Why We Have Road Rage and How to Combat It

In this article

    So all those other drivers on the road are the problem, huh? That’s what 9 out of 10 of Americans think, according to a famous study conducted by a Swedish psychologist. 

    However, additional studies seem to indicate this perceived superiority (among other things) could be a major cause of road rage. And given that the costs of road rage are high both to us as individuals and society as a whole, combating it should probably be a priority for everyone.

    Here’s why we should all take a moment to slow down before we get behind the wheel next time.

    Wait, what exactly qualifies as road rage?

    For a term as common as “road rage” is, an accurate definition of it is often hard to agree on. 

    Is it driving aggressively? Yelling at the jerk who is driving too slow? Or maybe something more serious, like chasing someone down for cutting you off?

    While aggressive driving, anger at other drivers and road rage all certainly have ties, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines them differently (and more specifically, according to the punishment received for each):

    visual of a driver out the window gesturing angrily and shouting a swear word from road rage

    Punishment for road rage falls under “reckless driving” in most states (with the exception of California, which has a specific law for it). And while the punishment for reckless driving varies by state, typically it’s classified as a criminal offense (misdemeanor) and is punished as such. 

    What causes road rage (according to science)

    Many studies have sought to explain what causes otherwise normal human beings to lose it behind the wheel. While no one causation has been determined, three primary things have been found to contribute:

    the leading causes of road rage

    Deindividuation 

    Research on deindividuation theory has been conducted in numerous settings (not just driving) and has found that when we feel anonymous, we’re more likely to disregard societal norms for behavior.

    Basically, it’s easier to get mad at someone when we don’t know them because we’re less likely to be held accountable for it. 

    “It’s the same reason why people feel like they’re entitled to be angry on certain social media platforms,” Dr. Himanshu Agrawal (a psychiatrist at the Medical College of Wisconsin) explains. 

    Since we rarely know the person in the car next to us (and since we also have a box of glass/steel between us and them), driving creates that sense of anonymity, making it easier for us to lash out.

    Optimism bias 

    That same famous study conducted by Swedish psychologist Ola Svenson also revealed that 88% of Americans believed they were safer drivers than the average person (compared to 77% of Swedes).

    This belief has been studied in other settings as well (college professors for example) and is known by psychologists as “illusory superiority.” Experts believe that this may be evolutionary, in the sense that it contributes to lower stress levels and motivates us.

    On the road, however, it makes us more likely to get mad at others for being “terrible drivers,” increasing the likelihood of road rage. Or in some cases, making poor decisions that have disastrous results.

    Personal stress

    It probably comes as no surprise that stress we carry from day to day can find its way onto the road in the form of road rage. And indeed, studies have confirmed this is the case for many road rage offenders (but the most severe offenders in particular):

    “Fifty-three percent of 131 subjects reported a recent incident of road rage. Perpetrator and victim groups differed from controls. Perpetrators had increased aggression scores and psychiatric morbidity.”  Source

    “A cluster analysis revealed 5 distinct groups of people affected by road rage. The most serious offenders (referred to hereafter as the hardcore road rage group), representing 5.5% of those affected, exhibited frequent involvement in the most severe forms of road rage and were the most likely (27.5%) to report psychiatric distress.” Source

    Psychologists have also found road rage has ties to Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), a condition where fits of rage and violence are regular and disproportionate to the situation. While the causes are not entirely known, stressors in a person’s environment have been linked to it.

    The cost of road rage

    The costs associated with road rage can include injury, death, fines and prison time, in addition to a steep spike in your insurance rates if you’re found liable for an incident.

    Accidents and death

    Studies show that while people are no more likely to feel angry while driving compared to when they’re not, they are more likely to express it behind the wheel.

    This ties back to deindividuation theory – that it’s easier to get angry when you feel like you have less chance of being held accountable for it.

    But as it turns out, any anger behind the wheel is a risk all by itself. 

    For example, one study found that “Angry thoughts were significantly related to aggressive driving, risky driving and crash-related events.” 

