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The Psychology of Road Rage

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

“A patient arrived in the office for his psychotherapy appointment. He was visibly agitated and when I asked him what happened he reported the following incident: He was driving out of his development. In order to arrive at my office, it required that he make a left turn onto a highway, not an easy task. To do this he has to be able to cross the lanes going south, in order to turn left onto the northern lanes in the direction of the office. Turning left means turning onto the left northern lane and then crossing into the right lane. It is essential that the driver look carefully that there are no cars coming in either direction. My patient, noticing that there was a car coming in the left northerly lane but judging that it was distant enough for him to turn, safely executed the turn and shifted right. Once in the right lane the driver of the other car starts loudly honking at him. Unnerved by the blaring sound of the horn, turned his head to see what was happening. He noticed that the driver at that car was angrily and repeatedly gesturing at him. “It looked as though he was a raving, spitting and cursing lunatic,” in his words. Feeling both provoked and angry, he felt tempted to pull over and have a direct confrontation in order to “teach that guy a lesson.” Thinking better of it, he allowed the whole incident pass except that he could not shake his angry feelings nor the revenge fantasies he was having. This was how he felt when he entered the therapy room.” He reported that he felt rattled, incensed, nervous and wanting to have a fight “and even pull a gun on that guy.” Fortunately, he has no gun and doesn’t even know how to use one.”

It’s a familiar scene, you start the day with a fight with your wife, or your boss gave you a warning, or on the way to work or back home, there is a traffic jam that really tries your patience. Under these and similar types of circumstances you feel frustrated and angry. In fact, you could easily explode if just one more thing happens. Then, one more thing does happen when another car weaves in and out of lanes and you get even angrier.

Of course, for some people this has less to do with circumstances and more to do with the fact that they are angry people, always seething and always ready to explode. For too many people all this pent up emotion is given expression when driving. There is a name for it, Road Rage, and it is one of the leading causes of traffic accidents and violent confrontations between angry drivers. What ever may be the factors that enrage one driver, the outward expression of this rage sometimes provokes the ire of another drive who feels he must protect his male ego from humiliation. Of course, drivers tend to blame the other drivers for anything that happens but never their own selves.

Road rage can have dire consequences. Among these are traffic accidents, sometimes deadly, fights with others who may even pull a gun and receiving a citation from the police. In many states, three or more citations can lead to suspension of the driver’s license as well as spending an afternoon in jail. In other cases, all of this drama can result in a law suit with major financial damages awarded to the other drivers. If there are family and friends in the car, an angry confrontation can be extremely embarrassing.

How can these scenarios be prevented? First, everyone must concentrate on their own driving and not that of the other person. In addition, it’s important for everyone to remind themselves that, whatever happens on the road, it is not personal. One of the strategies we teach patients with anger problems is to interrupt their thoughts and ask themselves two things: 1.)Is really worth it to get out of the car or take some other dangerous action and 2.)What are consequences of taking an action?

If you are someone who loses control in these types of incidents then it’s important to seek professional help. Learning to control one’s behavior even in the face of anger, both your own or that of another, is essential to a functioning civilization. In other words, people should not and must not give in to their impulses.

By the way, if road rage is a chronic problem then there is a good chance that anger management is a problem in other areas of your life.

What are your experiences with road rage? Your comments are always encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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