Congressional Testimony on Aggressive Driving
Dr. Leon James
Professor of Psychology
University of Hawaii
Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Infrastructure, US House of
Representatives (Washington, DC), July 17, 1997. Testimony by Dr. Leon James,
Professor of Traffic Psychology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu (Original Government
Document can be accessed here)
The Symptoms of Road Rage
In the course of my research in traffic psychology I have analyzed thousands of
messages written by drivers to each other on electronic discussion groups on the
Internet. I would like to begin this testimony with a classic example of a typical road
rage incident I believe everyone here will find all too familiar. It's the story of a driver
who failed to acknowledge the courtesy of another, and in no time flat this assumed
slight escalated to just short of physical violence. The offended driver reported that
Just before the on-ramp entrance I let a car go in front of me. I thought I had saved this
person a great deal of trouble and that he would be thankful that I let him go ahead of
me. But instead of getting the wave, I got nothing. I didn't even see a quick gesture of
thanks. I scanned my memory back to make sure I hadn't missed anything. Regardless
of how hard I looked for a sign of gratitude, I found none. Immediately, I became
Physiologically, anger is a momentary flare-up that quickly dies down. Up to this point
she was simply angry. Now she started to fan the flames with righteous indignation:
I don't understand why some people are so rude. I feel like tailgating this person to let
him know how I feel. What would society be like if everyone were like this rude person.
Maybe I should've just made him wait for his turn. How hard is it to wave anyway. Any
civilized person would do it. But this person is hardly civilized. I didn't have to do this
person a favor, and I felt as if that rebuff ruined my whole day. I felt hurt and insulted
as well as angry. All I could think about was revenge.
Her anger quickly turned into uninhibited road rage:
I wanted to teach that person a lesson. I wanted that person to crash, to run out of gas,
or get pulled over by the police. I wanted that person to feel like I did, angry. I knew the
chances were pretty small that he would be plagued by any of my curses. So I decided
not to leave it to other forces to teach him a lesson. I had to be the punisher.
Her road rage developed into a classic confrontation that might have had very serious
consequences for all concerned:
By this time we were both on the freeway. I tailgated him in the fast lane going 60 mph.
I must have been no more than a few feet away from his car. I was aware how
dangerous it was in the stop-and-go traffic of rush hour. Then as I passed him, I revved
my V8 engine and gave him the meanest glare I could muster.
She accused the "uncivilized" driver of rebuffing her and ruining her day. Because she
felt hurt by him, she wanted to retaliate, to avenge the injury. She chose to be driven
by her angry emotions, which she attributed self-righteously to the man's rudeness.
She didn't perceive the self-fulfilling prophecy of her road rage. She did not question
the legitimacy of her anger. She never considered that the other driver might simply
have been oblivious to her initial gesture of generosity. She never gave a thought to
how he might respond to her provocation.
Road Rage Around the Nation
Road rage is ubiquitous in America today. Evidently the average commute in our cities,
towns villages and on our highways across the country is filled with anxiety, stress,
antagonism, discontent, and fear that encourages such incidents. Most of the victims
recognize a dramatic increase in road rage. They have different solutions:
A New York City driver complains:
I live in NYC, a town with a seemingly complete lack of driver courtesy (ever drive the
Westside Highway or the FDR Drive?). This is definitely an extreme example. But how
many times, on any highway, is someone passing on the right, or conversely sitting in
a left lane forcing people to go around them? I wonder how many traffic jams could be
eased or eliminated simply by observing protocol on the road. Not to mention
accidents and their attendant costs. All this is especially underscored after having been
in Germany recently, and seeing how things could be.
A Washington, DC, driver appeals to Christian charity
I want to talk about neighborhood driving. It is getting out of hand here in DC. I try to
drive within 5 mph of the limit on side streets and have gotten so many dirty looks and
gestures while doing so. The bad part is *everyone* seems to be doing it, even rather
nice looking women. Children live in these neighborhoods. So do mothers and fathers.
What is the rush? You might save a few minutes but is that worth hurting someone? If
you are Christian you cannot drive this way (Give unto Caesar and all that). You must
consider those around you. Based on the driving habits of the people in the DC
suburbs, most cannot be considered Christian at all. Most are willing to risk the safety
of others to promote their selfish desires. This is not meant to be a liberal/conservative
argument, just a call for common sense. Please think of your faith before you get
behind the wheel.
