Road Rage: Why It Affects Normal People (And How To Avoid It)

Road Rage: Why It Affects Normal People (And How To Avoid It)

Anger can be very quick, powerful, reactive, and can make us do things we typically wouldn’t do. There is nothing inherently wrong with anger as an emotion, but nowhere is anger less helpful, more common, and potentially more dangerous than when we are behind the wheel of a car. We explore the concept of “road rage” and why normal people become harmful on the roads.

Most of us are familiar with “road rage”. There are, of course, extreme examples of violence and assaults on the roads that end up in the courts, hospitals, and the media. But every day, drivers get angry and aggressive, and the evidence is mounting that this can put themselves and others at great risk.

The science of road rage

Usually road rage is triggered by a specific event. These events will often involve the actions of another driver, such as a slow driver, a driver changing lanes without indicating, or other behaviours that we interpret as a threat or an obstacle.

Our response to these specific triggers are influenced by a range of factors, including:

  • person-related factors such as age, gender, beliefs, or mood
  • contextual stressors such as heavy traffic, time pressures, road works, or hot temperatures
  • our interpretations of the incident: for example, personalising (“they cut me off on purpose!”), catastrophising (“you could have killed me!”), overgeneralising (“people are hopeless drivers!”), and standard violations (“people should watch where they’re going”)
  • other factors such as the anonymity we feel in the car, or the inability to communicate in another way.

In fact, a range of behaviours stem from driving when angry, including everything from honking the horn, yelling abuse and demonstrating hostile gestures, through to tailgating or dangerous manoeuvres on the road, and ultimately getting out of the car to carry out verbal attacks or physical violence.

A recent study confirmed the link between “driving anger” and certain aggressive and risky behaviours when it found anger while driving significantly predicted aggressive driving, risky driving, driving errors, as well as number of accidents.

And it’s not a new phenomenon. The idea that generally decent people become full of anger and rage when they hop into a car has been with us since the advent of cars themselves. Remember the 1950 Disney cartoon, “Motor Mania!”, starring Goofy. At first a mild-mannered everyman, he turns into a monster the moment he gets behind the wheel.

Motor Mania (1950, Walt Disney Productions.)

I’m a great driver, what’s wrong with everyone else?

Worryingly, an Australian study of 220 licensed drivers found that along with driving anger, the driver’s bias towards their own illusion of control predicted aggressive behaviour. Drivers who believed (perhaps falsely) they were in greater control of their situation, due to superior driving ability or skill, were more likely to drive in risky and aggressive ways.

Driving anger and the illusion of control are a dangerous combination. On the one hand, a person who is angry and holds the belief they are in control of the situation is more likely to drive in a risky and aggressive fashion. On the other, research has demonstrated our various cognitive functions, such as attention, reasoning, judgement and decision-making, can be impaired by anger. The result is a perception of lower risk, a greater willingness to take risks, and cognitive effects that actually increase the risks.

Road rage has been known to “infect” both sexes.

Road rage impacts everybody on the road. So there is a strong public health rationale for the development and promotion of interventions to reduce driving anger and incidents of road rage.

Fortunately, there is emerging evidence that psychological interventions hold hope for angry drivers. A recent review found evidence supporting cognitive and behavioural interventions to reduce and manage driving anger.

This includes changing anger-evoking cognitive patterns or faulty thinking (such as those interpretations listed above), learning relaxation coping skills for when anger is aroused, and finding strategies to solve difficult situations on the road and de-escalating anger so our choices are less aggressive and more safe.

How to not be swept up in driving anger

  • Watch out for the illusion of control. Remember the old saying, 80% of drivers believe their driving skills are above average – a statistical impossibility

  • remember our common humanity – everyone on the road, ourselves included, are merely human beings with good bits and not so good bits trying to do the best they can. We are all in this traffic together and it can be frustrating for us all

  • consider other drivers might not be malicious – we often jump to conclusions about other drivers and assume they do things on the road to affect us personally. Usually, the person’s actions are caused by benign motivations

  • avoid blame and punishment, and be forgiving – we can accept that negative events happen and that as human beings we all make mistakes. Maybe they were distracted in that moment, maybe they are in a hurry, maybe it was just a case of human error, which we’re all guilty of

  • let go of the struggle – red lights, traffic, delays, inconsiderate drivers – struggling with any of it will only make matters worse for you. We can accept and tolerate the inevitable frustration and provocation

  • breathe – slow it down, find a way to breathe that soothes you such as finding a slow, controlled rhythm, and reduce the physiological arousal associated with anger

  • speak to yourself in a friendly voice, with reassurance and validation. “Oh, that was a close call. You’re safe and all is OK. That person made a mistake, and we all make mistakes.”

  • focus your attention on safe, calm driving, ensuring you get yourself to your destination safely and without incident.

Stan Steindl, Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology, The University of Queensland and James Kirby, Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • “80% of drivers believe their driving skills are above average – a statistical impossibility.”

    There’s no such thing as a statistical impossibility. Statistics is about likelihood, not possibility. How likely is it that 80% of drivers are above average? That depends on how bad the worst drivers are. There might be a small minority of drivers who are so bad that they drive the average way down. Here’s a toy example. Suppose there are 100 drivers in a population and we rate their skills on a scale of 1 to 10. 20 drivers score 1 on the scale. Everyone else is just okay, at 6 on the scale. The population average is 5, and 80% of drivers are above it.

  • Sometimes the reaction comes from past trauma, which isn’t a walk in the park to deal with. But there is a solution that takes care of it quickly and easily.

  • Drive in Canberra. Everyone is actually malicious and out to get you. Leave a safe gap, someone will fill it. The person behind you always NEEDS to be in front of you. Red lights are just an illusion. Corners exist to be cut. Combination of city road rage and a scary amount of people driving aggressively in oversized utes.

    Best you can do is drive safe and try to stay out of everyone’s way. Never driven in a place quite like it.

  • No no no.
    Sometimes it is deliberate, and in those cases it isn’t a threat, and it isn’t an obstacle, it’s intentional disrespect, for me, and for the rules of society, and anger is 100% appropriate.

  • A great article. If I could add anything it would be that often the drivers that do things like wait patiently in a line of cars get incredibly frustrated when someone past them and tries to cut in front. Countless times I’ve seen someone refuse to let them in and sound the horn, yet the other driver just keeps driving on a collision trajectory so they can push into the line. They show that they don’t care about causing an accident because they know the other driver will be “the better” person and slam their brakes on.

    I remember a few years ago, someone was side by side with my car, drove straight at my vehicle and I had to lock up the brakes to avoid them colliding with me. I sounded the horn during the process which somehow annoyed him and he shouted out “I had my indicator on” as though sticking your indicator gives you right of way when changing lanes. I suspect it’s freeloaders like that that cause all sorts of frustration in hundreds of other drivers.

  • Yes road rage is bad. But getting angry at certain events Is a completely normal emotional reaction.

  • Considering the number of drivers that get caught in my area with drugs in their system and not just alcohol it’s another factor to consider. Heck just need to watch 7’s Highway Patrol to see it in action, Bendigo is featured regularly.

  • I completely agree that most drivers don’t act maliciously.
    That would require they have the slightest awareness that they share the road. The number of ppl who drive in their own insular world or are with their heads down on their phones is frightening.

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