Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist

Road Rage 

This article is one of a series of radio spots prepared by Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D. for 







     The other day, while driving to the District of Columbia, a car behind me started tailgating me.  There was nothing I could do because both lanes were crowded.  It seemed the tailgater and I were stuck with each other. Then, as I approached the corner where I was to turn left, it seemed that nobody wanted to let me in the left lane. And I could see from my rear-view mirror that Ms. Tailgater was making angry faces at me.  I suddenly became furious!  I thought how nice it would be to let the air out of her tires.  I thought a policeman should stop her and throw her into jail for life. 
     Is that road rage? 
     Allstate Insurance Company would say so.  Allstate calls road rage a "new and scary phenomenon".  A couple of psychologists have even claimed to have "discovered" road rage as a new mental disorder.  By the way,  this business of "medicalizing" annoying behavior really bothers me! "Internet addiction" is another so-called new sickness. Phah!  But I digress. 
     The Iowa Department of Transportation even has a website devoted to preventing road rage. 
     Allstate said road rage comes from the stress created by people having more to do in less time. When I read that my dear departed grandmother immediately came to mind.  She had six kids, a full-time factory job, no maids, no frozen dinners and no microwave.  Talk about a lot to do!  She cooked every meal from scratch - and washed clothes in a wash bucket until she got one of those washing machines with 
rollers.  We have more to do?  What's in those people's minds? 
    So, I started some research.  First, what is road rage? Originally, it meant one driver was acting against another. Verbal abuse and hand gestures are the most typical examples.  One psychologist, who testified before congress, stated in his testimony something that I discovered when I was doing my research:  people are asking questions about 
road rage for which scientific data are not available.  That didn't stop him from giving answers. 
          He proposed setting up citizens groups, called "Quality Driving Circles", which would meet regularly.  He also proposed a national organization called "Children Against Road Rage". 
          Having found little information in the professional psychological journals about the matter, I reviewed the popular press.  An employee, who could not be identified, from the National Highway Traffic Safety 
Administration stated that there is no actual data to indicate an increase in road rage or aggressive driving.  As Michael Fumento in an article in the August, 1998 issue of Atlantic Monthly points out, if road rage were an increasing problem, it should show up as an increase in highway 
accidents or fatalities. 
          He pointed out that a survey by the AAA found a 60% increase in aggressive driving during the period when deaths and the incidence of car crashes on American highways actually declined.  In fact, the incidence is the lowest since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began keeping records! 
          It seems that the actual epidemic seems to be the proliferation of the words "Road Rage" .  It does have a nice alliterative sound to it.  No data support the existence of road rage as an epidemic. 
          Okay, so there's no epidemic.  What do you do when you're being tailgated or bothered by competitive, aggressive drivers such that you begin entertaining hostile fantasies?  First of all, I refuse to pass judgment on fantasies!  Think and feel whatever you think and feel.  No 
thought police here.  Just don't get yourself into trouble! 
          Self-control is sometimes easier when you understand your anger.  I've said before that anger is the second emotion in a situation.  The first emotion is a more vulnerable feeling.  The first feelings I experienced when I was being tailgated were helplessness and anxiety.  I also felt belittled.  I quickly covered up those feelings with a fantasy that had the purpose of elevating my status as a person equal or superior to that of the bully-lady.  Anger seems-seems-to enhance your self-esteem.  And since you're in your own car, there is the sense of safety and anonymity that can allow you to express anger when you would be smart enough not to do it face to face. 
          Think about it-Isn't it silly!  I had to prove I'm equal?  To whom?  Her driving was her problem.  My feelings of being demeaned and helpless were the "junk" I brought to the situation.  At most, aggressive drivers should be irritants.  We're not helpless.  We can always find a place to pull over and let the poor, overwrought things pass. 
          Going around in "quality driving circles" about road rage isn't going to solve the problem.personal responsibility will.  Then let the lobbying groups, politicians, opportunistic therapists and publicity-seeking agencies find some other epidemic to conquer. 

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