A Hoboken driver wrote to the New York Times editor asking for stronger law
My neighbors constantly complain about high auto insurance rates, yet the same
individuals get into their high-velocity cars and run stop signs and red lights, tailgate,
weave and speed, and cut others off in order to be "first." Considering the number of
pedestrians and automobile drivers and passengers maimed and killed every year on
New Jersey's roads and highways, "gun control" should be put on the back burner and
"auto control" on the front, so that not only the news media would get after these
reckless drivers but also the New Jersey police departments would get needed public
back-up in their effort to make our highways safer.
Illinois drivers have a reputation for outrageous driving:
Passing on the right, passing on the left, passing on the shoulder, passing on the
sidewalk, making U-turns on the sidewalk, parking on the sidewalk, driving in reverse
the length of a city block, sometimes two, to grab a parking spot...any others I missed?
Illinois drivers are highly creative, that much I must say.
Drivers often focus their fury on presumed "outsiders":
Here in the Northwest the stupidity of the typical driver is beyond description. I'm sure
you can relate. But at the same time, most of these poor excuses for drivers have
moved here from elsewhere and brought their skills (or lack of) with them. I've driven
coast to coast in roughly half the states and one thing is certain, all larger metropolitan
areas have the same problems. People who commute around here are constantly
complaining that there is far too much traffic for the existing roads to handle. A true
statement but one which applies to most cities. It is a condition which I'm sure you've
heard of: Road Rage.
Or like California drivers in the rain:
When I went to Montana and Wyoming this winter, most of the accidents (mostly cars
on the side of the road) were Californians. A little rain and everyone forgets how to
drive. A reporter on KFI in LA even stated "Californians can't drive in the rain." When I
was in LA, I avoided the freeways during rush hour in any rainstorm; there would be a
huge number of accidents, and this was especially true during the first big rainstorm of
any rainy season.
Drivers see the rise of road rage take different manifestations. Here's an example of
Probably the most disturbing *trend* I notice (I work near a hospital) is that it seems
like no one will respect an ambulance any more. I've seen ambulances held up at an
intersection for half a minute, maybe a full minute, flashing their lights and creeping
forward a foot at a time, while people continue to try to make it across, turn, whatever,
right in front of them.
For San Diego drivers aggressive driving is a game:
I live in San Diego too, but I see it a little different. Yes, it's more tense, the "one car
length per 10 mph" is a joke, but I find drivers up there "more" competent. They know
where they are going and they know where the turnoffs are. Sure, everyone flies in real
tight formation with very, very little margin for error. When someone changes lanes
right in front of someone, the guy behind does not slam on his brakes, as might
happen elsewhere. I think it's because they spend so much time on the freeway --that
helps them keep in practice.
One driver gave a cogent analysis of why his style of driving should be considered
"assertive" rather than "aggressive":
The competitive aspect manifests itself not in speed, but in position. There are clumps
of cars traveling slower than the prevailing traffic flow, necessitating lane changes.
Gaps in traffic come and go quickly, making such lane changes challenging at times.
Standing waves aren't uncommon, and everyone will sometimes slam on their brakes
without warning and for no apparent reason. Slowdowns appear out of nowhere: "Can
I get to that upcoming exit in time to escape, or will I be stuck in this mess for a while?"
The competition is in being able to deal with all this stuff effectively by maintaining a
higher degree of situational awareness than the other guy. Does that mean driving like
a maniac? I certainly can't see that it does, necessarily. If you find the sort of mindset
that acknowledges this reality and seeks to thrive in such a milieu dangerous and
aggressive, then so be it.
The difference between being assertive vs. aggressive was given further support by
this driver, whose views are shared by many:
The other thing I do is constantly test my driving habits by thinking, If I were that guy
that I just flashed my lights at, passed on the right, cut close in front of to get through a
tiny "hole," slipped by on a shoulder on a secondary road because a turning lane was
ahead 70 ft or so--how would I feel? Am I truly being inconsiderate (impeding them or
endangering them beyond what is inevitable) or is someone pissed just because I am
doing something that they don't think is right. Yes, I drive by what some people call
"aggressive." I call it "Driving for Progress." But I am constantly aware of how my
driving is affecting others. And no, I am not perfect, I do make mistakes and
occasionally make inconsiderate maneuvers.
Sometimes the anger is generational:
I hate the 17-year-old guy in the "hot rodded" Civic or Eclipse that believes he can
safely navigate Southern California roads at 95, or that his 800 lb. car will withstand a
collision with a dual-trailer big rig at that speed. I mean, I'm currently forced to putt
around in a Geo Metro, and I move along at about 75 (a little fast, but that's what traffic
in general does), but I also realize that if I get hit, they'll probably never be able to
separate me from my car, so I try to keep it a little more reserved. But these kids with
their tiny little imports and whopping 6 months (whoa!) of driving experience that
believe they could outdrive Mario Andretti with their eyes closed, well, they make me
want to savagely and mercilessly inflict permanent and debilitating pain upon their
person while their slut girlfriend looks on in abject terror.
