out of your lane, etc., supportive drivers use the teamwork model.

To accommodate to them means to drive with emotional intelligence, which means, not to put them down because of how they drive, even if they make foolish mistakes. But instead, to assist them, creating a community on the highway, instead of warfare.

Our book gives exercises parents can do with their children in the car to prevent them from becoming the next generation of road ragers. Also we present the Threestep Program for Lifelong Driver Self-Improvement. Our book also traces the history of road rage, what the government is doing with the new aggressive driving laws, and the challenges of driving in the future as cars become moving communication platforms (mobile office, car phone, Internet, media center, dashboard dining, etc.).

So any theories on why bicyclists get targeted for hostile or aggressive behavior more than, say, pedestrians do? As a cyclist, I've been honked at, cut off, threatened verbally and physically, with apparently no regard to the fact that I'm *human* or that I have equal rights and protection under the law to share the roads. At least the public recognizes that pedestrians are blameless--there's no excuse for hitting one. It's a subtly different story for a bicyclist, especially if you're talking to SF cops.

Regarding motorists vs. bicyclists. We discuss this opposition in our book. What's amazing is that this opposition is purely role bound rather than person bound since the majority of cyclists who are victims of drivers' aggressiveness are themselves regular drivers when they drive, that is, pretty hostile and aggressive against cyclists. We have no statistics on this unfortunately, but you can take it as our prediction if such data were available.

There is here a role conflict between how we act and feel when driving a car and how we act and feel when riding a bicycle.

Our analysis of the behavior of drivers and bicycle riders shows that (a) they are the same people (at different times), and (b) they are naturally aggressive in both roles. What, you say, aggressive bicyclists? Yes, we say, if you define aggressive in the sense that we think it's important, which is that being aggressive on public roads is to impose on others your own level of preferred risk or danger. For instance, the driver who side swipes a bicyclist is being aggressive by deliberately exposing the cyclist to additional danger and annoyance. Similarly, that same aggressive driver a few hours later will ride the bike and act aggressively against drivers. How? Just observe them and you'll see. They don't act as if they're aware of the driver's needs, perhaps impatience and emotional disturbance. Some do, but many don't. Some do sometimes, but not at other times. Etc.

All of this goes back to childhood, as we said, both for how culture teaches us to drive or to ride a bicycle. The warfare going on between motorists and cyclists is set up for us by society. For example there are citizen groups that oppose each other across driver-cyclist role conflicts (like your famous Critical Mass movement that spread across the world--see our site for bicycling issues.

For motorists, what happens in them that they cannot recognize their bad behavior or the consequences of it? Clearly some cognitive functions are being suspended, and for quite some time. Apparently the driver of the semi truck was entirely unremorseful that he ran Chris over and killed him, and was still challenging people to a fight.

This is a process we call "cognitive dissonance" in our field of social psychology. In order to defend and protect his own self-esteem, the perpetrator has to inhibit feelings of remorse and instead, reinforces the self-serving explanations about how he is not to blame for what happened. So denying guilt or remorse for these horrendous actions are ways our culture teaches us to protect ourselves from excessive guilt and anxiety. But we must point out that our culture also teaches us the opposite, namely that we should feel remorse and guilt and that we should repent and apologize and try to make restitutions, and above all, try to prevent it from happening again.

And in this respect our book is a kind of a call to consciousness for our society, just as it happened to us as a couple, being recovered road ragers ourselves (though in different ways for Leon and Diane--see our book). And so it's important for all of us 177 million licensed US drivers to monitor our thoughts and emotions behind the wheel, or as bicycle riders, and as pedestrians and passengers. We are the same people who use the public roads, alternating roles.

One way to go as a society is to keep increasing and strengthening the warfare, politically and physically, meanwhile pretending that we are not the same people (our book also deals with traffic calming, and how it sets up warfare situations--literally, with pedestrians barricading the streets!). But another way is to heed the wake up call and let's all start self-witnessing ourselves as road users--What our thoughts and emotions are , and do we approve, or should we start reconditioning ourselves and become supportive drivers, supportive bicyclists, supportive pedestrians?

It's not easy, but it can be done, and by doing it we strengthen community and society, and mutually make our lives better. Our book goes into the exercises we can all do, day by day, like keeping a Road Diary about what makes us mad or how we think of others, whether cruelly or with compassion, and how we act. For instance, Diane often has to tell Leon, Fix your face! Drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists need to remember that their face is a signboard on which they communicate friendship or hostility. The way we drive is contagious--and also the way we ride a bicycle, or walk across the street, or wait in a bank line. We can act like we ignore people, or we can act like we despise them, or we can act like we respect and like them. We do this with our facial expression, our body movements, our accommodating acts, or else by our facial hostility and oppositional acts (like closing the gap so the car can't enter your lane, or following a bicyclist too close, or approaching pedestrians too fast, or slowing down in the pedestrian lane when walking, ignoring the waiting driver).

And, what are the triggers for this sort of rage? You say it's learned behavior from childhood-- What activates it? And it's hard to believe that it's not redirected rage, or that the source of it is monkey see, monkey do. Is road rage just a socially sanctioned way of dumping repressed emotions?

Yes. When we visited Florida some time ago we witnessed shopping cart rage--people ramming each other when they felt their way was blocked due to inattention or lack of consideration. People sue each other all the time. Neighbors kill each other or do other mischief to each other. Workplace rage has become a huge problem. So it's the age of rage for sure. We think this offers a tremendous opportunity to unite as a community by overcoming these culturally transmitted divisive methods of relating. Each of us must decide whether we want to act with civility or with scowls.

We come rigged for road rage from childhood. We treat the road like a war zone where we practice retaliation, mutual denigration, delighting in another's defeat, and enjoying violent fantasies. Nice people get into their cars and end up harassing, battering, shooting, or killing another.

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