Why is so little being done about road rage?
Our car is heading into the city when a woman dashes across the intersection while the pedestrian light is red. The driver directly behind us leans on his horn. “That wasn’t a honk to say ‘I’m here,’” says former police driving instructor Richard Gladman. “That was a rebuke.”
A driver’s impulse to honk at an errant pedestrian is to assert they are ‘right’, explains Gladman. It is an example of the type of low-level frustration that can – and does – escalate into full-blown road rage. And it’s happening every day on our overburdened roads and highways.
Road rage is increasingly common, with more than 70 per cent of drivers in Australia and 20 per cent in New Zealand having experienced road rage in the past year. According to a survey by the NRMA (National Roads and Motorists’ Association), almost one in five drivers admitted to committing road rage, and 22 per cent of these incidents happened with children under the age of 15 in the car.
The most common form of abuse for the ‘average person’? Leaning on the horn came in top at 75 per cent, followed by abusive ‘hand gestures’ at 44 per cent and mouthing abuse at 31 per cent. Disturbingly, after being a victim of road rage, more than 40 per cent of respondents reported losing confidence while driving.
Last November, New Zealand AA asked its members to rank the most annoying behaviour on the roads – and running a red light topped the list. Other road-rage-inducing behaviour included drivers in the slow lane speeding up at the overtaking lane, tailgating, driving while using phones, not indicating, driving slowly and lane weaving. But our list of irritations didn’t just appear in recent years.
Driver anger has a long history. British magazine The Oldie unearthed a case of ‘carriage rage’ dating back to 1817. It was an early indication that we humans can have trouble handling frustrations on our way from point A to point B. But the current term was coined in the late 1980s when news anchors in the US reported a grisly spate of freeway shootings.
Today, with an ever-increasing number of cars on the road, more and more motorists find themselves trapped in traffic and at the mercy of another’s anger – or their own.
A 2017 Australian study of almost 3000 drivers by the Monash University Accident Research Centre revealed the majority of people admitted to some form of aggressive driving. The worst offenders were male drivers aged between 22 and 39. More than a third of these admitted to extreme road rage and said they had driven after another driver at least once while angry.
While several studies have shown male drivers are more likely to commit road violence, women tend to feel angrier behind the wheel.
Most shockingly, 96 per cent of drivers who had been involved in a car crash reported they had experienced aggressive behaviour on the roads. Perhaps not surprisingly, the study also found overly aggressive drivers were much more likely to make bad choices, such as driving and holding a mobile phone, speeding and also drink-driving.
Even when it doesn’t lead to violence, road rage has become more than just a strange quirk of driving behaviour, say advocates for road safety. It is a symptom of a self-focused worldview, and because people feel anonymous in their cars, they feel they can be rude or worse – and not be held to account for their behaviour.
Louis Bez, 34, says he often sees drivers shouting when trapped in traffic in the clogged-up city streets where he lives. The atmosphere sours, and words or gestures are exchanged. There was a moment when he realised he was doing just the same. “It’s in the privacy of my car, but still I swear out loud,” he admits. The protection of his car gives Bez the license he needs to vent when he wouldn’t do it otherwise.
Dr Bridie Scott-Parker studies road rage and leads the Adolescent Risk Research Unit at the University of the Sunshine Coast. “As roads become busier and we experience more congestion, it’s only natural we have an increase in driver anger and driver aggression,” she says. “However, this is something we can – in many instances – prevent.”
Merging lanes, in particular, can evoke strong anger in drivers. Going online to the local licensing authority to check the road rules will help you avoid making mistakes and attracting road rage from other drivers.
“By travelling inside a vehicle we are affectively inside an insulated bubble,” says Dr Scott-Parker. “This isolation means we sometimes engage in behaviour that we wouldn’t normally engage in, say if we were in a queue in a supermarket standing right next to this person.” The feeling of being safe and protected by the shell of your vehicle can be a dangerous illusion.