I've found that commuters commonly fantasize their special revenge. One driver wrote:
In a perfect world, once a year they would put all the inconsiderate, incompetent and
rude drivers in little Subaru Fiori's, and we would get to drive all over them in big
And another driver in a similar vein:
All motor vehicles should come with rockets and heavy weapons installed, so all
drivers could express themselves to other drivers in a more creative fashion.
Which led to this cynical echo:
I'd thought that putting steel I-beams along the sides, front and rear with Boadicea type
spikes out of the wheels would be enough but it messes up the resale value.
Anatomy of an Epic Road Rage Tragedy
The natural cycle of verbal road rage begins with an explosion of invectives and
accusations, silent or out loud, reaching a rapid peak that lasts a few seconds, then
lessens with a temporary feeling of relief from the pent-up pressure of frustration or
fear. What happens next depends on conditions. In some minor but annoying events,
conflicting exchanges die down after a few moments when the physiological symptoms
of anger dissipate, receding into the subconscious, put to sleep, but ready to awaken
at the next opportunity, maybe only a minute or two later. The cycle of anger can be
rekindled just by seeing the other car, or it can die down if the target driver avoids eye
contact, verbal replies, and other forms of provocation.
But if the two drivers amplify and re-cycle their combative emotions, their verbal rage
can transform itself into epic proportions. The further the cycle of hostility turns, the
more intense it becomes, and the individuals are less inclined to back down. This is
because the intensity of road rage is determined by rationalizations and justifications,
and the more "rounds" the antagonists go with each other, the more reasons they will
find for continuing and escalating the feud.
Understanding road rage requires the ability to analyze a road rage incident and see
its natural steps of development or escalation. Each step allows the drivers a choice
point: to continue the conflict or to back out of it. To help you see these steps, we will
analyze a road rage battle that involved two aggressive women drivers in which
provocation led to provocation, ending in tragedy.
Note: if interested, see this recent survey showing that women drivers are now getting
We were able to reconstruct the incident in 10 steps or choice points. The following
sequence of events are reconstructed from a Court TV broadcast of the case of a 24
year old mother of two in Cincinnati who was the defendant in a criminal suit for road
Sequence of Emotional Intelligence (EI)
Road Rage Steps Choice Points
Step 1: Woman, 24 year old mother Overtaking a line of vehicles is
of two in Cincinnati, driving alone in always risky. You must expect that
a GrandAm, is following a woman other drivers in the line also want to
driver in a VW. In front of them are break away, so don't speed up
several cars behind a truck going excessively.
35 mph. The GrandAm pulls into
the left lane in order to pass and EI Choice 1: Pull into the lane and
speeds up to 55 mph. increase speed moderately in case
someone pulls out in front of you.
Takes the skill of restraining
yourself and accommodating
Step 2: The VW suddenly pulls out This provocative maneuver
into the left lane, in front of the suddenly creates a dangerous
GrandAm, going 20 mph slower incident. Trial records show this
and forcing the GrandAm driver to was done deliberately to annoy the
apply the brakes suddenly. GrandAm driver for tailgating her.
It's an aggressive act, in direct
opposition to another driver already
engaged in a lane change
EI Choice 2: Avoid engaging in
power struggles with other drivers.
It takes the skill of backing down
from a challenge, of being less
competitive, and intending to
facilitate rather than oppose what
other drivers want to do.
Step 3: The VW gradually This is a proper maneuver, but
overtakes the slow truck, passes it, doesn't by itself defuse the power
and pulls back into the right lane. struggle that is in progress.
EI Choice 3: Be prepared to pacify
hurt feelings. It takes tools of self-
regulation to remain calm in the
face of a potential backlash. You
can predict that the other driver will
likely retaliate your provocative
Step 4: The GrandAm, still in the One of the worst things a driver can
left lane, now overtakes the VW, do is openly duel with another
honks several times, makes driver. She uses all of the
obscene gestures, and flashes her behaviors known to be acts of war
lights as signs of outrage ("to let on the road.
her know that she almost caused
an accident just then"). EI Choice 4: Retain self-control by
refusing to fan the flames of your
righteous indignation. Resist the
temptation to teach other drivers a
lesson. Valuing motorists as fellow
human beings gives you the inner
power to resist the impulse to
Step 5: The VW driver responds by The worst thing to do in a road rage
flipping the bird and shaking her power struggle is to continue the
head. duel. By not defusing the situation,
she is irresistibly drawn into the
EI Choice 5: Use every opportunity
to "come out swinging positive" by
appearing to be calm, like you're no
longer taking a fighting stance. It
takes the skills of switching to a
non-confrontational posture, and of
rationally predicting the
consequences of road rage.
