The guy who is blowing his horn and purposely trying to cut you off in traffic could be someone with intermittent explosive disorder, who can blow up at minor provocations, according to psychologists.
He could be someone who has an overdeveloped sense of individual rights, with a rigid, territorial style of thinking. Or he could just be tired and ending a bad day in bad traffic.
Whatever is motivating the lunatic in traffic, psychologists agree with traffic safety experts that the best way to cope with the increasingly deadly problem of road rage is to get out of the way.
“Let them go away. Don’t cut them off. Don’t make eye contact,” said Mark Reinecke, professor and chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Don’t make any gestures and roll down the windows or yell at them.”
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“If somebody does something, don’t do it back,” said Illinois State Police Master Sgt. Mike Link. “Go on about your business.”
That’s something to think about as the heavily traveled Memorial Day weekend winds up.
Road rage causes a relatively small, but increasing percentage of fatalities on U.S. roadways, linked to 467 fatal crashes in 2015 or 1.3 percent, up from 80 or 0.2 percent in 2006, an increase of almost 500 percent in 10 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The number of road rage incidents that involve firearms also appears to be rising. Last month, The Trace, a nonprofit news organization focused on gun violence, found that cases of road rage involving a firearm more than doubled to 620 in 2016 from 247 in 2014, with 136 people killed in those three years. The count included cases of motorists brandishing or firing a weapon at another driver or passenger.
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The Chicago area has seen a number of road rage incidents this year — including the first-ever fatal Tollway shooting. Last week, Anthony Tillmon pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges in the shooting death of Eduardo Munoz, a semitrailer driver. Authorities said the two had engaged in an argument, flailing their arms and yelling, for several miles before Tillmon opened fire on April 21.
Road rage was also suspected in the crash that killed a young woman on Lake Shore Drive in February. Two suspected road rage shootings took place on the Kennedy Expressway in March and April, according to police.
Who are the ragers?
People most likely to engage in road rage tend to fall into a few categories, according to experts.
According to Michael Hakimi, clinical psychologist with Loyola Medicine, one type is a person with an actual mental problem, such as a narcissist, someone who always feels entitled; a sociopath, someone who has no remorse or guilt and no regard for the rights of others; someone with a borderline personality; or someone with intermittent explosive disorder.
Another kind of road rager is someone who has a heightened sense that his or her personal rights are being violated, which ties into a cultural norm in the United States, Hakimi said.
“People feel they’re so entitled to their rights that their rights should be protected under any circumstances,” Hakimi said.
Hakimi said that a driver may have the distorted view that it is his or her job to teach other drivers a lesson.
Those who engage in road rage tend to think in a rigid, self-righteous manner and lack both empathy and a sense that they need to share the road, said Russell Brethauer, a psychologist who spoke on the subject at the Wisconsin Bike Summit this month. They do this whether they actually know traffic laws, and trying to tell them the law tends to be counterproductive, Brethauer noted.
An avid cyclist, Brethauer recalled how a truck driver once purposely went onto the shoulder ahead of him and sprayed him with gravel. Brethauer gave the one-finger salute and yelled that the man had broken the law. The trucker became so enraged that he got out of his vehicle at a red light and came at Brethauer with an axe handle.
“He yells, ‘I broke the law, huh?’ He’s changing all colors of red and purple,” Brethauer recalled. Fortunately, the light changed, and the man decided to get back in his truck.
Bad behavior may also be encouraged by the anonymity of a vehicle, which is similar to the anonymity offered by social media, Hakimi said. Someone in a car or an online chat forum may behave much differently than they would in a social setting, where there are immediate consequences for antisocial actions, he said.
“Whenever we have anonymous situations, people are prone to act aggressively,” Hakimi said.
Males and younger drivers ages 19-39 are significantly more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, according to an AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study last year. The study found that male drivers are more than three times as likely as female drivers to have gotten out of a vehicle to confront another driver or rammed another vehicle on purpose.
Curiously, a 2008 study from Colorado State University found that drivers prone to road rage tend to have more bumper stickers or other personal markers like vanity license plates on their cars — it does not matter if the stickers say “Jesus loves you” or “Save the rainforests.”
“It identifies them as individuals to a larger world,” said Reinecke.
Fatigue, drinking, being under stress and bad traffic also can contribute to road rage, Reinecke said. He said he suspects that the increasing volume of cars on the road could be contributing to an increase in incidents.
Though some personality types may be more prone to aggression, most drivers are prone to get angry in traffic sometimes. The AAA study found that nearly 80 percent of drivers had expressed significant anger, aggression or road rage at least once in the past year, with 51 percent of drivers reporting they had tailgated on purpose, and 12 percent saying they had deliberately cut off another vehicle.
Keeping the rage down
So how do you avoid maniac drivers who want to ram your car, or worse yet, fire a gun through your window? The first way to stay safe is to be a good, alert driver, and not make other people upset, according to safety experts.
“If people aren’t obeying common courtesies, it can enrage other drivers and make them frustrated,” said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the Itasca-based National Safety Council.
Being a good driver includes not using your phone or being otherwise distracted, not using your high beams if you’re behind someone or if a car is coming in the opposite direction, and using your turn signal if you are turning or changing lanes, Hersman said.
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and even if you did nothing wrong, you can run into a raging motorist convinced that you did. The best reaction in this case is to not react, Hakimi said.
“If somebody wants to pass you and is driving crazy and giving you the finger, do not react — just get out of the way,” Hakimi said. “They’re going to be getting into trouble somewhere down the line.” He said a driver should never think it is his job to teach another person how to drive.
“My job is to get to my destination safely,” Hakimi said.
Hersman said that if a motorist is behaving so badly that he poses a threat, your passenger can make note of the license plate and call 911.
But someone driving alone should pull off to a safe location instead of trying to write down a license plate while driving, or worse yet, trying to record the incident on a cellphone, Hersman said.
“Don’t try to take movies while you’re driving,” Hersman said. “Don’t escalate the engagement. These things seem like common sense, but are definitely challenging in the heat of the moment. It’s not worth your life.”
Reinecke said that to deal with your own emotions in traffic, it is important not to personalize what other people do and attach significance to actions that do not deserve it. It is just not realistic to expect everyone to be polite on the Stevenson or the Eisenhower, he said.
“If somebody wants to get some place a half-minute ahead of you, let them,” Reinecke said. “It’s not a big deal. Put on some cool music. Distract yourself. Don’t let it roll around in your head. When we control the meaning we attach to events, we can manage and control the emotions.”