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The Fast & Very, Very Furious: Why We Get Road Rage and How We Can Stop It

I no longer turn right on red, even though it’s legal in the state of California. Doing so in L.A. requires merging onto busy two-lane highways and going from zero to 40 in a matter seconds, which is too much to ask of my aging Ford Focus. So instead, I wait at red lights, my right blinker innocently flashing over and over again, prompting a cacophony of displeasure behind me — to which I can’t respond due to a feminine car horn.

Instead, I bask in the fury from impatient motorists — primal, bestial screams reminiscent of Braveheart. Last month, in fact, a vente something-or-other landed on my rear windshield as what looked to be a young Steve Buscemi rolled by, explaining how he’d like to make love to my mother without her consent.

All of which is to say, I’ve become a bit of a road rage connoisseur.

But make no mistake: I’m familiar with the other side, too, and take no pride in the deplorable things I’ve barked at strangers who have cut me off. I’d never think of insulting someone’s physicality in real life, but anything goes within the anonymous confines of my car. For example: I once told a bald man he was too ugly to be loved and would die alone.

I wondered, though: Why do we become the worst version of ourselves the moment we’re wronged behind the wheel? Has it always been this way since the days of the Model T? And is there anything we can do to stop it?

And so, I spent the last few days meandering down a grisly road of automotive indignation. Here’s where I landed…

1) Road rage actually predates roads. As the English nobleman Lord Byron wrote to Thomas Moore in 1817: “Last week I had a row with a fellow in a carriage who was impudent to my horse. I gave him a swinging box on the ear, which sent him to the police, who dismissed his complaint.”

2) A century later in 1937, Chevrolet produced a pair of driver safety films starring comedian Edgar Kennedy. After being cut off by a swerving Model T, an agitated Kennedy notes, “This is the kind of a guy that made the automobile people think up hydraulic brakes!”

3) Motor Mania, a 1950 cartoon made by Walt Disney, features Goofy as “Mr. Walker,” a good-natured suburbanite who transforms into a monster — Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-style — the moment he gets behind the wheel.

4) As for the term “road rage,” it originated in the 1980s after a series of violent incidents on L.A. freeways. For instance, Rick Bynum was shot and killed on Father’s Day in 1987 with his three-year-old son in the back seat because he was going 65 mph in the fast lane. Bynum’s girlfriend told him to “slow down and let this jerk go around.” That’s when the tailgater swerved beside them and fired. A month later, four more motorists were dead from road-rage incidents. One man fired at a motorcyclist for writing down his license plate number after an illegal U-turn. Meanwhile, a stuntman on The Dukes of Hazzard was shot while arguing at a traffic light with teens inside a Jeep.

L.A. Times headlines from the era cited “hysteria,” “terror” and “paranoia,” and called the rash of violence an “epidemic,” while local newscasters at KTLA used the term “road rage” to characterize the incidents. “You know something is terribly wrong if people are calling up from other states wondering if it’s safe to travel to Disneyland,” said California Highway Patrol Chief Edward Gomez at the time. “People are simply freaking out. Every time a pebble flies up off the pavement and hits a windshield, someone calls up and reports another freeway shooting. It’s getting ridiculous.”

5) The number of fatal accidents involving enraged drivers has increased tenfold since 2004, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). A separate 2013 study by Christine Wickens of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto found weaving between lanes and cutting people off to be the prime instigators. Victims and perpetrators have been run down, pepper sprayed, stabbed, shot and beaten with a sledge hammer. In Nevada, a man even tracked down a woman involved in a road rage incident and gunned her down at home.

6) Road rage has erupted on the silver screen many times, from Billy Madison to Falling Down to Mr. Bean to Joseph Gordon-Levitt putting his fist through a car window in Don Jon.

7) Are you a road rager? The NHTSA created a 38-question test designed to measure aggressive driving tendencies considered prime indicators of road rage.

8) Eighty percent of drivers admitted to expressing significant anger or road rage in a 2016 AAA survey, and a 2009 report found that aggressive driving/road rage played a role in 56 percent of fatal crashes from 2003 through 2007. Alarmingly, eight million American drivers engaged in “extreme road rage,” which includes purposefully ramming another vehicle or getting out of the car to confront another driver.

9) According to the same study, the U.S. cities with the worst road rage are, in order: L.A., New York City, Miami, Phoenix, Tampa, Houston, San Diego and Boston.