Step 6: The GrandAm now tries to The die is cast for a tragedy, with
pull ahead in the left lane in order both drivers locking themselves into
to re-enter the right lane, but the a pathological game.
VW accelerates, blocking the way.
EI Choice 6: Desist. Recognize that
you are in an insane power struggle
that you instantly need to back out
of. This takes self-witnessing to
help you realize how far gone you
are in your emotional hijacking.
Step 7: The GrandAm slows down Having no choice, she's forced to
and pulls in behind the VW and back off momentarily, but hasn't
now keeps up the pressure by calmed down. She escalates the
tailgating dangerously. fight.
EI Choice 7: Use a lull in the fight to
calm down and pacify the other
driver by not appearing hostile. You
need to train yourself to be able to
back out of a fight by practicing "an
attitude of latitude" or forgiveness.
Step 8: Now the GrandAm She uses her experience as a
suddenly pulls out into the left lane driver to wage war. She's no longer
again, overtakes and cuts off the just getting even. She started out
VW, then gives her a "brake job," by getting upset that the VW driver
slamming on the brakes to punish almost caused an accident, but
the VW driver behind her. then ended up herself creating a
EI Choice 8: Realize that the law of
escalation exacts tragedy. This
takes an overhaul of the aggressive
driver's personality and driving
Step 9: The VW driver applies her She started out nearly causing a
brakes suddenly and they lock, crash by pulling out in front of the
causing her to veer sideways to the GrandAm. Instead of pacifying the
right where she hits truck parked on driver, she flipped her the bird, and
the shoulder. She is thrown from ended up losing her baby.
the car, taken to the hospital where
she recovers from surgery, but she EI Choice 9: It's too late to do
was pregnant and her unborn child anything. It's gone too far.
Step 10: The GrandAm driver Not only did she have no remorse,
continues her trip to the office but she was proud of what she did,
where she told her supervisor that and bragged about it. This came
she'd been in an accident, that "the back to haunt her when it was
other driver had it coming" and that brought out at the trial through the
"she wasn't going to take **** from testimony of her supervisor.
no one." Later, she was arrested
and charged with vehicular EI Choice 10: She needs a
homicide for causing the death of complete driving personality make-
an unborn child. over, which will take years, and will
involve examining and changing
her self-image, her ego relationship
to cars, her values about human
rights, her anger management, and
her caring about fellow human
The Trial and the Verdict
The trial of Tracie Alfieri took place in Hamilton County in Cincinnati before Judge
Patrick T. Dinklelacker between April 28, 1997 and May 2, 1997. The jury found Alfieri
guilty of both the aggravated vehicular homicide and aggravated vehicular assault
charges. Alfieri was sentenced to a one-and-a-half-year prison term on May 21. (Court
Library, Ohio v. Alfieri (5/97)
Our analysis of other road rage incidents reported in the media confirms that this
sequence of events is typical, clearly reflecting the choice points drivers have. These
steps show that road rage is an inability to let go of a desire to punish and retaliate the
other driver. Drivers need emotional intelligence training to gain this ability. Our
research has uncovered different types of road rage which we were able to classify in
three broad types.
There's growing official alarm about road rage. The US government has named
"aggressive drivers" as one of the most serious transportation challenges facing State
legislatures today. Ricardo Martinez, federal administrator of the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has declared that road rage is now the Number
One traffic problem. The New York Times reported a poll in Washington, D.C., showing
that 42% of the residents rate aggressive drivers as the biggest threat on the road,
followed by drunk drivers (35%). The problem is so serious that insurance companies
are devising ways to deny insurance to aggressive drivers and cut rates for peaceful
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released data in 1996 showing that the average
number of violent incidents reported between drivers in the US. has increased annually
over the past eight years, 51% since 1990. In 1996 alone about 2,000 violent incidents
were formally reported by police nationwide. But this is considered the small tip of a
very large iceberg, according to safety officials who believe that for every aggressive
driving incident serious enough to result in a police report or newspaper article, there
are hundreds or thousands more which never got reported to the authorities.