Road rage occurs when we feel that someone is getting in the way, with drivers generally placing the blame on others, not themselves. “Most venting is negative, and that’s the problem,” says Stan Steindl, adjunct associate professor in psychology at The University of Queensland. When a driver feels insulted or threatened, the brain’s fight-or-flight threat response system is triggered. “One aspect of the fight-or-flight response is anger.”
The impulsiveness behind explosive road rage is usually prompted by an event that the offenders – often well-adjusted people with family, job, friends – view as a personal attack, says traffic psychologist Ludo Kluppels.
Dr Scott-Parker adds it is important to remember good car karma. She says, “I’ve heard drivers of all ages say that if they let someone in and get a little ‘thank-you’ wave, that feeling of warmth, positivity and community engagement stays with them for the rest of the day.”
Unfortunately, it seems most of us are capable of road rage if pushed enough on the right day. David Simpson, 49, is normally a quiet, well-behaved dad, but his inner-Hulk explodes when he gets behind the wheel of a car. Last year, as he was driving his 13-year-old son to a Saturday morning soccer game, he approached a busy intersection in an inner-city Sydney suburb.
A late model European sedan was double-parked outside the local shops and was blocking traffic. A real estate agent was taking liberties with parking restrictions. With his son in the front passenger seat, David began shouting abuse and profanities at the man who had dared to slow down their journey. His son still talks about the incident – and the profanities.
One evening in 2015 a motorcyclist threatened Martin Kracheel and his friend as they were driving to play pool. When they drew too close to the motorbike in front, the rider slowed down and gestured to them to pull over. The biker walked over to their car, swearing and demanding they get out. “He wanted to punch us,” says the 33 year old. “It was tense.” Martin knew they had to do something to diffuse the situation – and quickly.
“We apologised, and he accepted the apology,” Martin says. It was a near miss. Drivers who get out of the car to make threats – and worse – are at the extreme end of the spectrum.
When anger is unleashed, it paves the way to a ‘tragic list’ of possible ugly outcomes we all need to be aware of, says traffic psychologist and educator Leon James.
Dave Crawford, 42, is a mild-mannered single dad – though not always. One morning two years ago, he was driving along a highway with his seven-year-old son in the car. They were heading out for a day of trailbike riding and were towing a trailer carrying two bikes. “There were no other cars on the road and we were moving at around 100km/h, when we passed a pack of cyclists,” he says. Without warning, the leader of the pack pulled out into Crawford’s lane to let the pack pass. Crawford had to brake hard, swerve and drive defensively to avoid hitting the man.
He managed to avoid hitting the cyclists but his car and trailer ended up facing the wrong way on the highway. Despite everyone being safe, Crawford was livid.
“I experienced a mix of rage and terror,” he says. “I checked my son was safe, then got out and marched through the pack of now stationary cyclists and found the reckless rider, an older man. “I heard someone apologise but I was seeing red,” he says. “I abused him until I felt better.”
Kirstie Robb, 38, was on the other side of the road-rage experience when she was driving her three kids home from school and the car in front of her stopped suddenly. The teaching assistant slammed on the brake, flinging her arm out to protect her 16-year-old son sitting next to her in the front seat.
Shaken, she pulled over to the side of the road when the other car did, and got out to see what the problem was. She could hear the other driver swearing at her angrily in his car and accusing her of not keeping a safe distance. The man, still sitting in his car, sliced his hand towards her face threateningly and continued to yell at her.
She told him to calm down, before offering him some unfriendly advice of her own. “Then before I could do anything he picked up an aerosol can and sprayed me in the face with red paint,” says Kristie. “When I opened my eyes, all I could see was red. I couldn’t breathe for a few seconds. I could hear my children screaming.”
There remains an astonishing lack of research and government attention to road rage, which is surprising given the magnitude of the problem. “Road rage has only been studied in the United States, Australia and Belgium,” says Kluppels.
In Australia, road rage is officially an unacknowledged killer. In NSW a motorist received a 25-year jail sentence in 2010 after murdering a pedestrian with their car.
