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Curiosities: Why does bad driving provoke road rage in otherwise rational people?

October 4, 2010

Road rage, or aggressive driving, is usually rooted in feeling of powerlessness and helplessness, says Darald Hanusa, a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Out of those, we quickly turn to hurtfulness. By responding this way to the behavior of others, we go from victim to villain.”

Anger, usually based on difficulties at home or at work, allows a problem on the road to feel personal, Hanusa says. “The feeling is, ‘I own this piece of road, and they did this TO me.’”

Aggressive drivers often hold values and beliefs “that promote aggression and violence,” says Hanusa, who has led classes for aggressive drivers for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.  “They tend to believe in an eye for an eye, and in a dichotomy of good versus evil.”

And when somebody does something objectionable on the road, Hanusa says, “They will make a summary judgment: ‘They are evil, and deserve to be punished.’”

To change this dynamic, Hanusa tries to help aggressive drivers “take a larger view; get out of that stinkin’ thinkin’. Change it from ‘they can’t do that to me,’ to ‘isn’t it too bad they are such a poor driver.’”

The best way to deal with a driver with aggressive tendencies is to keep your cool — and your distance, Hanusa says. “If you make a mistake in traffic, forgot your blinker or are driving too slowly, and someone uses that as a stimulus to become aggressive, it’s really important not to feed into that and up the ante. Back off or pull over. You can’t control what other people do, but you can control whether you will make things worse.”