I think that, to understand the problem of road rage, one important question is the following: Why do so many people seem to believe it is absolutely imperative that they be allowed to drive as quickly as possible from place to place? I believe it’s possible that people are perceiving some kind of threat associated with being slowed down. An intense emotion like strong anger or rage usually comes about when there is some kind of threat to one’s well-being, safety, or ability to achieve an important goal. Injustices and other such events also are common triggers for intense anger. To understand road rage, therefore, it is important to consider what types of threats the enraged driver is perceiving.
I was driving in the left (fast) lane awhile ago, and my speed approximated the traffic flow for the area. I was driving about as fast as I was comfortable driving (while still maintaining a safe speed only a little above the speed limit) but still a little slower than the fellow behind me could tolerate. He swerved back and forth several times, waved his arms, flashed his lights, and then dangerously passed me in the HOV lane and cut me off, continuing to wave his arms, gesturing for me to move to the slow lane. What threat was this fellow perceiving? A fair assumption is that he wished to drive faster than he could when he was behind me. Was he rushing to the hospital with his pregnant wife? Was he the only one who knew about a tornado quickly approaching from Surrey? Was he being chased by a velociraptor only visible to him? Was he in a rush to capture a prized Pokemon? I really have no idea, as I don’t know him, but his behaviour would suggest a degree of urgency that would only be appropriate if there was some imminent threat associated with driving close to the speed limit.
All joking aside, I believe that understanding the threats that people associate with driving more slowly than desired is an important first step in tackling road rage. For people who struggle with road rage, some helpful steps could be to (a) pay attention to any mounting distress, frustration, or anger associated with fellow drivers’ behaviours, and (b) consider whether this frustration or anger might relate to the perception of some kind of threat. To do this, it can be helpful to ask questions such as, “What about this situation is really frustrating me?” “What bad consequence will happen if I have to keep driving slower than I want to?” “Is there a catastrophe related to slower driving?” “What is the likelihood that a terrible event will occur if I, for example, get home (or to work) a few minutes later than planned?” “Why do I have to get from A to B as fast as humanly possible?” When I have asked myself these types of questions (normally while walking and frustrated about slow walkers in front of me), normally, the answer is nothing. There really is no real, imminent, or important threat. The universe will keep plugging along just fine even if I have to go slower than I want to. More on this in a future blog. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.