Two drivers in two snazzy cars, adjacent lanes, and bad moods are about to "merge" on a freeway at seventy. They have never met before, on the road or off, and neither has earned the other's anger, but for whatever reason, they've both had enough of pushy people for the day. They're neck and neck. Their lanes will begin to join in 500 feet, or about five seconds. Each driver pretends not to notice the other.
During the next quarter of a minute, the gap between the cars slowly narrows, then disappears. You watch, astonished, as the two drivers compete for their single lane. Neither is willing to acknowledge the other.
Plenty of room remains on the road, and you avoid the conjoined pair of once pretty but now crumpled cars as their drivers lose control. They spin lazily to the shoulder in a jumble of metal scrap.
You have witnessed road rage.
We can't say how bad the problem is; we lack clear data. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) believes the number of crashes caused by road rage each year to be "substantial". An oft-quoted NHTSA statistic describes almost 13,000 injuries or deaths caused by aggressive driving between the years 1990 and 1997.
Road rage and aggressive driving are related but distinct. The relationship may be obvious, and we will explore it in a moment, but let us first make the following quick distinction: aggressive driving is a misdemeanor, whereas road rage is a criminal offense.
And, yes, it can be quite deadly.
The following story received wide media attention in Colorado between November 2005 and April 2007. On 8 November 2005 a 32-year-old man named Jason Reynolds with a history of dangerous driving chased-down a Toyota 4-Runner, swerved in front of it, and slammed-on his brakes. The 4-Runner lost control, crossed the median, flipped, and crashed at high speed atop an oncoming Ford Explorer. The Explorer's driver, Greg Boss, and the driver of the 4-Runner, Kevin Norman, were instantly killed. After the crash Reynolds said that Norman "got what he deserved and what he had coming."
Reynolds was convicted in 2007 of first-degree murder for deaths resulting from road-rage. In his apology, he blamed Norman for the crash, and the "journalistic hacks" of the media for the outcome of his trial.
The Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos Samour, who handed down the sentence, responded famously to the apology: "Mr. Reynolds, you might as well have been standing in the middle of the highway with a gun pointed at people. You used your car as a weapon, and you played Russian roulette."
The NHTSA definition of road rage is "an assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by the operator or passenger(s) of another motor vehicle or an assault precipitated by an incident that occurred on a roadway." Simply put, it is intentional violence on the road. It is a dangerous criminal offense that can lead to further altercations, to damaged vehicles or other property, to injury or to death.
From aggression to rage
Aggressive driving leads to road rage as the response. Many people drive too fast, tailgate, change lanes without warning or with little safety margin, or pass on the shoulder or in the emergency lane. But aggressive driving is carelessly dangerous, whereas road rage is deliberate.
Aggression may arise in drivers who are frustrated by bad weather, time constraints, traffic congestion, or the carelessness of others. Or, for that matter, arguments earlier in the day with coworkers, and so on.
Oversensitive drivers may aggressively defend their cars from potential hostility. They may feel provoked, wishing to retaliate. And, unfortunately, they may perceive aggression on the road where there is none.
Thus aggressive driving can occur spontaneously but continue to propagate from one driver to the next unless we actively quash it by backing off and calming down.
Mark Nelson of RoadRagers.com names these causes of road rage: a frustrating environment, retaliatory instructive responses, and territorial defensiveness.
How can road rage be avoided?
Here again is the mantra of safe driving in aggressive conditions: back off and calm down. A two ton car moving a mile a minute can hurt people very badly because it lacks the margins of safety to waste in anger.
Remind yourself to give other drivers the benefit of the doubt. Where you think you see aggression, you might be wrong. It helps to remember that driving styles are different in each city.
The locals probably have no idea why their failure to use turn signals should make newcomers so cranky and self-righteous. The locals may signal lane changes through a kind of telemetry involving moving to the edges of their lanes and waiting two seconds for other drivers to notice; and if other drivers make space, that's nice, but such courtesy isn't required. This all works quite nicely for the locals.
The newcomers, for their parts, may think nothing of passing on the right. To do so may startle the locals. In some cities, to do so may trigger a string of heart attacks.
Neither the newcomers nor the locals intend any aggression. Nevertheless, the potential for misunderstanding and subsequent anger is great, so try to be understanding.
On the other hand, do keep watch for true aggression. In your mind, mark aggressive drivers and road-ragers as road hazards, and try to predict their reactions to other drivers -- and to you in particular -- so that you can avoid any dangerous moves they might make. Your goal is to prevent an accident with them. Give them plenty of space, and give yourself an escape route. If they do something dangerous, use your escape route and the space you've created to avoid the danger.
But above all, be gracious and polite! Politeness is the direct antidote for road rage. Be nice and wave thanks to nice people, trying to be polite to everyone, because anyone could be feeling grouchy.
Much kudos to the polite
According to the AutoVantage Car Club's "In The Driver's Seat Road Rage Survey" of 2007, the most courteous drivers live in Portland, Oregon, followed by drivers in Pittsburgh, in Seattle / Tacoma, in St. Louis, and in Dallas / Ft. Worth. The rudest drivers in the nation live in Miami, Florida. They are followed by drivers in New York, then in Boston, in Los Angeles, and in Washington, D.C.
This writer happens to have grown up in Portland, and now lives in New York.