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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Anger on asphalt

Overcoming — and forgiving — road rage

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The Allentown Times | February 24, 2006

“He cut me off.”

“Nobody gives me the finger.”

“She wouldn’t turn off her high beams.”

“He just sat there, even though the light was green.”

“She kept tailgating me.”

Sound familiar? Well, in all the real-life cases above, motorists were intentionally injured or murdered by fellow-motorists for these trivial “reasons.” These statements were given in testimony to authorities after the incidents occurred, which took place on roads across the United States from 1990 through 1996.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety tabulated 10,037 nation-wide incidents of “road rage” in those six years, finding that 218 people were intentionally killed and 12,610 were intentionally injured.

The murders included children — the most innocent bystanders of road rage-and the injuries included paralysis, brain damage and amputation. Guns, knives, bats, tire irons, clubs — and vehicles — were used. And in each year of the study, the number of incidents rose.

What is road rage?

Why does it happen?

And what can we do to stop it?

AAA defines road rage as “acting out one’s anger while behind the wheel, after being triggered by something another driver does, in which one commits an incredible act of violence.”

“You have a 5,000-pound weapon at your disposal,” says Ronald S. Manescu, assistant chief of police with the Allentown Police Department. “Things aren’t happening the way you want, so you take out your frustration on other people.”

Road rage is actually quite rare — that’s why high-profile cases make front page news. Aggressive driving, on the other hand, happens every second of every minute of every day. And, ironically, very few of those incidents ever get reported.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Manescu says. “Most of the time, nothing happens, so people think, ‘No harm. No foul.’”

There are literally thousands of mentally impaired and emotionally disturbed people on the road every single day, as well as people driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There are also people who are having a bad day, who might be going through a divorce, job loss or other personal frustration.

That’s why experts urge you to keep one rule above all others: Never assume an aggressive act was meant as such.

And don’t bite back.

“Be polite even if the other driver isn’t,” says Theresa Podguski, director of public affairs at AAA East Penn in Allentown. “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. We all need to share the road. Don’t drive in an atmosphere where anger takes precedence over safe driving. When you’re behind the wheel, concentrate on the act of driving. If someone challenges you, take a deep breath and get out of the way.”

Experts believe the biggest factor in road rage is mood, most often a cumulative result of stressors. When we are stressed, distracted or unhappy, we are more likely to see another driver’s mistakes as intentional, inappropriate and stupid.

The emotional part of our brain heats up until we are unforgiving, beyond being reasoned with, oblivious to the consequences and capable of the rawest brutality.

There’s no “profile” for road rage either; it involves men and women, rich and poor, young and old, all races and all types of vehicles.

There are as many theories about what fuels road rage as there are U.S. interstates, although they can be summarized into seven broad categories:

Let’s examine each one.

Our lives are rushed.

“We’re all operating under the mistaken theory that faster is better,” says Dr. Gregg Amore, a psychologist and director of the counseling center at DeSales University. “Fast food, text messaging, dinner from Domino’s in 30 minutes or it’s free. We’re conditioned to instant results. Our lives are busier, we have more places to go, more things to do, more going on. We gotta get there! If anything thwarts our goal-traffic, an accident, road construction-watch out.”

Sean Pressmann, safety press officer with the Allentown office of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, agrees, “People are in a hurry, the world is getting faster and there’s less time to engage in civil behavior.”

Google puts the most obscure information at our finger tips in mere nanoseconds. For many of us, if it takes our computers more than a few seconds to respond to our commands, we pronounce them unbearably slow.

Is it any wonder we’re just as impatient on the road?

We’re all trying to do too much.

“People are extending some of the responsibilities of their homes and offices into their vehicles,” says Captain Scott Snyder, commanding officer of the Pennsylvania State Police, Troop M, in Bethlehem. “Cell phone use, shaving, makeup, eating. Those are dangerous distractions.”

Some people even type away on laptops and Blackberries while driving.

