Road rage is a problem. According to a recent I Drive Safely study, 49% of people sometimes experience road rage when driving, and 5% of drivers have road rage every time they drive. That’s a lot of angry drivers! Too many!
And if you’re a frequent rager, you probably come away from those moments anger drained, unhappy, and ashamed. Road rage doesn’t just create dangerous situations on the road, it can eat away at your happiness and well-being. Let’s look at what causes road rage, and how you can calm your own anger behind the wheel.
What Is Road Rage?
First, let’s stop and define our terms. Road rage might seem like a “know it when you see it” kind of thing, but according to this NIH study, there is no formally accepted definition of road rage. Instead, it’s a “constellation of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that occur in response to a perceived, unjustified provocation while driving.”
Road rage behaviors can include:
Yelling at, cursing, or making rude gestures toward another driver
Driving aggressively or refusing to allow vehicles to merge or change lanes
Swerving or attempting to swipe or damage another vehicle
Threatening another driver with a weapon
Physically assaulting another driver
Following a driver to intimidate or scare them
Threatening to damage or actually damaging a vehicle
The NIH sums it up as, “driving behaviors that endanger or potentially endanger others and are accompanied by intentional acts of aggression toward others, negative emotions while driving, and risk-taking.”
The Road Rage Spectrum
Of course, most road rage incidents fall on the less scary end of this spectrum: yelling at another driver is a much more frequent occurrence than inciting a collision or physical altercation.
But the more you rage, the more you normalize this aggressive behavior in yourself. It can be easy to start sliding down to the more serious end of the spectrum.
Our survey found that 61% of people saw road rage behaviors in other people sometimes, often, or every time they drive, and of those people, 75% had been followed in a road rage incident. A full 80% had been in a collision due to their road rage or someone else’s. Those are scary numbers! What can we do about this epidemic of angry drivers? First, let’s talk about what causes road rage.
What Causes Road Rage?
The NIH identifies four primary causes of road rage:
Environmental factors, including traffic congestion, long commute times, and aggression from other drivers.
General psychological factors like job stress, anxiety about home or work, the strain of living and driving in a busy urban environment, a tendency to displace anger, and stress overall.
Associations with Axis I disorders, such as substance abuse issues, especially alcohol and marijuana.
Associations with Axis II disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder.
Those last two factors are outside of our scope in this article, and if you think they might be relevant to you, check in with a mental health professional.
Stress and Anxiety
But the first two factors are consistent with our data about road rage. Our survey found that 79% of respondents had their road rage triggered by anger at other drivers. Of the people more likely to get ragey due to non-driving factors, the most common triggers were work stress (63%), bad traffic or congestion (52%) and stress from issues in their personal lives (49%).
What Are the Effects of Road Rage on Your Driving Ability?
Being angry triggers your body’s stress response. The stress response, sometimes called the “fight or flight” response, is your body’s way of trying to handle potentially dangerous situations.
When it’s triggered, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus starts releasing hormones that increase your heart rate, tense your muscles, and quicken your breath.
And while this response was probably super helpful to early humans who had to flee from something big and fast with teeth and claws, it doesn’t serve us well in the driver’s seat.
A study found that angry drivers drive faster, leave less following distance, have a narrower scanning area, and are more likely to change lanes unnecessarily. In fact, the same study found that a series of frustrating incidents can make even normally non-aggressive drivers drive aggressively.
Anger and stress cloud your judgment and make you more likely to take risks or be aggressive. If you found your blood pressure rising or your jaw clenching as you read the previous paragraphs, you probably know exactly what that unpleasant fight or flight response feels like. So we know that driving angry and stressed is unsafe — in fact, in many states, driving aggressively or recklessly is a traffic violation. But how do you prevent stress on the road?
Anti-Road Rage Technique #1: Set Yourself Up for Success
Being angry kicks off your body’s stress response, but the opposite is also true: being stressed can make you respond like an angry driver, even if you’re just angry at yourself or your situation. So the first thing you can do to prevent road rage is to reduce your travel stress. Some ways to set yourself up for success include:
Make sure you have directions to your destination before you leave. Fumbling with the maps app on your phone at a red light is dangerous and stressful. Know the route beforehand and you won’t have that worry.
Leave plenty of travel time. Check how long it will take to get where you’re going and add a few extra minutes for traffic or wrong turns. Nothing dials up the stress more than the feeling of being late.
Make a relaxing driving playlist. If you know you tend to get antsy or frustrated while driving, have a playlist of music that chills you out ready to go if you need it.
Anti-Road Rage Technique #2: Identify Your Triggers
Another way to prevent road rage and driving stress is to figure out what triggers your stress response. Try to practice awareness of your body: if you feel your heart rate going up, your muscles starting to tense, or you suddenly feel too warm, that’s an indication that your stress response is starting to kick in. If you feel yourself starting to get angry, try to identify what caused that feeling.