    Another study found that “high-anger drivers reported more risky behavior in daily driving, more frequent close calls and moving violations and greater use of hostile/aggressive and less adaptive/constructive ways of expressing anger.”

    The results of this increase in aggressive driving? The NHTSA found that 66% of all driving fatalities are linked to it:

    statistic that 66% of fall driving fatalities are linked to aggressive driving

    Insurance premiums and policies

    Since aggressive driving has been shown to increase accidents and deaths, we wanted to know how this affects drivers monetarily in the form of insurance coverage and premiums.

    First and foremost, many auto insurance policies won’t cover road rage incidents if you were responsible for them, even if you’re paying your premium. For example, this policy from Allstate specifically excludes coverage for “loss caused intentionally by or at the direction of an insured person.”

    road rage leads insurance companies to restrict coverage for deliberate or reckless acts

    Furthermore, some car insurance providers may not renew your policy once it expires if you were at fault due to road rage or if you have a criminal offense on your driving record (i.e. reckless driving).

    How much will your premium increase after a road rage incident?

    While a universal, one-to-one correlation isn’t possible to make (too many variables), the answer lies in how insurance companies determine what to charge you each month.

    Insurance companies look at your driving record, your lifestyle and even your credit score to determine whether you’re a high-risk driver or a low-risk driver… and set your premiums accordingly.

    how insurance companies define high-risk drivers

    Since your insurance premium will also depend on where you live and what you drive, to get a feel for what kind of increase to expect, We decided to look at what it would mean for me for someone who was classified as high-risk.

    We used our Car Insurance Comparison Tool to grab a few quotes based on three different scenarios. Here’s what we found:

    what road rage costs in insurance premiums monthly

    As you can see, a single reckless driving violation would more than double their monthly premium for someone that lives in California and drives an average car.

    And since aggressive driving has been proven to increase the chances of that happening, road rage has the ability to increase your monthly auto insurance expenses significantly in a heartbeat if you’re not careful.

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    Criminal punishment

    While most states do not have laws that specifically call out “road rage” as an offense (with the exception of California, where it’s considered felony assault with a deadly weapon), as mentioned above, most states do classify road rage incidents as reckless driving misdemeanors.

    Punishment for these criminal charges can include fines up to $2,500 or jail time up to 12 months… and sometimes both. Most states will also put 2-6 points on your driving record.

    How to deal with road rage

    While we can’t control what others do on the road, there are things we can do as individuals to control our own emotions and protect ourselves while driving. 

    4 tips to deal with road rage internally

    Get plenty of sleep 

    The National Safety Foundation found that those who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to get angry and get into fights with others in traffic jams.

    Furthermore, AAA’s research shows that “If you miss just one or two hours of your normal sleep within a 24 hour period, your performance as a driver has the same level of risk as driving with a blood alcohol concentration above 0.08, the legal limit,” putting you at risk for making poor decisions on the road.

    The combination of these two data points suggests that getting plenty of sleep helps keep you calm and level headed in traffic.

    Reduce your own stress

    As mentioned above, studies have shown that stress has a big impact on how we react to other people on the road (not to mention our relationships and day-to-day happiness). 

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been proven effective in reducing stress. So if you’re feeling stressed out, seeing a therapist about it might be the right thing to do.

    Don’t react or escalate 

    Avoid reacting to someone who is caught up in a fit of road rage – your reaction could make them react even more. Instead, focus on staying cool yourself. Aggressive driving increases the chances of an accident, so it’s smarter and safer to just let them go.

    Call the police 

    You can’t control what others do. Dial 911 immediately if another driver has become aggressive and you feel your life is in danger (just make sure to keep your eyes on the road when you do).

    state of road rage in america

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      Drew Page

      Contributing Writer

      Drew is a writer from San Diego, California. He is a student of history and loves to learn how things work at their fundamental level. Studying a wide variety of subjects on personal finance, from both a macro and micro perspective, allows him to simplify the subject matter and paint a higher resolution picture.

      He loves learning, writing and playing music. When not surfing the web, you can find him actually surfing, in the kitchen or reading a physics book (of which he understands close to nothing).