Despite incidents like this, most countries, including Australia and New Zealand, do not have a dedicated offence called ‘road rage’: official statistics aren’t collected and – worst of all – little is being done to prevent it.
However, in Singapore, road rage is a criminal offence and ranges from verbal exchanges between drivers to driver assaults as a result of a traffic dispute.
Aloysuis Fong, founder of the website ROADS.sg, created an interactive platform so anyone on the road can upload a witness report or video to shame bad driver behaviour and encourage everyone to be safer on the roads, including cutting back on road rage.
“Laws here are strict with regards to road rage,” says Fong. “If you get out of your car in an aggressive manner, curse, give a rude gesture or kick the car you can be held accountable to the police. Once a physical fight happens then you’ll be charged.”
Technology is potentially helping to catch offenders as car-cam owners are able to submit videos to ROADS.sg for the traffic police to investigate. It has already shown a 32.5 per cent increase in red-light running violations by the Singapore Police, so erring on the side of caution on the road is key.
“Police advise drivers to stay calm, not to make eye or verbal contact,” he says. “Keep in your lane and stay in your car. If the road rage continues then park the car in a safe zone and call the police for help.”
In 1990, Belgium – which had one of the worst road-safety records in Europe at the time – introduced anti-road-rage billboards for a public education campaigns to combat the problem.
Eight years later, judges still found themselves faced with an unprecedented wave of road-rage cases, including as-sault and battery. In Antwerp this made up eight per cent of the total assaults in the city. Since then, new programs – including seeing a psychologist who talks offenders through their actions and offers alternative ways to deal with frustration – are thought to have helped reduce Belgium’s road traffic deaths. Between 1990 to 2014, for example, road traffic deaths were reduced by a whopping 72 per cent. Although it is difficult to say exactly how much of this improvement is due to a decline in road rage, it is believed to have helped.
Driver aggression is being reinforced by popular culture: Portrayals of aggressive driving are shown in a fun context, such as car chases in the movies and in children’s video games. And the young learn it from their parents. “The back seat of the car is road rage nursery,” says Leon James.
“Children start their first driving instruction in the car with parents who drive aggressively and talk badly about other drivers.”
James says that the key to countries’ dealing with road rage is the introduction of graduated licences, with several licensing phases: learner’s permit, intermediate or provisional license, and then full licence. It would increase the number of supervised hours a pupil spends behind the wheel before being ‘signed off’ as a qualified driver. The outcome? Learning respect and obedience for the rules and, more importantly, being introduced to the concept of ‘lifelong learning’ in driving.
Since 2009, it has been mandatory that Swedes working towards getting a driver’s license attend a risk awareness course and at least three hours of tuition with a government-approved instructor. Even earlier, since 2006, the Swedish driving test syllabus included topics such as impulse control and understanding motives. Once qualified, drivers are on probation for two years.
Karin Michaelsson, investigator for driver licensing, says the Swedish Transport Agency shifted its focus from driving skills and car mechanics to “who you are as a person and how you behave in traffic, because who you are will impact how you drive”.
Every driver must be responsible for starving the ‘cycle of conflict’, he says. Road rage starts with one driver and escalates from there.
Kirstie Robb suffered no lasting physical damage from the spray paint attack, but she and her family were traumatised. Her youngest son had nightmares, while her eldest felt guilty at being unable to protect his mother. “It was a very upsetting experience – and an unnecessary one,” says Kirstie.
- Rule 1: Never get out of your car and do not engage in a conversation or respond to rude hand gestures.
- Rule 2: Do not make eye contact. Maintain your attention on the road in front of you, even if you are stopped at traffic lights, and lock all your doors and close your windows.
- People who slam on the brakes unnecessarily
- People who merge without indicating
- Drivers who don’t keep a constant speed
- People who drive under the speed limit
- Those who don’t allow others to merge
- Drivers who cut other drivers off
- People who text and drive
- Drivers who use the right-hand lane incorrectly (Source: NRMA)