Once you know what sets you off, you can work on avoiding those kinds of situations. If a certain intersection is always a mess, find a way to avoid it. If there’s a highway exit where people always drive poorly, take an earlier exit and cruise along the access road. Maybe there’s a time of day when you’re at your worst: 59% of our survey respondents said they’re most likely to experience road rage in the morning. If you can skip driving during rush hour, for example, do that!
Unfortunately, some stressful or annoying driving situations are baked into the driving experience, so you’ll also need to figure out how to destress while driving.
Anti-Road Rage Technique #3: Know How to Destress While Driving
Developing awareness that you’re starting to get angry, stressed, or frustrated is the first step. But what can you do once it starts to happen? Here are some techniques you can try. Figure out what works for you, and start that intervention as early as possible once you feel that stress going up.
Deep breathing is a classic stress reducer. Try breathing in for three counts, holding your breath for three counts, then blowing the air out of your mouth for three counts. This helps your body to relax and calm down.
Try to trigger the relaxation response. According to Harvard Health, your body has a relaxation response that is the opposite of your stress response. Some ways to flip that relaxation switch include visualizing tranquil scenes, focusing on a calming word or mantra, and yes, abdominal breathing.
Distract yourself with joyful things. Normally you don’t want to be distracted in the car, but distracting your brain from the things that are making you angry is a good thing. Whether it’s happy music, a comedy podcast, or an audiobook that will absorb your attention, try to reset your brain by putting upbeat something on the stereo.
If it’s not working, pull over. If you can’t find your way to a calmer state of mind and you know you’re driving aggressively, pull over somewhere safe, get out of the car, and reset. You can do more deep breathing, close your eyes, go for a quick walk, do some jumping jacks, or call a friend to vent. Just don’t keep driving if you know you’re being aggressive.
Anti-Road Rage Technique #4: Look at the Bigger Picture
There’s only so much you can do when you’re in the car, in the middle of a road rage incident. But if road rage is a problem for you, you owe it to yourself, your family and passengers, and other drivers on the road to address some of the underlying issues contributing to your anger.
Address your anger issues. The NIH named a tendency to displace anger as a major contributor to road rage. If you find that your anger comes bubbling up when on the road, talking to a therapist or working through your anger issues will not only lessen your road rage tendencies, it is likely to make you a happier, healthier human.
Find more zen. Don’t just destress when you’re in the car — try to find ways to destress in life! Remember, you bring your stress with you when you drive, and that contributes to aggressive driving. Whether it’s your job, your family, or just life, find ways to let go of what is pushing your buttons. You can try yoga, meditation, exercise, enjoying nature, a deep breathing practice, therapy, or even just taking more time to yourself to relax and feel good.
Take a defensive driving class. Our survey found that 72% of people who had experienced road rage in themselves or others this year changed their driving behaviors, and the most frequent change was taking a defensive driving class. Defensive driving will refresh your skills, give you the confidence to drive defensively, and teach you techniques for staying safe on the road. Knowing you have that knowledge in your back pocket can help calm your nerves when things get intense.
Other Drivers With Road Rage
Calming your own road rage is a fantastic goal and will make you safer on the road. But that doesn’t change the fact that other drivers can still be a threat. Our survey found that 30% of people experienced road rage from other drivers often or every time they drive, and of those drivers, 65% have felt unsafe due to another driver’s road rage.
How to Spot Road Rage in Other Drivers
The first step to staying safe around road raging drivers is knowing what to look for. Here are some warning signs of road rage in other drivers:
Driving too fast
Changing lanes often for no reason, swerving
Braking hard or erratically
Gestures, hand waving, or yelling
Cutting you off
Brandishing a weapon (I wish this was a joke, but it happens all too frequently!)
Driving like they’re intoxicated
Driving too close to the side of your car, pushing you from your lane
What to Do If You Are in a Road Rage Situation
First, stay calm. Freaking out will only make things worse. Try to let the aggressive driver pass or get around you, and don’t make eye contact. If you think that someone is following you, don’t pull over, and don’t drive home. Getting out of the car might indicate to them that you are interested in a physical altercation. Your best bet is to try and get away from the aggressive driver without incident. In most situations, you should be able to move to another lane, take a turn, or let them pass and go on their way.
Road Rage Is Not Inevitable
We live in a high-stress time, in a high-stress society. Driving anxiety is on the rise, and it seems like traffic gets worse all the time. But none of that means you are fated to be an angry or aggressive driver. Ultimately, road rage is a choice, and you can choose to use the strategies we’ve talked about to keep yourself calm on the road. Good luck out there, driver!