Interview with Steve Roisum
for NDSU Extension/KDSU 91.9 FM, in North Dakota
August 27, 1997.

1) Dr. James, Please give us a definition of road rage. Define the problem.

RR is the habit of driving aggressively and varies along a continuum. If you want to know where on the continuum you are, look for these five symptoms:

a) You have thoughts of violence against other drivers or road users

b) You normally drive like you're in a hurry because you can't stand how slow traffic is, so you engage in risky and aggressive driving:

* tailgating

* lane hopping

* racing to beat the light

* aggressively pushing your way through small openings in traffic

* changing your mind unpredictably

* not planning ahead

c) You're constantly criticizing and condemning other drivers in your mind, feeling hostile towards them, feeling they're impeding your progress

d) You choose not to observe safety rules you don't agree with (e.g., signaling every lane change; making full stops; not following too close; not driving at speed limit, etc.)

e) You accept yourself as a discourteous, opportunistic, self-centered driver, feeling competent and comfortable with the way you are, resisting the idea that you need to change philosophy, getting angry when someone suggests that to you.

Any of these symptoms are signs that indicate that you have Road Rage. Obviously, most drivers by this definition, have RR. Few drivers escape this cultural habit.

2) Are we seeing more road rage cases now as compared to a decade, or two decades ago?

According to the little research available, the answer is Yes. However, it will take several more years to prove that aggressive driving habits causes crashes. We know that aggressive driving or RR causes stress and fear. Surveys have shown that all over the country and the world. But does aggressive driving cause more crashes? Common sense says yes, and so do the safety and insurance experts.

3)Why the increase?

Because of two factors, one physical, the other psychological. Physically, the space between cars has reduced. The number of driving miles has increased faster than the miles of road available. Therefore there are more cars for the same amount of roadway, which means less space between cars.

Congestion by itself need not be the cause of aggressive driving or road rage. Some people point to the "sink hole" phenomenon showing that if you increase the number of rats in a given space, they start fighting and killing one another. Plenty of movies like that with humans too. But this is just a fantasy. We are not rats or uncivilized barbarians. Our constitution proves it, and people's respect for that constitution proves it. So overcrowding of highways, streets, parking lots, and commutes generally are not directly to be blamed for an increase in aggressive driving. A second factor must be present.

This factor is the cultural factor. The fact is that our culture has made aggressive driving into a norm, something we can tolerate and engage in freely, even be proud of. By the time adolescents obtain their driver's license, they have been exposed to years of aggressive driving as children in their parents' car and as consumers of car commercials and movies that depict aggressive driving as a norm. As a social psychologist, I think this is a serious issue.

4) Give us an idea of the magnitude of the problem.

I've worked with several hundred drivers and in my experience 90% of them experience RR somewhere along the continuum, some less than others. I've also analyzed what drivers around the country, and around the world, write in Newsgroups on the Internet. I see the same symptoms everywhere.

5) Do you have a couple examples to toss out, to give this problem a human face?

There are two types of RR incidents: a very small minority called the tip of the iceberg, which get into the newspapers, usually because the police were called and some violence or death occurred. For instance, there was a recent case on Court TV with a Cincinnati woman driver who jostled with another driver for position on an on-ramp. Witnesses observed her tailgate this other woman driver, then get ahead of her and give her a so-called "brake job" -- meaning, getting in front of her and suddenly braking. The woman behind her lost control, hit a parked car on the shoulder, and her car overturned. The woman was pregnant and she miscarried. The aggressive woman driver was then charged with vehicular homicide, the first time that this charge was brought because of a miscarriage. The aggressive woman driver did not stop and her boss testified that when she got to work she told about the incident and bragged that no one can treat her this way and get away with it.. Later I found out that the woman received a sentence of 18 months.

There are many such cases every year, about 1200 around the country, according to one AAA Foundation study. But the other types of aggressive driving which never get reported go on everywhere every day.

6) Are there certain personality traits which appear frequently among "road ragers"?

Yes. They are:

* intolerance of diversity
* disrespect for other drivers and safety officials
* self-righteous indignation for being wronged
* lack of emotional intelligence
* feeling territorial and competitive
* making aggressive behavior allowable

7) You say road rage is a culturally acquired habit. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Children watch their parents and other adults use bad language and show hostility behind the wheel. We all see car commercials and movies in which aggressive driving is portrayed and even made to look attractive. My students are now collecting data on what kind of bad driving behaviors are portrayed in car commercials and other shows, including cartoons for children. Try observing these bad driving behaviors next time you watch TV. It's amazing what you can see. I'm hoping that in the future, we can have ratings for movies for DBB, or Drivers Behaving Badly. I think we need to protect our children from acquiring RR. We call the backseat of the car road rage nursery.

8) ...and you also say defensive driving is part of the problem. Why?

Yes. Defensive driving was going to be the new philosophy that would make us safe. We were told: Be on your guard constantly. Don't trust anyone. Expect the worst from other drivers. Don't communicate. Mind your own business. And so on. This kind of advice does help under some conditions. But notice that defensive driving as a philosophy is basically hostile and self-centered. It does not encourage to you to focus on other drivers as people who have certain needs and with whom you need to form a bond of cooperation. This type of driving philosophy I call supportive driving. I believe it's the direction we need to go. Not self-centered and isolated -- but focused on supporting others.

