It's the kind of quick second decision that could change your life. You accidentally cut someone off and they become enraged. Though, instead of simply yelling or flipping you off, this person decides to go after you to exact his revenge. It may sound alarmist and unlikely, but road rage was the cause of 218 murders and 12,610 injuries in a seven year period. Those are not insignificant numbers. Another scary stat: 2% of drivers admit to trying to run an aggressor off the road. Still, people don't even think about the issue until it happens to them. It's a frightening reality Kimberly Gauthier never dreamed of until she faced it head on.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Gauthier of the terrifying encounter. "It was around 7 a.m. and I was in lower Queen Anne in Seattle, Washington and a man was driving right behind me for several blocks. It was a neighborhood, so the speed limit was less than 45 mph, but other driver was visibly annoyed that I wasn’t going faster." Trying to be courteous, she pulled over. "I lowered my window to wave him past but he got out of his car instead," she recalls. "I quickly raised my window, but then felt guilty. He hadn’t threatened me, why am I treating him like a bad guy? I should have followed my instincts."
What happened next stunned the author of the popular blog Keep the Tail Wagging. "He proceeded to yell at me and scream racial slurs," says Gauthier, an African American. "He felt that I was starting and stopping in the middle of intersections, driving all over the road, and preventing him from getting to work on time. None of this had happened and I stupidly tried to get him to see reason. When he started punching my window and kicking my car, I grabbed my cell phone and dialed 911."
It was only when the crazed man realized she was calling the police that he backed off. "He gave my car one final kick and left." Had she not called for help, there is no telling what would have happened. "The responding officer told me that it was a good thing that I called, because many of these incidents start early in the morning
and escalate during the day and can lead to violence."
Just as startling, perhaps, are Gauthier's thoughts in the days following. "That was such a scary experience and I find it interesting that through it
all, I kept wanting to down play it as if I was misunderstanding or blowing
it out of proportion," she says. "I even did it when the officer responded and he had to correct me and let me know that yes, I was a victim that morning." Indeed she was - but a lucky one. Earlier that year, another road rage incident ended with one man killing another on the way home in the evening. The investigation discovered that earlier that day, he had been in several smaller incidences but no one reported them. "Because of that, I report anyone who approaches my car in anger," says Gauthier. That, say experts, is a good rule for all of us to follow.
What kind of people are most likely to exhibit road rage?
Not surprisingly, people who rage out on the road tend to be "anxious, impulsive, quick tempered, risk-taking people among us," says Dr. Karl Schonborn, author of Cleft Heart: Chasing Normal. " More than most of us, they engage in hostile and aggressive thinking, take more risks on the road, and have more accidents."
More specifically, adds Dr. Anne Brown, author of Backbone Power: The Science of Saying No, they tend to be young, male, educated, have decent jobs, travel in an urban settings, and often have tinted windows. And while most aggressors are male, there are women who also use their vehicle as a tool for aggression.
Are these incidents really about what has happened on the road or are they carrying this rage from something else in their personal life?
Time pressures and stressful traffic situations certainly play a part but, there is often something else in play notes Dr. Schonborn. "Not surprisingly, what happens on the road triggers the rage, but the data bears out common sense," he explains. "We’re all more likely to react if we’ve had a bad day at the office or are in a hurry to get somewhere. Interestingly, the AAA study found that many ragers had recently suffered an emotional or professional setback."
Can this kind of rage be learned? For example, if your kids see you do this are they more likely do it when they are older?
"Most certainly," warns Dr. Schonborn. "Role modeling’s a powerful teaching tool, for good or ill. As far back as 1968, researchers showed how people learn by parental example, even as adolescents. So attitudes toward school, drug use, and managing anger, to name but a few, are key. If your temper flares up in the car, listen to soothing music and show the kids you can chill. Try be rested and in a “happy place” if possible before and during long car trips."
Does someone prone to road rage escalate their aggression over time?
"Interesting question," adds Dr. Brown. "I think if someone has to drive in stressful situations, like high congestion, every day and hasn't developed good coping skills for time management and stress and he exhibits road rage, he will be at risk for road rage that may escalate. If he drives one day and then not again for awhile not sure you would be able to say it will escalate."
What should a driver do if they encounter road rage? Try to get away from the car, call the police or drive to a police station?
"Be part of the solution, not part of the problem," advises Dr. Schonborn. Here, he breaks down the dos and don'ts:
- Don’t return stares, grimaces, shouts, obscene gestures; be neutral, be a tiny Buddha.
- Forget winning; so don’t accelerate unless they’re shooting at you (call 911 whenever truly scared)
- If in a remote area, drive to a populated place (convenience store, shopping center)
- If need be honk your horn to get attention, drive to a police station or hospital.
- Don’t get out of your car; don’t drive home immediately.
Have you ever been the victim of road rage? What happened?
Image © Henrik Trygg/Corbis