Our car is heading into the city when a woman dashes across the intersection while the pedestrian light is red. The driver directly behind us leans on his horn. “That wasn’t a honk to say ‘I’m here,’” says former police driving instructor Richard Gladman. “That was a rebuke.”
A driver’s impulse to honk at an errant pedestrian is to assert they are ‘right’, explains Gladman. It is an example of the type of low-level frustration that can – and does – escalate into full-blown road rage. And it’s happening every day on our overburdened roads and highways.
Road rage is increasingly common, with more than 70 per cent of drivers in Australia and 20 per cent in New Zealand having experienced road rage in the past year. According to a survey by the NRMA (National Roads and Motorists’ Association), almost one in five drivers admitted to committing road rage, and 22 per cent of these incidents happened with children under the age of 15 in the car.
The most common form of abuse for the ‘average person’? Leaning on the horn came in top at 75 per cent, followed by abusive ‘hand gestures’ at 44 per cent and mouthing abuse at 31 per cent. Disturbingly, after being a victim of road rage, more than 40 per cent of respondents reported losing confidence while driving.
Most annoying behaviour on the roads
Last November, New Zealand AA asked its members to rank the most annoying behaviour on the roads – and running a red light topped the list. Other road-rage-inducing behaviour included drivers in the slow lane speeding up at the overtaking lane, tailgating, driving while using phones, not indicating, driving slowly and lane weaving. But our list of irritations didn’t just appear in recent years.
Driver anger has a long history. British magazine The Oldie unearthed a case of ‘carriage rage’ dating back to 1817. It was an early indication that we humans can have trouble handling frustrations on our way from point A to point B. But the current term was coined in the late 1980s when news anchors in the US reported a grisly spate of freeway shootings.
Today, with an ever-increasing number of cars on the road, more and more motorists find themselves trapped in traffic and at the mercy of another’s anger – or their own.
The worst offenders
A 2017 Australian study of almost 3000 drivers by the Monash University Accident Research Centre revealed the majority of people admitted to some form of aggressive driving. The worst offenders were male drivers aged between 22 and 39. More than a third of these admitted to extreme road rage and said they had driven after another driver at least once while angry.
While several studies have shown male drivers are more likely to commit road violence, women tend to feel angrier behind the wheel.
Most shockingly, 96 per cent of drivers who had been involved in a car crash reported they had experienced aggressive behaviour on the roads. Perhaps not surprisingly, the study also found overly aggressive drivers were much more likely to make bad choices, such as driving and holding a mobile phone, speeding and also drink-driving.
Even when it doesn’t lead to violence, road rage has become more than just a strange quirk of driving behaviour, say advocates for road safety. It is a symptom of a self-focused worldview, and because people feel anonymous in their cars, they feel they can be rude or worse – and not be held to account for their behaviour.
Louis Bez, 34, says he often sees drivers shouting when trapped in traffic in the clogged-up city streets where he lives. The atmosphere sours, and words or gestures are exchanged. There was a moment when he realised he was doing just the same. “It’s in the privacy of my car, but still I swear out loud,” he admits. The protection of his car gives Bez the license he needs to vent when he wouldn’t do it otherwise.
Can it be prevented?
Dr Bridie Scott-Parker studies road rage and leads the Adolescent Risk Research Unit at the University of the Sunshine Coast. “As roads become busier and we experience more congestion, it’s only natural we have an increase in driver anger and driver aggression,” she says. “However, this is something we can – in many instances – prevent.”
Merging lanes, in particular, can evoke strong anger in drivers. Going online to the local licensing authority to check the road rules will help you avoid making mistakes and attracting road rage from other drivers.
“By travelling inside a vehicle we are affectively inside an insulated bubble,” says Dr Scott-Parker. “This isolation means we sometimes engage in behaviour that we wouldn’t normally engage in, say if we were in a queue in a supermarket standing right next to this person.” The feeling of being safe and protected by the shell of your vehicle can be a dangerous illusion.
Road rage occurs when we feel that someone is getting in the way, with drivers generally placing the blame on others, not themselves. “Most venting is negative, and that’s the problem,” says Stan Steindl, adjunct associate professor in psychology at The University of Queensland. When a driver feels insulted or threatened, the brain’s fight-or-flight threat response system is triggered. “One aspect of the fight-or-flight response is anger.”
The impulsiveness behind explosive road rage is usually prompted by an event that the offenders – often well-adjusted people with family, job, friends – view as a personal attack, says traffic psychologist Ludo Kluppels.
Dr Scott-Parker adds it is important to remember good car karma. She says, “I’ve heard drivers of all ages say that if they let someone in and get a little ‘thank-you’ wave, that feeling of warmth, positivity and community engagement stays with them for the rest of the day.”