Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Fatal Freeways and Lethal Lanes

Updated on April 18, 2018
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Chris loves automobiles and has maintained, repaired, and/or restored over a dozen of them in the last 15 years.

Road Rage!
Road Rage!

Road rage and aggressive driving in America is an ever-prevalent problem. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), each year up to 33 percent of car accidents, deaths, and injuries can be attributed to road rage. In the early 1990's, the AAA foundation discovered that more than 12,500 accidents over a seven-year period could be attributed to road rage. Of that, 218 accidents resulted in fatalities, some of which were actually murders committed by an angry driver. With potentially thousands of lives at stake, clearly something needs to be done about aggressive driving in our country. Too many people fall victim to road rage and this can often create unsafe driving conditions for commuters.

Not only do people die each year due to aggressive driving, but also the rate of such actions is increasing steadily. A study from the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety purported to show an increase of about 60 percent in what it termed "aggressive driving" from 1990 through 1996. One poll, taken in August of 1997, found that 74 percent of Americans surveyed believed that other people were driving more aggressively than they had been five years earlier. If that’s not convincing enough, another study says that there are estimated to be close to 2 million episodes of aggressive driving each year. Furthermore, at least 83% of commercial drivers will be involved in an aggressive driving incident this year.

There's a 1 in 3 chance this accident was caused by road rage or aggressive driving.
There's a 1 in 3 chance this accident was caused by road rage or aggressive driving.

Anyone Can be a Victim of Aggressive Driving or Road Rage

I have been a victim of aggressive driving on more than one occasion. In one incident when I was young a vehicle attempted to hurriedly exit the freeway from three lanes to my left. The car darted across the road causing several other drivers to swerve and slam on their brakes. The result of the first car's aggressive actions caused a three-car pile up on the freeway. I was a passenger in a vehicle that witness this event and had the driver been paying attention we likely could have avoided an accident. Ultimately, the accident was attributed to the aggressive actions of the car that attempted to quickly exist the freeway.

In another incident that I was involved in I had apparently cut someone off (on accident) or I may have been driving too slow (is 3 mph over the limit too slow?). The other drive was not happy with me so he proceeded to aggressively tailgate me while honking his horn. When I didn't speed up or otherwise respond to the behavior the driver quickly shifted into the oncoming lane and sped up to place his vehicle next to mine. Next, the driver rolled down his windows and started yelling obscenities and using a well-known hand gesture. I attempted to not engage the man during his tantrum. I knew this was going nowhere quickly so as I approached an intersection I slammed on my brakes and quickly turned down that street. Luckily the angry driver kept on driving and I never saw him again. Even if I cut that driver off nothing warrants his behavior.

Is Road Rage Preventable and Why Isn't More Being Done?

Although road rage and aggressive driving is a problem, some people argue that it isn’t a big enough problem to be dealt with. They say that they’ve got more important matters to attend to. With only 33 percent of car accidents being attributed to aggressive driving, some politicians believe it's more important to focus on the other 67%. While there are other, more preventable and more prevalent, causes for car accidents, ignoring aggressive driving and road rage would be a foolish.

One school of thought suggests that road rage is really a behavioral or mental health issue so attempting to resolve it from a traffic and vehicle management standpoint is not going to work. This would be a similar to using a doctor to only treat the symptoms of an ailment while avoiding addressing the root of the problem.

Another challenging perspective is that some people believe that road rage is "fake news." In other words, it could simply be that road rage is another media induced problem. "You get an epidemic by the mere coining of a term," said the author of comprehensive article on the topic published in the Atlantic Monthly.

Lawmakers have questioned if any one solution would actually work. It would be difficult to pinpoint any one cause, let alone to try and curtail the issue. With it being tough to issue tickets for and even more difficult to prosecute road rage, it may not even be worth the police officer’s time. It may also be too tricky to create a law that would deal with road rage. There is no law against anything called `aggressive driving,' that I could find. There are laws for reckless driving, but this isn't the same thing. Furthermore, you can't govern people's emotions. Drawing up the legal language to draft a decent bill attempting to reduce road rage would be a difficult one.