On one Internet site used by professionals who drive for a living it was recently;y noted
that most professional drivers regularly experience road rage incidents, some of which
end in physical damage or injury:
Road rage is becoming a major problem for motorists and especially high mileage
company car drivers. 78% of company car drivers said that at some time another driver
had verbally abused them, while 21% said that another driver had forced them to pull
over or off the road. However, although most cases of road rage did not lead to
physical injury - only 3% suffered from physical violence -- 10% suffered damage to
their car from road ragers.
Road Rage: A Culturally Acquired Habit
Driving and habitual road rage have become virtually inseparable. Why? What causes
aggressive driving and habitual road rage? And everybody points to the same factors:
more cars--->more traffic--->more frustration--->more stress--->more anger--->more
hostility--->more violence. More cars leads to more aggression on the roads, sort of
like rats fighting in a crowded colony.
Given this logic the standard solutions are: more and better roads, better cars, better
laws, better enforcement, and better public education campaigns. Even individual and
group therapy. All of these approaches have been helpful, but in my opinion, they are
not sufficient to contain and eliminate the epidemic of road rage.
The culture of road rage has deep roots. We inherit aggressive and dangerous driving
patterns as children, watching our parents and other adults behind the wheel, and by
watching and absorbing bad driving behaviors depicted in movies and television
I was astounded the first time I listened to drivers who had tape recorded their
thoughts and feelings in traffic, speaking their thoughts aloud while driving, giving a
sort of play-by-play of what it's like inside the private world of the driver. This was the
first time in the history of psychology that self-witnessing data became available
through hundreds of drivers speaking and recording their thoughts in traffic. One
feature that particularly amazed me was the pervasive negativity of their thoughts and
feelings. In a kind of Jekyll and Hyde effect perfectly ordinary, friendly, good-hearted
people tend to become extremely intolerant and anti-social as soon as they get behind
the wheel. Behind the wheel their personality undergoes a rapid transformation, from
polite and tolerant to inconsiderate, intolerant and emotionally unintelligent.
As a result of my studies, I've concluded that aggressive drivers need other behavioral
modification techniques to manage their competitive impulses on the road. I refer to
this set of emotional management techniques as "inner power tools" for smart driving.
It took several years of research for me to understand the psychological mechanism of
emotionally impaired driving. The car is not only an object of convenience, beauty, and
status. It is also a cultural and psychological object, associated with the driver's
internal mental and emotional dynamics, our ego. Cars are an extension of the self,
they are ego-laden objects that can be used both positively and negatively to get our
own way on the road. The automobile offers us a means to exercise direct control over
our environment. When we enter the car we use it as an outlet for regaining a sense of
control. Automobiles are powerful, and obedient. They respond instantly and
gratifyingly to our command, giving us a sense of well being that comes with achieving
control over one's environment.
The pace of life has increased for the majority of the population. Many have
commented on the general feeling of loss of control in their lives. And yet it is human
and natural to seek a sense of control in our lives, we want to feel we're getting
somewhere, that we're not wasting time, that we're doing the right and just thing, that
we're free to pursue our own interest- unfettered.
What happens when someone thwarts our sense of freedom? For example, while
driving along in a pack of vehicles, a car in the left lane suddenly darts into your lane
just ahead of you. Your foot automatically lifts from the gas pedal and taps the brakes,
just enough to maintain distance. At this point, aggressive drivers feel thwarted
because they were forced to alter what they were doing. That driver forced you to lift
your foot two inches. "What a moron. What an idiot." You feel an explosion of fury
inside. It gets very hot. You might even begin to perspire. You grip the wheel harder.
Now you've arrived at the decisive moment: you can let the emotion die out, or you can
fan the flames with thoughts of indignation and retaliation. Aggressive drivers do not let
the momentary emotional flare die down.
I discovered that many drivers I've worked with haven't learned the emotional skills
they need to handle such routine emergency situations. The violation of their sense of
personal freedom instantly arouses negative emotions that escalate in sequence from
frustration to hostility to hatred. The fact is that aggressive driving is a cultural norm
because our culture condones the expression of hostility whenever we feel wronged.
The Need to Recognize and Accommodate to the Diversity of Drivers
A symptom of road rage everywhere is the unforgivingly narrow latitude drivers cut
each other for making mistakes. Emotionally intelligent thinking empowers drivers with
an inner power tool we call the 'attitude of latitude.' It allows people to think more
objectively and realistically about drivers' inevitable mistakes and bad moves. It
empowers them to think of alternative explanations for motorists' mistakes--not being
stupid or careless or incompetent--but being momentarily overwhelmed, scared,
confused, or unprepared. And it enables them to deal cautiously with selfish drivers
who intentionally do "stupid" things.