This type of supportive driving philosophy is what we in Hawaii call Aloha spirit driving. So what we need is to humanize the driving environment. This means seeing driving as a community activity. Seeing traffic as a community impediment. As drivers we need to identify with the overall flow, not just with our own progress alone. We need to develop a taste for being positive and helping the flow and progress of the other drivers around you.

9) What do you recommend we do when another driver is picking on us or drives in a way that puts our safety at risk?

When you feel being picked on by another driver you have a true moment of freedom: I feel picked on, how shall I react? If you don't ask yourself this question, you lose the moment of freedom. As soon as you feel being picked on, the tendency is to go on to all sorts of negative conclusions:

* That driver is picking on me -- how unfair!
* What's with that person? Had a bad night?
* What a jerk. What a moron. What an idiot.
* I can't let that driver get away with such bad behavior.
* etc.

Once you get involved in these self-justifications, you no longer have the moment of freedom. You feel yourself pulled in by a powerful emotional force. In effect, you lose control over yourself, and over the situation. At this point all sorts of unpredictable events can occur that can change your life and destiny in one instant of rage. So the key is Carpe Diem -- seize the moment of freedom and turn it around.

10) When I meet stupid drivers, I feel pretty angry...in fact, very angry. Since retaliating is not a good idea, what do I do with those feelings?

The moment you feel yourself get angry, that moment is your moment of freedom. You have a free choice: to vent the anger, or to diffuse it. Here are examples of venting:

* That fool cut me off on purpose. There is no excuse.

* That driver is a passive-aggressive jerk, blocking the passing lane. Gotta teach them a lesson so they know they're doing something wrong.

* The idiot behind me is riding my tale. I'll brake in his face to teach him a lesson.

* What a jerk. He flipped the bird at me. I'm gonna get him for this.

These are fighting words in your mind that vent your anger, removing any free choice you may have, and blindly and dangerously giving in to your aggressive emotions.

Now the other choice is to diffuse the anger. The key to this is to shrink your emotional territory and think of alternative explanations for why someone behaves in a certain way. For instance, if some driver yells at you and looks meanly at you, try thinking of reasons why this driver did that: perhaps he lost his temper, perhaps he has a history of problems with being aggressive, or maybe he is sick or in pain and that's what made him act this way.

In other words, you find ways of excusing the person's behavior and not taking it personally.

11) You've developed a 3-step program to help drivers overcome their negative feelings while driving. Can you share that with us?

The three steps can be remembered if you think of the letters AWM. A is for Acknowledging. The first step in any personality change is to recognize that you need a change. Most drivers claim they're good, competent, and safe. This shows that they're in denial. So the first step is Acknowledging that you are an aggressive driver and that this is not a good thing. The second step, W, stands for Witnessing. This refers to self-witnessing or self-awareness of how you drive. I advise my students to carry a tape recorder in the car and to speak their thoughts out loud in traffic, then listen to it later. This is a shocking experience, revealing to yourself the real dimensions of your road rage. Finally, the third step is M, which stands for Modifying. We need to use systematic methods of self-modification, one step at a time. In our book Road Rage and Aggressive Driving , we give various techniques for helping drivers change their habits and attitudes.

12) You've been researching driving behavior for 20 years now. What are some of the more interesting observations, and discoveries, you've made?

My first big discovery started when my wife said to me one day, "Leon, Grandmother thinks you're not a very good driver." She explained that I was taking my turns too fast and Grandmother who was sitting in the back, felt thrown against the door, and it scared her. Instead of feeling sympathy for my passengers, I felt anger and contempt. Then my wife confessed that she too felt scared the way I drove, but that she had been afraid to tell me about because of what my reaction would be.

Well, it took my wife several years before she finally was able as a passenger to tell me how she feels and how she wanted me to drive. So my big discovery came when I tried to change my driving style, that it was so resistant to change. Over and over again I tried but failed to change. So that was my first discovery: this will take more than resolutions and willpower. So I started working on developing "inner power tools" or techniques for driving personality makeovers.

My second big discovery came when I had the idea of carrying a tape recorder in the car and just speaking my thoughts out loud. I called this the "self-witnessing" method. By listening and analyzing the tapes I made, and the tapes made by hundreds of students, I was able to develop a taxonomy of driving behaviors, which is an inventory of specific behaviors drivers do. This work is still going on.

13) Any other topics to talk about?

In my Congressional Testimony to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Transportation, I proposed three specific methods for fighting the spread of road rage and aggressive driving.

First, establishing a grassroots voluntary activity throughout the country called Quality Driving Circles or QDCs. These are small groups of people meeting regularly together to discuss their driving problems and to help one another do driving personality makeovers. This will gradually reduce the road rage continuum to its lower end, eventually bringing about a change in driving norms, so that supportive driving instead of aggressive driving, becomes the thing to do.

Second, start the New Driver's Ed program in Kindergarten and keep it up in every grade until the license is obtained. This New Driver's Ed will teach the symptoms and causes of RR. It will teach human rights on the road and a spirit of cooperation rather than competition.

Third, establishing a children's organization called CARR -- Children Against Road Rage patterned after SADD -- Students Against Drunk Driving. I invite your listeners to go read my proposals which are available on the Web where I'm known as DrDriving.

14) Any final thoughts, or advice?

One of the nice tricks I recommend to diffuse anger when it strikes, is to make funny animal noises. I like to roar like a bear. Others prefer to meow, mooing like a cow, or being a chicken. It's is lot of fun. After about 10 seconds of this, the anger is completely gone. It's a way of regaining control when you lose it. Try it!


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