Traffic congestion is often cited as a source of anger in aggressive drivers.
Traffic congestion is often cited as a source of anger in aggressive drivers.

Aggressive Driving is Both a Behavioral Problem and a Traffic Problem

To significantly reduce the problem it would take a lot of effort and manpower. The focus of our mitigation efforts should be on addressing behavioral/mental health problems while also using laws to help promote better driving habits. Furthermore, methods to alleviate traffic congestion and improve driving conditions could help reduce the chance of breaking someone's "bottle of pent up anger."

In addition to this, there should also be a focus on changing the public's perception about the problem. Sometimes the general public feels confident enough with their driving abilities that they see no reason to do anything about aggressive driving. I interviewed an aggressively driving friend of mine and he said “If you realize the limits of your car, and if you feel that you can perform at those limits, then this type of driving saves time and doesn’t do anybody any harm.” Some people use aggressive driving to their advantage and they’d rather just keep paying their insurance and deal with an increased risk of having an accident. Of course this kind of behavior (combined with an attitude of invincibility) will eventually result in a disaster.

Tips to Deal With and Avoid Aggressive Driving

Regardless of the thoughts and conjectures on what to do about this problem, road rage and aggressive driving is still something that affects all of us each time we get into a car. It’s a bigger problem than people think. Having dealt with this personally on many occasions, I believe it's important to learn how to deal with the situation should it arise. Here are some tips to reduce the chances of you becoming a victim (or a perpetrator) of road rage and aggressive driving:

  • Slow down and follow all traffic laws.
  • Leave earlier enough to make it to any appointments on time. Impatience can be your enemy which can contribute to aggressive driving behaviors.
  • Keep a good following distance and maintain ample space between your car and the other vehicles on the road.
  • Be considerate of other drivers. Avoid honking the horn or using offensive gestures. You never know what might set other people off.
  • Avoid making prolonged eye contact with other drivers; focus on the road and traffic conditions
  • Play soothing music to help calm yourself while driving
  • Avoid distractions like eating, texting, or putting on makeup while driving. Other drivers may see you doing this and get angry with you.
  • Maintain a positive driving attitude and be prepared for delays and poor driving conditions at all times
  • When someone upsets you, be the bigger person and let it go. You are responsible for your actions and retaliation does no one any good.

Should you encounter an aggressive driver or become the victim of road rage, here are some tips to help diffuse and de-escalate the incident. If necessary, some incidents will require you to call the police. However, many situations can be handled without law enforcement involvement, especially if a crime wasn't actually committed.

  • If you've cut someone off, forgot to use your turn signal, or otherwise made them angry, show them that you understand your mistake and that you are sorry. Mouth the words to them and slow down or pull over to let them pass.
  • Remain calm and avoid eye contact with an angry driver. Don't engage with them and certainly don't argue with them or attempt to "get revenge." Often times ignoring the angry driver will cause them to give up and drive off.
  • If you can, get away from the situation by slowing down, switching lanes, or by taking a different route.
  • Sometimes it may be necessary to pull over to a safe location if you can. However, if the angry driver attempts to follow you call the police and continue driving as they may be looking for a fight.

References and Resources

Dittmann, Melissa. Anger on the Road. The American Psycological Association. June 2005. Volume 36, No. 6. Page 26 <http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun05/anger.aspx>

Fumento, Michael. “Road Rage” Versus Reality. The Atlantic Monthly. August 1998. Volume 282, No. 2. Pages 12 - 17. <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/98aug/roadrage.htm>

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Aggressive Driving: Help Get the Word Out. 2011. NHTSA. 31 March 2011.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Strategies for Aggressive Driving Enforcement. Washington D.C.: US Department of Transportation and NHTSA, 1998.

Safe Motorist. Aggressive Driving and Road Rage. 2017. <http://www.safemotorist.com/articles/road_rage.aspx>

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 CWanamaker

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        William (Bill) Ray 6 years ago

        Just read your story on Road Rage. I almost became a victim when a person who cut me off jumped out of his truck and started towards me, there was a cop in the other lane, the offender quickly jumped back in his truck and left the scene, thankfully!

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