The fact is that most drivers will appear incompetent under certain circumstances.
When motorists are unfamiliar with the road environment they inevitably will
experience some information overload and disorientation, resulting in slower reaction
times and less efficient lane changes and turns. Other drivers have to cut these people
The American Association for Retired People (AARP), has a national program of driver
re-training for older motorists (55 Alive). I was told that tailgating is the chief problem
they're experiencing from aggressive drivers. I have gathered data from electronic
discussion groups for drivers on the Internet from around the country. Their chief
complaint, which arouses fury both on the road and in the discussion, is slow drivers in
the passing lane. So, we have a situation where older drivers are terrified by tailgaters
who rage against them for not getting out of the way.
Some drivers might be experiencing temporary physical difficulties, like a sprained
back which reduces their range of motion when looking over the shoulder. Other
drivers may have kids in the car who behave unpredictably, vying for the attention of
the driver. Older drivers with valid licenses do have slower reaction times, and they
have a right to use the roads, and to expect a safe environment. Finally, daily physical
and emotional stress can itself reduce the alertness of drivers.
There is a greater diversity of road users now than at any time in history, therefore the
streets are not reserved for the optimum, skilled driver, but accommodate a variety of
driver groups with varying skill, acuity, and emotional control. Raging and venting their
indignation against these "idiot drivers" or "bad drivers" only leads to stress,
confrontation, and worse. These drivers need help and motivation for developing
emotionally more intelligent thinking.
Thinking of alternative explanations for a driver's mistake is more realistic, more
intelligent, less stereotyped and hung up on subjective attributions and undemocratic
solutions ("Get them off the road.") An attitude of latitude as a driver is of great benefit
because it counteracts one's tendency towards hostile judgments and righteous
indignation--sure symptoms of road rage. People's driving philosophy can include the
idea that making mistakes is routine in driving, and for most drivers, a mistake doesn't
mean inherent incompetence.
The psychology of making mistakes, known among professionals as error analysis,
reveals that to err is both common and human (at the rate of 4-10% on the average for
any human activity). It's extremely unlikely that complex activities such as driving could
be error-free. Of course, errors are scary, especially in driving. Feeling like you just
barely escaped a collision due to some motorist's "mistake," there's an almost
irresistible urge to explode in a desire to retaliate. Yet this anger is of such a brief
duration that it can die down quickly as we realize that we're safe, this time. It's venting
the anger that rekindles it, the feeling that we have the right and duty to retaliate and
punish, since we've been wronged by selfish and inconsiderate conduct. This is road
rage against mistakes. It's an emotional liability.
Defensive Driving is Part of the Problem
Many people believe in the trigger-theory of anger which sees road ragers as
maladjusted individuals who need therapy to help them manage their intense anti-
social emotions. For this reason, anger management therapies and stress control
programs have been around for decades for those who can afford psychotherapy.
However, in my view applying this psychotherapeutic approach to drivers in general
will have limited success because road rage is a generic, cultural problem and not an
individual mental problem. In my view, the problem is not so much the presence of
anger itself, but uninhibited aggressiveness. Our cultural norms permit the expression
of hostility among drivers. This became clear to me when I analyzed the self-
witnessing reports of many drivers. They felt justified in their road rage. They were
proud of their aggressiveness. There was no consciousness of unfairness or wrong
The fuel that drives aggressiveness on the road is the false assumption that it's the
action of the other driver that makes us hostile, that triggers our aggressive response.
But the offending act does not automatically trigger the aggressive response, it merely
creates an opportunity for an attack in order to express righteous indignation. If other
drivers were the trigger, you'd have no choice but to be aggressive every time
something goes wrong. Yet this isn't what happens according to the drivers we worked
with. They only retaliate sometimes when they feel insulted, not every time. Some
drivers never retaliate overtly, though they want to.
Everyone can list their driving pet peeves on the road. These are the behaviors of
other drivers that "get us going" or "push our hot buttons." We all uphold certain rules
of the road that we expect others to follow. Driving pet peeves are those "official
occasions" when we give ourselves permission to rage because someone has broken
"an important rule." Drivers may already be in a stressful state of mind when they get
behind the wheel. Faced with a combination of congested traffic and hostile motorists,
drivers slip into a habitual road rage mentality.
Surprisingly, the defensive driving philosophy advocated by safety officials and taught
in driving schools, may contribute to aggressive driving instead of helping the problem.
