How to Deal with Road Rage (Whether it’s You or the Other Driver Who’s Fuming)

Aggressive driving causes accidents and frayed nerves alike. Here's how you can keep your cool when things get heated on the road.

dog behind wheel

Heads up all you road ragers out there: According to at least one expert, you’re big babies. “Road rage is an impulsive temper tantrum, a thought-free reaction to a stimulus,” says Dr. Tina B. Tessina, a southern California-based licensed psychotherapist and author. “People who indulge in road (and other kinds of) rage are usually emotionally immature, and have similar problems in other areas. The alternative to raging at what upsets you is to learn patience.”

Well, if occasionally being an angry driver makes me immature, then call me kiddo. We all have moments of frustration, anger, and fear at the hands of the other, infinitely-more inferior drivers we’re forced to share the road with—don’t we? Dr. Tessina offers some great advice—learning patience instead of submitting to your gut-instinct reaction is smart for fielding basically any curveball life might throw at you. But a quick survey of my coworkers showed that they’re maniacs behind the wheel I’m not alone in occasionally feeling like I’m the only capable driver on the road. Before we can explain how to deal with road rage, we figured it was a good idea to understand the psychological motivations behind it.

We All Get Cranky

Don't be a baby about it.
Don’t be a baby about it.

Yes, assures Jeanette Raymond, a licensed psychologist and anger management expert, raging on the road is pretty normal, and happens to us for good reason: “Road rage develops in the best of us when it hits that tender spot of injustice, when you are following the rules and someone else doesn’t,” Raymond says. “The impersonal nature of drivers impacting you and making you pay when they flaunt the rules makes the rage okay. There are no brakes on the anger because the driver is dehumanized.”

Think about it: How often have you addressed the car in front of you as a car, not a person? “Watch it, Jetta!” or “Don’t even think about it, Mr. BMW-fancy-pants.” (Admittedly, maybe no one but me refers to luxury cars as Fancy Pants.)

“We view people as their cars,” says Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital. “‘Oh, blue Corolla thinks it can cut me off. Dumb Saab is killing me here.’ By ignoring the human element of other drivers we lose empathy for them which makes us more likely to become aggressive or attribute cruelty or laziness to that car.”

Drivin’ Make me Lose Control

Deep breaths!
Deep breaths!

Napolitano also explains that aggression on the road is about control, which surprised me—I had assumed road rage was largely fear-based. “When we drive we suffer from the illusion that we have total control over our driving conditions. Much like when you go on vacation, you think everything will go as planned (and it never does.) When we’re driving and someone cuts us off or causes us to ‘lose time’ while driving, we become incensed because we had the belief that everything would go according to plan.”

This makes perfect sense to me, if only because sometimes everything does go according to plan. Sometimes you pull onto the highway and traffic is actually moving swiftly. Sometimes you hit every green light. Sometimes, just sometimes, some combination of school holiday and reported-ice-storm-that-turned-out-to-be-nothing leaves you practically the only driver on the road. We experience these flashes of glory—and then we’re brought crashing back to earth by a long line of brake lights.

If only we could control everything, right? “Road rage, like any fairly extreme expression of anger, is precipitated by the belief that one’s power (defined as control over the environment) has been diminished,” says Dr. Richard Horowitz. “When we perceive that another driver put us potentially in harm’s way, we experience that as a loss of control. This is heightened when driving a vehicle because the act of driving accentuates the feeling of being in control—therefore a direct blow to our need for power.”

Life is a (Crowded) Highway

Beep beep.
Beep beep.

Horowitz goes on to explain that anger is just a shortcut to replace the loss of power. “When we are angry we feel righteous and full of justification for our actions,” he says. “In most cases, anger is not productive and leads to poor decisions that we regret when we calm down.”

Aggressive driving occurs in 54 percent of fatal crashes.

Decisions like rolling down your window to give someone your piece of mind, or speeding up just to spite them when they try to pass you on the right. (Side note: Why are you driving on the left, anyway? I’m looking at you, Texans.) But as much as we laugh about the occasional impulse we all have, road rage is serious business, too: Aggressive driving was reported in 54 percent of fatal crashes between 2003 – 2007, according to research by AAA.

And a vast majority of drivers do occasionally feel threatened by other angry drivers. Also according to AAA, “A 2005 telephone survey by ABC News and The Washington Post found that when asked which of several potential threats “most endangers your own safety on the road,” 32 percent of respondents identified aggressive drivers as the greatest threat, yielding as many responses as drunk drivers and nearly three times as many responses as any other item that was queried.”

Road Rage vs. Aggressive Driving

Which brings us to an important distinction to make on this subject: There is a difference between aggressive driving and true road rage. Chris Cochran, with the California Office of Traffic Safety, reached out with that clarification, and I was grateful to receive it: “Most in the traffic safety world recognize a difference in the terms “road rage” and “aggressive driving,” Cochran says. “Aggressive driving is something that happens every day, all around us, and is one of the ongoing driver behaviors that we try to combat.”

Some common aggressive driving behaviors:

  • Speeding
  • Tailgating
  • Unsafe frequent lane changes
  • Racing
  • Deliberately running red or yellow lights

As Cochran explains: “It’s basically an attitude that can stem from a feeling of entitlement, heightened sense of skill, or urgency.”

Road rage, on the other hand, looks very different. “Road rage is what happens as an extreme reaction to something occuring while driving. It is overt violence or at least an attempt at violence which can be triggered by most anything a person can find offensive to them. It is an actual action aimed at antoher individiual, usually starting with some car-to-car interaction, but which can sometimes move into person-to-person actions outside of cars.”

Though aggressive driving is dangerous, and the combined list of aggressive driving violations can account for 20-25 percent of roadway fatalities and 45 percent of injuries, it’s road rage which can end in death or serious injury, Cochran says, addign that road rage is still relatively uncommon.

How to Deal

Aim for zen.
Aim for zen.

So what’s the best way to deal with an aggressive driver? Try to get as zen as possible: “Accept your fury, tempering it with the knowledge that it’s not personally against you,” Raymond says.

And if you’re the perpetrator? Tape pictures of your loved ones to your dash, to remind yourself you want to make it home to them in one piece. Turn your favorite jam up and sing along. And by all means, leave the house a few minutes earlier! Then that red light won’t throw off your groove so much, Emperor.