The Psychology of Road Rage and its Impact on Health
The sound of screeching brakes and profanities filling the air, the sensation of blood rising to your head, one hand tightly gripping the steering wheel whilst gesticulating erratically with the other, coffee split all over the seat….sound familiar? A standard journey home can sometimes result in verbal abuse, which, in some instances, may escalate to a physical confrontation. Even if the latter doesn’t occur, road rage certainly has an adverse effect on both physical and mental health.
Road rage is a phrase used to describe an eruption of intense anger induced by situations that arise when driving. In most instances, it is caused by another person driving their car in a way that annoys, endangers, or perplexes another driver, i.e. you. According to statistics, nearly 80% of drivers experience road rage at least once every year1.
Why does road rage happen?
Why are people overcome with rage when something doesn’t go to plan when driving? Well, according to research, it happens due to the setting in which the situation arises.
From a psychological perspective, it ultimately comes down to where it happens. It’s not a bike or horse you are riding; it’s a car, which means you unrest able to make a rapid exit, regardless of the speed of your reactions and driving skills. When humans experience impending danger, ‘fight or flight’2 kicks in, which is the standard way of dealing with situations that cause stress, alarm, and danger. As you have nowhere to ‘fly’ to, i.e. the flight aspect of the response isn’t available, your brain initiates the fight response, resulting in anger and rage.
But it doesn’t stop there. A further reason why road rage is so prevalent and seemingly natural human response is that humans today have a propensity to try to wield their unwarranted delusions of superiority over others whenever the opportunity presents itself. This all-too-common attitude leads people to think ‘How dare someone do that to me?!’ when in reality, it is highly unlikely the other driver’s actions are not personal. They may simply have made an error of judgment or a mistake – something that all humans do throughout their three score and ten.
It is within this unsubstantiated pride that the majority of people’s belief that they are excellent drivers stems from. Almost 66% of drivers consider their driving skills to be good or excellent. However, it appears that those who overestimate their driving skills need to wake up and smell the coffee (you know, the one you’ve just spilt in rage!), as evidence shows that a significant number of people who believe their driving skills are beyond reproach are actually mediocre drivers at best.
Furthermore, road rage allows people to be anonymous – unless they decide to get out of their car, of course. The comfort and security of a safe, secure, and lockable metal object only helps to magnify the sense of pride and pomposity, which is why road rage is so common.
How does road rage impact health?
Of course, if you get out of your car and engage in a physical confrontation with another driver, it is highly likely that your physical health will be impacted adversely; however, even if you don’t, your health can still be negatively affected. Stress-induced by road rage increases blood pressure, which can, in turn, increase the risk of both strokes and heart attacks3. Bouts of rage have also been associated with cardiovascular health issues, i.e. an increased risk of heart attacks and similar conditions.
Stress is often cited as the number one killer. As road rage is exceptionally stressful both physically and psychologically, it can have dire consequences either at the time or further down the road. Avoiding road rage, therefore, is something that we should all strive to do, but how can you do this? Let’s find out.
Taming Your Road Rage
Road rage is a 100% natural reaction; therefore, it can be challenging to control such impulsive behaviour. That being said, with the right mindset, it is possible to tame your road rage, reduce your stress levels, and become a happier, healthier person.
It’s all about you: As humans beings, we all view every single experience we have through our own sense. Our life is viewed through our eyes using our brains, which means whatever we do, it’s all about ‘me’. This isn’t an inherently bad trait; it’s just completely natural. When getting angry at another driver, you’re merely making a judgement on how that individual is acting in relation to you; nothing more, nothing less. By becoming more aware of your “me filter,” it will help you to see things from different angles and furnish you with new perspectives, both of which may help to reduce emotional outburst such as road rage. In the same vein, everyone else also acts like this, so don’t take it personally.
You can’t control others: You have absolutely no control over other drivers. Even if you want to ‘teach them a lesson’ or ‘show them how to drive properly’, you can’t do that from within your own car and through your behaviour. Road rage will never achieve what you want it to achieve, so remember that next time you experience a situation when driving, it really can help with impulse control.
Logic over emotion: Road rage is pure, unadulterated emotion. When we get angry, logic goes flying out of the window, not to be seen until we calm down. Although opting for logic over emotion is a lot easier said than done, being impulsive is a sure-fire way to increase the level of danger to yourself and those around you. If confronting a dangerous driver, use logic; think before you speak and talk calmly. People are more likely to listen to someone talking calmly and with purpose, than someone who is ranting and raving. The latter will never end well.
1. Newsroom.aaa.com. 2020. (online) Available at: <https://newsroom.aaa.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/aggressive_driving_REPORT_7_14.pdf>
2. Harvard Health Publishing (2018). Understanding the stress response – Harvard Health. (online) Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.
3. Mostofsky, E., Penner, E.A. and Mittleman, M.A. (2014). Outbursts of anger as a trigger of acute cardiovascular events: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Heart Journal, (online) 35(21), pp.1404–1410. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/eurheartj/article/35/21/1404/583173