The reason is that defensive driving does not teach a cooperative and supportive
philosophy. It simply says, expect the worst from everyone and avoid trouble.
Aggressive drivers who rage against other drivers often see themselves as defensive
drivers, but in reality, they have become offensive drivers.
The Components of Aggressive Driving
Here is one of the test-yourself inventories I use for drivers who volunteer to try to
change their driving style. By reading the items and how they are organized and
scored, you can identify the specific elements that constitute aggressive driving. The
following 20 items are arranged along a continuum of escalating degrees of hostility
experienced by drivers, beginning with relatively milder forms of aggressiveness (step
1) and going all the way to ultimate violence (step 20). How far down the uncivilized
road do you sometimes allow yourself to go behind the wheel? The majority of drivers
we tested go as far as step 13. How about you?
1. Mentally condemning other drivers.
2. Verbally denigrating other drivers to a passenger in your vehicle.
3. Closing ranks to deny someone entering your lane because you're frustrated or
4. Giving another driver the "stink eye" to show your disapproval.
5. Speeding past another car or revving the engine as a sign of protest.
6. Preventing another driver from passing because you're mad.
7. Tailgating to pressure a driver to go faster or get out of the way.
8. Fantasizing physical violence against another driver.
9. Honking or yelling at someone through the window to indicate displeasure.
10. Making a visible obscene gesture at another driver.
11. Using your car to retaliate by making sudden, threatening maneuvers.
12. Pursuing another car in chase because of a provocation or insult.
13. Getting out of the car and engaging in a verbal dispute, on a street or parking lot.
14. Carrying a weapon in the car in case you decide to use it in a driving incident.
15. Deliberately bumping or ramming another car in anger.
16. Trying to run another car off the road to punish the driver.
17. Getting out of the car and beating or battering someone as a result of a road
18. Trying to run someone down whose actions angered you.
19. Shooting at another car.
20. Killing someone.
I divide the range into five zones of aggressiveness:
The Unfriendly Zone: Items 1 to 3--mental and verbal acts of unkindness
towards other drivers.
The Hostile Zone: Items 4 to 7--visibly communicating one's displeasure or
resentment, with the desire to punish.
The Violent Zone: Items 8 to 11--carrying out an act of hostility, either in fantasy
The Lesser Mayhem Zone: Items 12 to 16--epic road rage contained within
one's personal limits.
The Major Mayhem Zone: Items 17 to 20--uncontained epic road rage, the stuff
of newspaper stories. Would you like to take another Self-Evaluation of
aggressive driving tendencies?
Three Methods for Dealing with Aggressive Drivers
Because aggressive driving is a cultural trait, we need to apply social cultural
techniques to alter the negative cultural norm of hostility and competition on highways.
Only a cultural approach will have the power and authority to convince millions of
drivers to change their style and philosophy. For years I have supervised drivers in
their driving personality makeover projects and have discovered that the group context
is a powerful method for social change.
In the group, drivers are exposed to more positive role-models and can identify with
them as a motivation for changing their value system. It is important to have a variety
or diversity of role models so people can chose those that are appropriate to them and
harmonious with their reputation and character. A particularly useful approach is the
generational group culture in which all members contribute their self-witnessing reports
to the group and are used by new members as models.
(1) QDCs or Quality Driving Circles
Small groups of drivers meet together regularly, and discuss their driving situation,
influencing and learning from each other. All participants are encouraged to contribute
their self-witnessing reports and tapes for common use and discussion. A generational
library of self-witnessing reports thus accumulates and forms the basis for change. The
self-witnessing reports are prepared by members according to models and
instructions. They include
thoughts and feelings behind the wheel
driving personality makeover projects using behavioral techniques of self-
checklists, tests, and inventories to help keep track of changes and patterns in
Each QDC would have access to the traffic data from the self-witnessing reports
produced by other QDCs as well--a sort of community grass roots organization.
QDCs may also be a good vehicle for the Courts who are always looking for driver re-
education programs more effective than watching driving safety movies, or doing
unrelated community work. The dynamic power of groups to influence individual
behavior is well known to social scientists. We should be using this power for re-
educating aggressive and emotionally impaired drivers.
QDCs are principally cultural motivators for a value change. QDCs are re-education
delivery mechanisms for changing aggressive driving into supportive driving. But they
also are the best source of continuous data for tracking the level and intensity of
aggressive driving. Trained volunteers tape record themselves in traffic and later
analyze the data, using approved checklists for the presence or absence of certain
emotions, and their intensity. These data would be a measure of the level of
aggressiveness or stress that drivers regularly experience on that stretch of road, and
the nature of these emotions and thoughts, so they may be dealt with on a public
basis. These data would be anonymous and published on a regular basis.