10) Steve Albrecht, a threat assessment expert and former San Diego police officer, says many people suffer from “it’s the other driver’s fault” syndrome. A simple answer to road rage, he says, is to concentrate fully and intently on your own driving and not to make eye contact with people around you. “What would the Dalai Lama do?” he asks. “Go forth down the road, and be yourself, with compassion toward others. Stop caring about your ‘space.’ Tint your windows. Whatever it takes.”

11) It’s not only motorists who can be rageful either. On September 29, 2013, Alexian Lien was out shopping in New York City with his wife and infant daughter when they encountered a group of bikers participating in an annual street ride. One of bikers cut in front of Lien and slowed down, causing Lien’s Range Rover to hit three more bikers. The cyclists surrounded Lien’s vehicle, hitting it and slashing at the tires. They also broke his side window with a bicycle helmet and pulled Lien from his vehicle and savagely beat him.

12) My friend Aimee was driving through an intersection at rush hour and braked despite the light being green since she didn’t want to get stuck and block traffic. When the guy behind her laid on his horn she flipped him off, which wasn’t well-received. “He took out a knife and indicated that he we wanted me to pull over so he could stab me,” Aimee recalls. “I declined.”

13) Predicting who will suffer from road rage can be murky explains Bob Nemerovski, a clinical psychologist and anger authority in San Francisco. His doctoral dissertation, “Anger in the Car: An Examination of the Role of Perspective-Taking in the Anger Response While Driving,” was partly inspired by his aging mother who would get furious when attempting to merge her “big fat Lexus” onto freeways. “It was shocking to me that a woman I’d always known to be emotionally mellow would suddenly employ sailor language when referring to truckers and inconsiderate drivers,” he tells me. He’d assumed only people wielding baseball bats, chains and guns had road rage.

14) While some experts suggest men are three times more likely to be road ragers than women, Albrecht says what used to be a largely male problem has crossed gender lines. Women may not throw down on the side of the road, but they can drive just as aggressively, he notes. “Put them both behind the wheel, late for something, angry about something else, and in no mood for courtesy, and you’ll see almost identical behavior.”

15) Add in unchecked egos, the need for superiority, narcissistic pride and general one-upmanship, and you end up with viral sensations like this:

16) Maybe driving is such an emotional activity because we view the car as an extension of our home, evoking territorial defenses. At least that’s the hypothesis of Peter Marsh, author of Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car. “If a cyclist touches your car or rests on the bonnet it’s viewed as a violation of the body space,” he writes, adding that cars are a way to exercise control over a tumultuous world, which can lead to a sense of dominance. Any threat to that dominance — e.g., a tailgating car, a truck flashing high beams, etc. — provokes an aggressive reaction while the car itself becomes a weapon. People who are usually mild-mannered suddenly start raising fists, he says, because they’re inside a protected environment.

17) The design of headlights is particularly problematic, Marsh says, because they’re seen as staring, threatening eyes. That’s why many incidents occur when people fail to dip their high beams. “Headlights give cars an animalistic quality,” he notes. “As do the four wheels. They’re rather like horses.”

18) Nemerovski, meanwhile, believes everybody has their anger “go to” and that there are three typical routes to road rage:

  • Threat, which may include physical threats, threats to your vehicle or threats to your ego.
  • Injustice, or feeling outraged by another driver’s ineptitude along with your own obsessive need to be right.
  • Frustration of being thwarted by distracted drivers who are texting or shaving.

19) Part of the problem of anger in the vehicle is that it impedes normal social communication, Nemerovski adds. If someone cuts in front of you at Starbucks and you let them know, they’ll likely say, “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry!” and you’re more or less done. But you can’t talk to people in other cars; so instead, you get tailgating, middle fingers and flashing lights, all of which Nemerovski says are forms of communication. “What I tell my road rage clients is to smile and put their hands up in a “whoops, my bad!” fashion. That will satisfy most people.”

20) “Misplaced aggression can have deadly consequences on the road or result in criminal charges,” says Tamra Johnson, who leads AAA’s traffic safety division. “Drivers must keep their emotions in check when behind the wheel to avoid a confrontation with another driver. Never offend.”

I ask her if not turning right at a red light classifies as “offensive.” It could, she says, likening it to driving slow in the fast lane. She advises that I “avoid eye contact” with likely angry drivers and remove myself “from the threat of harm” if it ever escalates and to “call 9–1–1 if the threat persists.”

Maybe I’ll just man up and make the turn after all.