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Interview with Leon James

 NPR affiliate KPCC Radio Pasadena, CA  June 10, 1997

What is the definition of emotional intelligence for drivers?

Anger is a natural response that occurs everywhere--at home, in the workplace, on streets, in cars. We grow up in a car society where we watch our parents drive with road rage. We also see it in movies, car commercials, and car talk. So losing your cool and expressing hostility in traffic has become a universal sport--the sport of road rage.

People insist that they have the right to be outraged at bad drivers, drivers who are inconsiderate and incompetent. People argue that if a driver is really rude, they have permission to retaliate. This is road rage reasoning.

Road rage reasoning is a rigidified way of thinking that gives you no leeway for mistakes and other extenuating factors. All human activity can be realistically expected to have an average error rate of between 4 to 10 percent, according to safety and injury experts. Driving is a very complex activity so there are many opportunities in a single ride to make mistakes. For example, when drivers are on an unfamiliar road, they instinctively slow down to give themselves time to take in the signs, the layout. They suddenly act like they have information overload, and by slowing down they can process more information to make the right decisions.

What is the alternative to road rage thinking?

So that's one possible reason why a driver is slow or looks incompetent or inattentive. Another reason might be that the driver is not well, experiencing pain, cramps, heart palpitations, gas, acid reflux, headache, stiffness in the neck, and so on. These are normal things drivers can be expected to go through in their life as drivers. Road rage thinking is not capable of seeing these alternatives as legitimate. "They shouldn't be driving then, and if they do, they're stupid for putting everybody at risk. Hence they're guilty, therefore they deserve my rage."

This road rage mentality is unrealistic and unjust. It's not the way people think a democracy should run. There are 177 million licensed drivers in the U.S. People depend on their driving for many things and it's not realistic or fair to exclude them as soon as they don't perform according to a rigid standard. Instead, we all need to accept the inevitable reality that people make mistakes, therefore drivers make mistake. Error analysis experts have concluded that between 4 to 10 per cent of the time, an error occurs. So it is with drivers.

Road rage thinking does not allow emotionally intelligent responses to a driver's mistakes or signs of incompetent behavior. It wants to find fault and condemn, then retaliate and punish. Expressing indignation, resentment, or ridicule are forms of retaliation and punishment. People vary in style. A small per cent becomes violent but most drivers express their hostility by gesture, words, and threatening moves like tailgating, cutting off, or revving the engine. All these hostile acts have one purpose: to punish the wrong doer.

What is the antidote to road rage?

Raging against rude and inconsiderate drivers and punishing them has become a general obsession everywhere. So now we need an antidote to this obsession, some inner power tool that will allow drivers to restore their emotional intelligence behind the wheel. One example: developing an attitude of latitude, which means developing a sense of tolerance and realism for what other drivers do. Yes, drivers can be inconsiderate, and often are. Yes, drivers can be rude, and many are. Yes, drivers make mistakes, most do at some point. Yes, drivers are unprepared and act incompetent on many occasions. These are the facts of driving. We have the choice of accepting these facts, or of raging against them.

Accepting the reality of how drivers really are, requires a change in one's driving philosophy. Being able to handle rude, inconsiderate, and sick drivers requires a driving personality makeover like Dr. Driving's Three-Step Program.

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