Harmful to Your Health and to Others

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over six million crashes occur in the United States each year, and a substantial number are estimated to be caused by aggressive driving.

Aggressive driving occurs on a continuum – the lower end accounts for calm drivers with normal frustrations and the upper end caps with extremely aggressive drivers who experience road rage often, even as an uncontrollable mental condition.

Conditions that generate frustration on the road are increasing. 

Roads are more congested than ever. Long commutes and unexpected delays on top of already hectic lifestyles are leading to greater levels of road rage. Stress leads to anger, which leads to aggression, and when aggression builds and becomes extreme, road rage is displayed in ugly behavior.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 66 percent of all annual traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive drivers. In 2006, the Transportation Research Board reported that traffic congestion is increasing in “intensity, extent and duration.” A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey in 2002 found that 40 percent of drivers felt other drivers had become more aggressive in the past year.

Barry Markell, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Park Ridge, Ill., who has treated many perpetrators and victims of road rage relates, “Rats are usually OK until there is one rat too many in an enclosed space, and then they all turn on each other. There are far more people on the road than ever before. Crowding causes aggression.”

Markell points out that the same dynamics are at work in the grocery store line. The line is crowded, getting longer, and people are impatient. The difference seems to be that the line consists of people: mothers, grandmothers, children, etc. On the road, people don’t see other people; they see metal and wheels and machines – not families.

Road rage is clearly linked to high levels of stress. The human reaction to acute stress is “fight or flight,” and road rage is a manifestation of the fight response. Because a driver can’t flee the car when a stressful situation arises, stress builds and can become acute. Dr. John Oldham, a licensed clinical social worker with New Beginnings of Hixson, Tenn., says, “Stress can cause thoughts to become totally irrational, making a person resort to fight as opposed to flight.” At this point, Dr. Oldham says, “the individual does not think of the adverse consequences of his actions.”

Research shows that certain demographics are more prone to road rage. Younger drivers are more prone than older drivers, and men have historically displayed greater tendencies toward aggressive driving. Studies have shown that certain people are predisposed to this type of behavior and display characteristics such as general aggression, high levels of stress, antisocial tendencies, lack of impulse control and low frustration tolerance.

woman with road rage

Although anyone can be affected by aggressive driving at times, researchers suggest that extreme stress associated with driving has produced a certified medical condition. Although commonly thought of as simply extreme road rage, this medical condition is actually called intermittent explosive disorder. According to Dr. Oldham, this condition can cause “failure to resist aggressive impulses.” The angry, horn-blasting tailgater could be suffering from this disorder. In a June 2006 article in the Washington Times, Dr. Emil Coccaro, chairman of psychiatry at the University of Chicago Medical School, is quoted as saying, “People think that it’s bad behavior and that you just need an attitude adjustment, but what they don’t know is that there’s a biological and cognitive science behind it.”

The individual exhibiting intermittent explosive disorder has multiple outbursts that go way beyond what the situation warrants. These outbursts usually include threats or aggressive actions and even property damage. From studies conducted, it is believed that the condition is far more common than is realized, affecting up to 16 million Americans.

Ronald Kessler, a health care policy professor at Harvard Medical School and the lead author in a national study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, observes that the prevalence of intermittent explosive disorder “is news to a lot of people, even [those] who are specialists in mental health services.” To Dr. Oldham, road rage has a definite clinical basis.

Chuck Raison, M.D., clinical director of the Mind Body Program in the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, highlights the harmful effects of stress on drivers. “We know road rage is harmful to health, but it is pervasive, especially in the biggest cities,” Raison tells WebMD. “The stress can raise your blood pressure, foul up your immune system, and make you depressed. People don’t realize that getting all steamed up can make you blow a gasket.” And he adds, “But it’s in our genes to take out our stress on something, and in a car, the object of your anger is anonymous.”

Experts agree that stress affects your thoughts and emotions, making you feel cranky and unable to deal with even small problems. Stress can cause you to feel frustrated, lose your temper more often, and yell at others for no reason.

You can reduce road rage and the harmful effects it can have on you and others by taking just a few simple steps:

Get comfortable when you drive. Stress makes you feel fatigued, and fatigue makes you feel stressed. Take snacks on longer trips, Dr. Oldham advises. Avoid getting irritable from hunger.

Breathe deeply. Rick Warnach, adjunct psychology professor at Johns Hopkins University, recommends simply taking seven or eight slow breaths per minute, breathing from the diaphragm. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Don’t make assumptions. Did the guy in the red Corvette really cut you off deliberately? You may think so, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Psychologists call that kind of assumption the fundamental attribution error, judging from preconceived ideas rather than on the particular situation. The Corvette driver may have been totally unaware that he had cut you off.

Overcome by anger while driving? Stay calm and take control of your emotions.

To prevent being distracted, do not text or talk on the cell phone while driving. Bad news received at this time can cause emotional upset, Dr. Oldham says, and may result in irrational behavior on the road.

Keep in mind that unless you are a police officer, your job is not to punish poor driving behavior.

Refuse to allow another driver, who you do not know, to dictate your emotional state.

Find a safe place to stop and unwind if ever you feel out of control while driving.

Don’t allow driving to become a competition.

An angry, stressed-out driver is a potentially dangerous driver. Reduce harmful stress and so reduce the possibility for road rage.

You will not only be helping to keep our roadways safe, but you will also be improving your health.

Judith P. Nembhard is a Chattanooga resident. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland where she received her Ph.D. in English education. Judith is a member of the Chattanooga Writers Guild and has two sons. Judith is a lifelong educator and a published writer.
Judith P. Nembhard

Barry Markell, Ph.D.

Psychotherapist, Park Ridge, Ill.

Dr. John Oldham

Licensed Clinical Social Worker, New Beginnings

Ronald Kessler

Health Care Policy Professor, Harvard Medical School

Chuck Raison, M.D.

Clinical Director, Mind Body Program

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