Stationary witnesses are designated and trained volunteers who stand at certain spots
and record incidences they observe, keeping track with an approved checklist form.
Moving witnesses are drivers who are trained through Quality Driving Circles, or some
other method, to use a tape recorder to record their observations of aggressive driving
behaviors of other drivers. It's not intended to identify particular drivers, but to identify
and log observable aggressive driving behaviors that occur in that region. By way of
control, we first need to establish whether or not aggressiveness has increased in a
particular area, relative to itself, and how it compares in average and range to other
locales, nearby or nationally. These data can be used to plan treatment procedures, to
guide agencies, and to reward locales that show improvements or levels above certain
Fortunately, there is always a small percentage of drivers who do not fit the norm.
They constitute the role-model definition of what smart driving is like. For instance,
while the usual aggressive driver is dangerous, anti-social, and intolerant, the smart
driver is rational, predictable, considerate, and accepting of diversity among drivers.
The smart driver is a supportive driver. Smart drivers have acquired emotionally
intelligent skills that allow them to accommodate rather than oppose the diversity of
drivers. My research has allowed me to identify many of the traits that smart drivers
teach themselves. Some examples:
Using positive self-regulatory sentences.
Acquiring a supportive driving philosophy.
Acting as-if positive when you feel negative.
Adopting cooperative role models and symbols for cars and driving.
Practicing self-witnessing for objective self-awareness.
Regularly considering the effect of one's driving on others.
Come out swinging positive when getting into trouble with others.
Shrinking emotional territory.
Learning to satisfy the sense of personal freedom through smart driving.
I believe it is possible and necessary to actively teach emotionally intelligent driving
skills to the current population of 180 million drivers, and to our children who form the
next generation of drivers. External methods of dealing with aggressive driving, such
as road improvement, automobile safety engineering, safety regulations, law
enforcement, informational campaigns, traditional driver's ed. and defensive driving
courses are all helpful. But in my view they cannot work without an internal solution--if
we expect dramatic improvements in the culture of hostility on the road, we need a
profound change of social attitude toward conventional driving psychology. We've seen
drastic and rapid changes in public attitudes to unbelted driving, to speeding, to drunk
driving. We've seen extraordinary pressure applied to the culture of smoking. There's
no reason why similar pressure cannot be brought to bear on the disease of road rage.
(See QDC article here)
(2) New Driver's Ed
It is a well known that the traditional driver's ed. has remained inadequate as the
means for teaching full competence and knowledge of safety, and only satisfies the
bare minimum for getting driver's licenses into the hands of millions of young people.
Even less attention is given to teaching emotional intelligence skills. The result is that
most drivers are ill-prepared to manage their intense emotions behind the wheel. In my
opinion, the New Driver's Ed should be taught K-12 for Emotional Intelligence Skills on
As pedestrians, how to behave towards drivers
How to behave as passengers (see details on this TEE card)
How to deal with hostility expressed by drivers (see details on this TEE card)
How to deal with peer pressure in highway situations
How to develop and sustain a positive driving philosophy (see details on this
How to be acceptant of diversity and how to accommodate to it
How to practice self-witnessing behind the wheel
How to participate in Quality Driving Circles
How to use inner power techniques to manage emotions in traffic (see details
on this TEE card)
(See new proposal here)
(3) CARR--Children Against Road Rage
Since aggressive driving is a culturally transmitted and sanctioned habit, we need to
start with children to avoid breeding another generation of aggressive and violent
drivers and pedestrians. I have evidence that children also have road rage against
drivers and can behave very aggressively as pedestrians. Later they get a driver's
license and drive aggressively.
CARR is a newly proposed organization patterned after MADD and SADD--Mothers/
Students Against Drunk Driving. Its purpose is to form local organizations of children,
supervised by adults, in which they learn to develop emotionally intelligent road
behaviors as pedestrians, cyclists, vehicle passengers, and later, as student drivers.
CARR joins the many child advocacy groups that attempt to protect children from
violence and abuse at home, in school, or on the streets.
CARR will be the first such organization specifically to protect children from road rage
and aggressive driving. Since these are culturally inherited and generationally
transmitted patterns of violence, only a generational approach can reverse the
process. As passengers for many years, children witness the road rage thinking and
hostile behavior of drivers. They are vulnerable to absorbing this type of violence and
so they need a socially organized mechanism for learning how to stay clear of it with a
See more articles on Road Rage and Aggressive Driving by Dr. Leon James