Road Rage and You

Are you a safe driver? A courteous driver? A knowledgeable, experienced driver? Do you have a propensity for anxiety and road rage?

As the workplace violence coordinator for my company, I received a call one afternoon from one of the area safety reps asking whether I could put together a presentation on road rage at an upcoming safety meeting. Our department frequently makes presentations, so the request was not unusual. During the discussion, I learned one of our employees had become involved in a road rage incident the day before while driving to a job site. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the incident led to numerous calls to company officials and a potential for liability claims. I recall thinking it might not be too difficult to find a local law enforcement officer to assist with the topic or take the opportunity to learn about road rage myself. Interestingly, just a couple of days later, another call came in regarding a second incident. Again, no one was hurt, but clearly there was a need to find out more about this issue.

An interview was immediately set up with the second employee who had been involved with a road rage incident. There was a lot more going on than a he said/she said story.

That was back in 2005. Since then, our department has had the opportunity to develop a program called "Road Rage and You." I hope the following overview from that program entices the reader to learn more about the subject with a goal of improving safety and security programs for the employees of your company. In our case, our employees have provided lots of positive feedback from their own experiences and, at the same time, allowed us the opportunity to discuss important issues, such as weapons in vehicles, where state law applies.

Road Rage Overview
At the start of each presentation, I prepare by getting road rage events from recent local or national headlines or, even better, YouTube videos. Most audiences will be stunned at the news videos and real-life situations happening to "that other guy." You also will find almost everyone has witnessed, been passively involved, or sometimes been actively involved in potential or real road-rage events. There will be numerous discussion points from the comments about the situations.

A question I usually get is, how are road rage and incidents of workplace violence connected? In general, I don't believe they are; a commonality may exist when people in the aftermath of a workplace violence incident say the person "just snapped." I think the same is true for road rage incidents, although the two events are very different in many other ways. Other differences might include that workplace violence events usually involve pent-up anger or blame, whereas road rage may happen in the heat of the moment.

The "Road Rage and You" program is divided into the following discussion categories:

1. Triggers
2. Precursors leading to anxiety
3. Aggressive behaviors
4. Components of aggressive driving
5. Statutory laws/weapons
6. Anatomy of road rage
7. Resolutions/do's and don'ts

Triggers. Any number of triggers are linked to road rage. I call the trigger the event that evokes an initial emotional response or gesture. These also can be close calls or near misses that may occur where someone feels endangered by the actions of other drivers. For example, another driver using a cell phone and weaving from side to side while trying to make a call is a common observation. This event may trigger someone to blow the horn or speed by in an aggressive manner or make an inappropriate middle finger gesture at another driver.

Precursors. Behind the scenes of daily life and work are the precursors that occur prior to our taking the wheel. Here is a partial list I include that may help to explain why some people are prone to anxiety behind the wheel. Given that any number of precursors may be in play at a given time, I contend that when two or more precursors are at work and a trigger event happens, the precursors tend to have an escalating impact on the anxiety levels that may lead to confrontations or a potential road rage event. When we get behind the wheel, the more dramatic these negative precursors are, the more aware of the precursors we should become.

Precursors (not extensive):

  • Deadlines (real or perceived)
  • Time in vehicle (without rest stops)
  • High temperatures or lack of air conditioning
  • Traffic and congestion
  • Personal stress or work stress
  • Substance use or abuse
  • Mental attitude toward other drivers/fantasizing physical violence

In concert with the last bullet, I also discuss the fact there is a portion of society who may be affected in some way from the impact of TV, movies, or other events depicting violence and personal confrontations. I stress that every time we get behind the wheel, we do not know how many other drivers are prone to violence, mentally impaired, or carry weapons in their vehicles just in case.

Aggressive behaviors. It is my personal opinion that men in certain jobs, such as law enforcement and security, have a slight edge over women when it comes to aggressive behaviors, or at least aggressive natures. I think our general training and propensity to take charge of escalating situations may have an impact on this, although I have no scientific data to support or deny this statement. To give fairness to both sides of this issue, I recall that, a few years ago, I had veered over the center line while driving in a commercial parking lot. A lone, approximately 110-pound female driver was coming toward me at low speed. I "warped" my steering wheel back into my lane to avoid a possible collision even though we were 50 feet apart at the time. As she approached, she began screaming at me and waving her arms and fist, then giving me the universal finger gesture. As her vehicle and mine were side by side, she continued to scream and violently curse at me and then lunged out of her vehicle and spat on my driver's side window. I recall immediately thinking, "How could that reaction have happened from such a 'no harm no foul' driving error? How could she have known what my circumstances were or if I was armed with a weapon? What if I had gotten out of the car and confronted her and she had a weapon?" I considered myself fortunate later on.