“Driving time is catching-up time,” says Podguski. “People are conducting more business in cars. In a way, our cars have become too comfortable; they feel too much like home.”

Why do we engage in such misguided behaviors when we know they’re dangerous and distracting?

“It’s the age-old story — it’s not going to happen to me,” Manescu says. "We’re not paying attention to what we need to be paying attention to-the road. But one mistake can make the difference between life and death.”

We see driving as a competition (though, ironically, when we “win,” we lose).

“Some people feel driving is a contest,” Podguski says. “Once it gets personal, once you’re fully engaged, it can completely escalate.”

An AAA brochure called Preventing Road Rage: How to Avoid Anger While Driving says, “Adjust your attitude. The most important actions you can take to avoid road rage take place inside your head. Forget winning. Are you one of those drivers who allows the shortest possible time for a trip and then races the clock? If something happens to slow you down, do you get angry? The solution: Allow more time for your trip.”

Human beings are territorial by nature. When we perceive symbolic threats to our self-esteem, it can trigger our natural defense mechanisms, causing us to re-assert dominance. And our cars are extensions of our sense of self; we choose the color, style, make and model. They’re part of our ego-consciously and unconsciously.

Our cars are bigger.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that SUVs contribute to this,” says Manescu. “Folks are driving bigger cars, and, psychologically, it has something to do with the way they drive, a sense of empowerment or entitlement.”

Bigger, stronger, heavy-duty, downright muscular.

Let’s face it. Most of us are driving trucks.

Our cars give us a sense of anonymity.

“There’s a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” says Steve Schmitt, director of the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation, a Bethlehem group that advocates a “car-free” America by encouraging public transportation, walking and bicycling. “Your car is like a cage. There’s glass and steel separating you from everybody else.”

Schmitt doesn’t own a car and doesn’t drive.

“When I stand on a bus line, I don’t give the finger to the person next to me,” he says. “People out there are behaving insanely. There’s no reason to get so irrationally angry. It makes no sense.”

Experts note that once we get behind the wheel of a car, we feel a sudden and tremendous sense of power and personal space.

“It’s amazing how our attitudes and personalities change when we’re in our cars,” Snyder says. “People definitely conduct themselves differently than if they were face to face.”

There are more of us.

“It’s a different environment in the Lehigh Valley today than it has been in the past," Snyder says. "The increase in population, traffic and congestion."

Manescu concurs. "There’s more sprawl, more cars and more opportunities to get jammed up."

Cruel is cool.

“That person pisses me off, so I’m gonna shoot them,” Amore says. “There’s tremendous reinforcement out there for unhealthy behavior. These days, you can tell someone they sing like a jerk, kick them off the island or say, you’re fired! And video games reinforce this bang ’em, smash ’em, kill ’em mentality.”

Anger is the most seductive of our negative emotions. Unlike sadness, it’s energizing, even exhilarating.

Although we have no control over which of our emotions will visit our brains, or when they will pay us those visits, we do have control over how long they will last. Emotions belong to the “primitive” part of the brain. But, it’s possible, using will power, to think your way out of an emotion by using the “thinking” part of your brain, experts say.

“Road rage is much, much worse than general impoliteness. It’s one thing not to hold a door open for someone. It’s another thing to run them off the road,” Schmitt says.

Studies on road rage show what sets people off is remarkably confined to certain behaviors:

“Using your horn for anything except warning is like slapping someone upside the head,” Manescu says.

But, ironically, one of the reasons road rage is a problem, experts say, is because nobody thinks they’re ever responsible for it.

“People have to realize there are consequences to their actions,” Snyder says. “And if there is a violation of the law, they will be prosecuted. Cars are so much a part of our lives. Obtaining a driver’s license is a rite of passage. It’s all tied up with freedom and mobility.”

Schmitt, who thinks cars are “too dirty, too expensive and too dangerous,” as well as causing pollution, deaths, suburban sprawl and obesity, says, “Americans have love affairs with their cars, but I don’t know if romance is the right word. It’s more like stupefying sappiness.”

See you on the road.