Why is Road Rage Suddenly All the Rage?

By Diane Tait

Image courtesy flickr
Face it, we live in trying times.  If the stresses of everyday life in this wired world weren’t enough, now we have to add the devastating effects of the Coronavirus to the mix.  It should come as no surprise that everybody is on edge these days.  Loss of income, no place to go to bleed off some steam and even grocery shortages are beginning to take their toll.  I read a newsfeed the other day where two shoppers got in a knock down drag out over the last 4-pack of toilet paper in a grocery store.  When you can’t go to the movies, the beach or a restaurant it amps up people’s anxieties, sometimes to the breaking point.  Since we can’t count on when this crisis will end, you can count on more cases of road rage making the news in the not too distant future.

Why do drivers sometimes turn into thugs behind the wheel? – Road rage isn’t something new.  It started more than one hundred years ago.  In 1908, Detroit saw no fewer than 31 people killed in car crashes.  Early automobiles were noisy, which disturbed pedestrians and the horses that were the dominant form of transportation at the time.  Not only did horseless carriages disturb the peace, but serious debate and a number of court cases were brought to determine if the automobile was inherently evil.

According to the DetroitNews, The state of Georgia's Court of Appeals wrote: "Automobiles are to be classed with ferocious animals and … the law relating to the duty of owners of such animals is to be applied ... . However, they are not to be classed with bad dogs, vicious bulls, evil disposed mules, and the like." 

Image courtesy pxhere
From the very start, some automobile drivers showed a clear disregard for the safety of other drivers and pedestrians.  Not only were deadly crashes caused when two vehicles met on the street, many children were run down while playing in front of their own homes.  The situation got so bad that by 1916, one fourth of the Detroit Police Department was relegated to traffic enforcement.  If that wasn’t bad enough, in the 1920’s Detroit instituted an annual safety parade which included mannequin drivers dressed as Satan along with bloody mannequin corpses as passengers.  The two biggest problems from a safety standpoint back then was that traffic enforcement was spotty at best and no cars had any of the safety features we’ve come to expect today.

But even with speeding being rampant and driver training practically nonexistent in the early 1900’s, many traffic incidents devolved into arguments and fistfights. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that gunplay began to occur on the streets following a traffic incident.  The first reported fatality occurred in the summer of 1987 when a 24-year-old father was shot for going too slow in the passing lane on the LA Freeway.  That touched off a series of road rage incidents that left five dead and eleven wounded before the summer was over.  The LA Times labelled the incidents as “Highway Hostility”.  For a time after that fateful summer, drivers in Los Angeles began to be more courteous to other drivers for fear that they too would get shot.  Traffic actually improved briefly on the LA Freeway as skittish drivers opted to take surface streets to reach their destination rather than tempt fate.  However, some drivers took to arming themselves in the event that things got ugly.  The California Highway Patrol responded by putting an additional 150 uniformed officers om the street and the courts went to the extreme of making the carrying of a weapon in a glove-box a felony with an automatic 3-year sentence.  While cooler heads inevitably prevailed as time moved on, it wasn’t long before road rage migrated to other major metropolitan areas across the US.

Image courtesy pixabay
How do you define Road Rage? – While gunfights in the street get everyone’s attention, road rage occurs any time you or any other driver lets the actions of other motorists push them to reacting by demonstrating their displeasure over what’s occurring on the road.  Many times this can be nothing more than loudly honking a horn.  Other times it can escalate into rude gestures or verbal epithets being yelled from one vehicle to another.  Once these demonstrations of anger escalate beyond this stage, the results can be tragic.  Drivers have been known to roar past other drivers whom they felt slighted them only to jam on their brakes.  Some have literally rammed offending vehicles or blocked the road only to climb out of their own vehicle to either harass or assault drivers who they felt had offended them.  Last but not least, shots have been fired by one or both drivers from either moving or stationary vehicles.

From a psychological standpoint, road rage stems from one of three factors.  Many mild-mannered people immediately become more aggressive behind the wheel simply because they feel less likely to be held accountable for their actions.  The technical term for this phenomenon is deindividuation.  I myself have seen this phenomenon in action recently in a supermarket parking lot when a mother with three young children in her minivan loudly harangued me for pulling into what she said was her parking spot even though there was no clear indication that she was even trying to park.  Psychologists have conducted numerous studies that showed that societal norms are easily discarded when individuals feel anonymous.

Optimism bias is another factor that leads to everything from road rage to social shunning by people who feel that they are superior to others.  This isn’t a rarity but rather the norm, since 88% of people polled in the US believed they were safer drivers than the average motorist.  These are also the people who typically get mad when others don’t live up to their expectations on the road.
Personal stress can also be a deciding factor when it comes to expressing anger on the road.  Stresses from work and home are easily transferred to those around us, especially those we don’t know.
How should you deal with road rage?

The best way to avoid being involved in a road rage incident is to keep your cool when behind the wheel.  Just as it takes two to tango, it also takes two drivers to have a road rage incident.  That means you should use lane discipline instead of road hogging, give drivers entering the highway the opportunity to merge with traffic by slowing down, never escalate a bad situation into a worse one if a driver suddenly zooms up behind you and honks or flashes their high beams and never pull over if a driver near you reacts angrily.  Better to call 911 to report a road rage incident than to wind up being accosted or assaulted by an irate driver.  Last but not least, don’t overreact if a driver ahead of you cuts you off or slows to a crawl.  Florida isn’t only one of the most visited states in the Union, it’s also the number one state for road rage incidents that have resulted in gunfire.   

Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance.  To find out more about how you can save money on insurance, go to her site or fill out the form at right.


  1. Especially with the current crisis, you need to be twice as nice on the road.

  2. I know road rage is not new but when, but when people are under a lot of stress it's easier for people to blow up than stay clam.


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