Components of aggressive driving. From my research on road rage, I have found law enforcement personnel are well trained in both recognition and legal components of aggressive driving. Aggressive driving is usually addressed in state statutes, as covered below.

Statutory laws. Most states do not have specific road rage statutes, but they do have numerous traffic laws associated with aggressive driving or careless driving. In Florida, for example, aggressive driving generally means two or more of the following acts simultaneously or in succession.

  • Exceeding the posted speed
  • Failure to yield the right of way
  • Unsafe or improper lane change
  • Improper passing
  • Following too closely
  • Violating traffic control devices

Other state laws of interest concern self protection and use of deadly force in defense. Also, state laws detail the legal requirements for the right to carry weapons in one's vehicle. If your company has a workplace violence policy, it should cover weapons on property, company-owned vehicles, and transportation thereof. I generally find this topic to be of great interest to operational employees who may hunt or have a license to carry concealed weapons. There will be many questions regarding this subject.

Pet Peeves
The list below has been built from feedback I have gotten from audiences discussing "pet peeves" while driving. They can be viewed as similar to the trigger events previously mentioned.

  • Blowing the horn at someone
  • Loud or profane yelling
  • Preventing another driver from passing
  • Cutting in front of someone in an aggressive manner
  • Tailgating
  • Braking suddenly to punish a tailgater
  • Parking or stopping more than two car lengths behind in short turning lanes
  • Shining high beams and tailgating
  • Displaying the middle finger

Regarding the last bullet, I think it is fascinating most people will recall the exact time, place, and circumstance where this phenomenon may have happened to them. This one inappropriate gesture may be to blame for more road rage events worldwide than any other. I read one article from Dubai where an American was charged in court with displaying the middle finger and prosecuted for an eventual road rage involving a local citizen. I cannot overemphasize the point with participants that displaying the middle finger is "mindlessly meaningless" in the overall picture of survival. Because road rage is not a uniquely American behavior, I also caution everyone who may travel abroad about differences in cultures, driving habits, and rules of the road in foreign countries.

Anatomy of an Incident
This is the point in the discussion where the rubber meets the road. Why does road rage happen? How do normally sane individuals become potentially involved in a situation that ultimately could lead to the death of one or more people while driving to and from a destination? I am not a psychology professional, but I think the complicated portion of the answer has to do with the precursors previously discussed, especially the precursor having to do with one's mental attitude toward other drivers and propensity for aggression.

In my opinion, this is the anatomy of a road rage incident:

Where two or more precursors are at work simultaneously and a trigger event occurs and a provocation and escalation occur, this equals a high potential for a road rage incident.

Again, I think precursors are the key to our understanding some of the dynamics of a road rage event, especially in the provocation stage. If both parties have negatively oriented precursors going for them when the trigger event occurs, I suspect the provocation and escalation phase is more likely. This is not to say it will occur, only that it is more likely. The likelihood and volatility increase when:

  • One or both parties get out of the vehicle
  • The distance between parties becomes "face to face" or
  • A weapon or defense tool is involved
  • When one or both parties use their vehicles aggressively

The idea is to get out of a road rage alive. We all have a "fight or flight" mechanism going for us, with the point being this: It is always better to avoid this type of conflict. Going back to the anatomy statements earlier, after provocation and escalation occur, it still takes two to fight! We should become very introspective in that we need not only to be aware of the precursors involved with daily life before we take the wheel, but also to understand our own propensity for escalation once involved in an incident. We should identify what kind of driver we are: A safe driver? A courteous driver? A knowledgeable, experienced driver? Do you have a propensity for anxiety and road rage?

One Web site I recommend is It has lots of interesting ideas and a test you can take to determine your driving skills and personal driving demeanor, as well as a plethora of blogs and road rage experiences.

In summary, here is my list of do's and don'ts about road rage:

  • Don't respond aggressively
  • Don't make eye contact with an angry driver
  • Don't escalate the situation
  • Don't get in someone's face (some say this is the most dangerous place in the world!)
  • Don't get out of the vehicle (very important)
  • Do use positive "open hand" gestures
  • Do say, or behave as if saying, "I'm sorry!"
  • Do be aware of the precursors and triggers that affect you
  • Do stay alive for family and friends.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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