Road Rage: the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde Syndrome Behind the Wheel

Although probably as old the automobile's invention itself, “road rage” didn't become an overly used expression until the 1980s, when it was featured in plenty of articles about aggression at the wheel and its consequences. Today, there are many debates on whether someone that's having regular fits of “road rage” could be classified as a mentally ill person or not.
Road Raging Cat 1 photo
Photo: Toyota/image edited by autoevolution
Not to say that everyone who flips the bird at other drivers in traffic is mentally challenged, but a recent study conducted in the United States has reached a mildly disturbing conclusion: behaviors typically associated with road rage are the result of intermittent explosive disorder (IED), which, like it or not, is a mental condition.

Described by some psychologists as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” behavior, road rage cannot be judged by an official external observation. In most cases, the police cannot charge a person with “road rage,” although laws against aggressive driving have been passed in numerous countries.

In the United States, though, California is the only state to issue a penalty specifically for this type of offense, making it a legal term in the Penal Code:

In addition to the penalties set forth in subdivision (a) of Section 245 of the Penal Code, the court may order the suspension of the driving privilege of any operator of a motor vehicle who commits an assault as described in subdivision (a) of Section 245 of the Penal Code on an operator or passenger of another motor vehicle, an operator of a bicycle, or a pedestrian and the offense occurs on a highway. The suspension period authorized under this section for an assault commonly known as ‘road rage,’ shall be six months for a first offense and one year for a second or subsequent offense to commence, at the discretion of the court, either on the date of the person's conviction, or upon the person's release from confinement or imprisonment. The court may, in lieu of or in addition to the suspension of the driving privilege, order a person convicted under this section to complete a court-approved anger management or ‘road rage’ course, subsequent to the date of the current violation.

According to numerous scientists, the most recognized reasons for road rage can be traced to the basics of the human condition. Simple conflicting factors or emotional challenges related to driving can become occasions for expressing anger and aggression behind the wheel.

For example, almost anywhere in the world, drivers are restricted to certain speed limits even though their vehicles are able to go much faster; virtually any road has lanes, stoplights, and signs that need to be respected; all this while the stress of not being able to move inside the vehicle accumulates over time. The not-being-able-to-move part becomes a stress factor even though the vehicle itself is a means of locomotion, because while driving, the driver's body remains immobile and still.

Besides imposed restrictions, the behavior of other traffic participants, although not directly linked to others, does influence aggression at the wheel. Some of the primary behavior manifestations known to spawn an episode of road rage are tailgating, cutting lanes, sounding the horn or flashing the lights in an excessive manner, shouting verbal abuse and making rude gestures.

Of course, people who suffer from a “king of the road” attitude will not tolerate this type of manifestations and instantly become vigilantes, ready to “hunt down and punish” the culprits with senseless personal attacks.

Even though most incidents that lead to road rage are very frequent, they are still abnormal events, and the unpredictability creates irrational sequences of thought in most drivers. Some of them instantaneously turn into vigilantes, who need to punish other road users for their stupidity behind the wheel.

As most of you know, one of the best ways of relieving stress and frustration is by venting, either by verbalizing your emotions or by repeatedly punching and kicking a punching bag. When you're behind the wheel, on the other hand, venting can quickly turn into road rage and then all hell can break loose.

It is true that all kinds of factors can contribute to road rage, but most of the time it happens because at least one of the parties involved has decided to act out its anger in an inappropriate manner.

How to control your road rage

Road rage has lots of common bits with other types of anger, so if these incidents always find a way of recurring, maybe you should start thinking that it's your fault, not the others'.

When you're driving, and something or someone makes you mad with their actions, first try to pause your line of thinking. Keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes, including you, and when that happens, it's not up to you to punish other road users for their stupid driving - unless you're a police officer, and it's part of your job, of course.

Your own and your passenger's safety should be your primary concern no matter how badly you need to vent your anger at the other road participants for their mistakes.

Try and practice compassion and kindness more often, even if it will probably prove to be harder than usual in some situations.

One sure way to control your anger is to focus on your breathing. Stress breathing, for example, is a good example of things to do to bring down your heart rate and effectively calm you if done correctly. Take full and long breaths of air, try and keep them in your lungs for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly, repeating the cycle as many times as you can.

In the end, articles like these are probably doing very little to change perceptions and the ways of thinking in the minds of people who usually resort to road rage. That doesn't mean that they're useless, though, because most changes can only happen in steps anyway.

The main ground rule to follow is probably being more courteous to your fellow road participants no matter how hard they make it for you to do that. Only good things will come if everyone starts being more respectful to one another, no matter the context. As Gandhi and other used to say, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
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About the author: Alex Oagana
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Alex handled his first real steering wheel at the age of five (on a field) and started practicing "Scandinavian Flicks" at 14 (on non-public gravel roads). Following his time at the University of Journalism, he landed his first real job at the local franchise of Top Gear magazine a few years before Mircea (Panait). Not long after, Alex entered the New Media realm with the project.
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