Monday, January 22, 2018

Possible Factors Behind Road Rage

(This blog was originally posted on April 6, 2016)

Photo by Rick Hustead

This afternoon, members of the KFI AM 640 radio audience called into the station to describe their experiences with road rage. One person described how someone tail-gated his vehicle for several miles before getting into a physical altercation. Another person reported witnessing a situation where an older woman “stole” a parking place close to the shopping mall that another, younger driver had been coveting; when the first driver blew her a kiss, the younger woman apparently shouted, “I will find you!” In another instance, someone described her fear when she and  another driver had pulled over to the shoulder of the road and the other individual came at her with a jack. She said she was certain he would beat her up with it when the man suddenly turned around, got back into his vehicle and drove away.
As I listened to these anecdotes, I noticed some very interesting physiological changes going on in me. The first was astonishment, anxiety and even fear for the people involved. I couldn’t imagine what I would do if someone came at me with a crow-bar because I cut in front of that person in rush-hour traffic. I see drivers do that all the time, usually without consequence or a sharp bleep of a car horn. I felt horrible for the woman who received the veil threat that the other, wronged driver was coming after her because she took the other person’s parking spot. Yes, it was inconsiderate (to put it politely) and even mean for her to slip into a spot that someone else had been waiting for. But did this action deserve the implied threat, “I’m coming for you!”
My next response was anger. I wondered how any of those situations justified violence or even threatened violence. Sure, that annoying driver might have ignored the rules of the road or went out of the way to cause aggravation for other people “just because.” But what if one of the drivers made a mistake and realized, almost too late, that he needed to get into another lane to exit the freeway? Perhaps another person, unfamiliar with the city or roads, was lost and even having a panic attack, which explained his excruciatingly slow speed. What if the older driver who “stole” the parking place that another person was clearly waiting for had a physical disability? Apparently, she blew a kiss to the first woman as she pulled in, which allegedly sparked the other woman’s rage. What if the older woman blew that kiss not to goad the other person but was a gesture of her gratitude?
Now picture yourself in this scenario: You are driving in heavy, rush-hour traffic when a car cuts across the freeway and merges into your lane, right in front of you. Instinctively, you slam on your brakes to prevent crashing into the other vehicle, only to have the car behind you lay into her horn. You really haven’t done anything wrong in this situation; the person in front of you was driving dangerously and you were trying to prevent a crash. Anyone else would have done the same thing. Nonetheless, your nerves are in tatters from the near-miss and the loud horn is the last straw.  You flinch, startled by the loud noise and you feel your face flush with fury. Perhaps you mutter a few curse words and go on your way, annoyed but also relieved when the other driver speeds past with another loud beep of the horn. You wonder what just happened and hope you stop shaking soon.

  • Fear: The screeching of your brakes and the sound of the loud horn blaring from the car behind you created an immediate fear reaction. As Hypnosis Motivation Institute founder John Kappas, Ph.D., explained in his model of the Theory of Mind, at birth we “know” only two things: reaction to the fear of falling and reaction to a fear of loud noises. These fear responses are lodged in the Primitive Area of the mind, always accessible and easily triggered to protect us from impending danger. The sounds of the screeching brakes and beeping horn, plus the sensation of lurching forward (“falling”) as you slammed on your brakes, triggered your fear response. Big time. When the first driver executed an unsafe lane change in front of your car, your first emotional response was probably terror that you were about to be in the worst car crash ever. The loud squeal of your brakes and perhaps the blast of your or another driver’s horn reinforces that fear response. When you slammed on the brakes, you were immediately grateful that the car behind you didn’t drive right into the rear bumper of your car, either. In fear, we perceive that we are literally at the mercy of the circumstance to not be harmed. We believe that have little or no control over the outcome, which is when the fight/flight response kicks in. Some people are very tolerant and possess a live-and-let-live attitude about everything. For them, the initial fear they experienced after nearly being involved in an accident on a busy freeway is appreciated for what it was: a “near miss.” Life and the rest of the drive goes on, perhaps with prayers of thanks or just a sigh of relief, but (hopefully) no more drama on the road.
  • Anger: However, fear and anger often go hand-in-hand. Conversely, when we feel angry we generally perceive that we have a greater perception of control over our circumstances. Furthermore, we even have the perception of the luxury of control over whether the behavior deserves to be punished and how much punishment to dole out. Once you know the danger had passed, the anger started to build up and you thought/yelled: Don’t you (other driver) know how scared I was just now because your careless/erratic driving almost caused me to crash my car? And to the car behind you, Why are you honking at me, you so-and-so, I was scared and trying not to crash into that such-and-such! It’s not my fault!  Don’t get mad at me! What did you want to do to the person who cut into traffic in front of you? What did the driver behind you do in this situation?
  • Suggestibility: The next variable to consider in this reaction is Suggestibility. When the first car merged in front of yours, did you immediately place blame on his or her careless driving? Did you wonder if this action was to punish you for something you may or may not have done (or be aware of doing) in traffic a few miles ago? In your state of heightened alertness and fear, did you consider the possibility that the driver behind you was actually trying to reprimand the first driver for unsafe driving, in the first place?
  • Hunger and Nutrition: In my recent blog titled This Afternoon on the Radio, I described how low blood-sugar levels can affect suggestibility and behavior including memory problems, inability to focus, irritability and increased anxiety or even paranoia. This physiologically compromised state can exacerbate irrational and even potentially violent behavior in you and/or the other drivers that are involved in this situation. Hunger, compounded with the stress of driving in heavy, rush-hour traffic can bring out the worst in anyone.

When fear for your life is compounded with the desire to punish someone who caused that fear by acting carelessly or recklessly, the situation can quickly become deadly for all parties involved. Unfortunately, these kinds of situations happen all too often on the road these days. If you are involved in a dangerous encounter on the road the best, safest and advised thing to do is call law-enforcement right away. Do not get into the altercation in the first place. Call police or drive to the nearest police or highway patrol station to report what is going on. No matter what yours or the other driver’s offense happened to be, it is not worth killing or getting seriously injured or dying for. There is always another place to park your car or a different lane to merge into. A smashed car can be replaced. A life cannot.

Sara R. Fogan, C.Ht. is a certified hypnotherapist based in Southern California. She graduated with honors from the Hypnosis Motivation Institute in 2005. For more information about Calminsense Hypnotherapy® and to set up an appointment, please visit
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