I trace my interest in what makes angry drivers tick back to a traffic collision I had in my last car. There's no doubt in my mind it could've been avoided if I only knew how to control my anger behind the wheel. Although I don't want to make any excuses for my behavior, the pressure and tension I felt at the time are something I share with many other drivers.
"A few years ago, all you had to decide when you got in the car was, 'Am I going to drive in silence or not,' " says Mahlon Anderson, staff director of public and government affairs for the American Automobile Association's (AAA) Mid-Atlantic Region. "These days when you get in the car, the next thing you know, your pager is going off, or the cell phone is ringing. The car is not for cooling down anymore."
Anderson believes some drivers are so busy living the kind of multi-tasked lives he describes in their cars that they aren't inclined to excuse the person who just cut them off. "People think that they don't have to take 'it' anymore," he says. "And for that reason, we are seeing an epidemic of lost tempers behind the wheel."
Angry driving--which should not to be confused with road rage or aggressive driving--is more pervasive than ever. Road rage refers to the notorious, violence drenched incidents on the road that have resulted in injury or death. Aggressive driving is risky behavior, such as speeding and excessive lane-changing, and it is distinguished from road rage primarily because of an absence of malice; in other words, it's not intended to harm a specific vehicle or driver.
Angry drivers typically show their frustration in a variety of ways--shouting, making rude gestures, honking their horns, and flashing their lights. Most angry driving incidents go unreported. They are the unchronicled tales of the road--shared mostly by word of mouth; seldom, if ever, recorded by the police or courts.
If most angry drivers seem generally unaware of their problem, they might be surprised to know that they are being watched--well, studied actually. Psychologists are asking what causes their road anger, and what can be done about it? A recent burst of scholarly activity focusing exclusively on driving anger seeks to close the gap between the larger, existing body of research on road rage and aggressive driving produced by organizations such as AAA.
One of these psychologists is Colorado State University Psychology Prof. Jerry L. Deffenbacher. Since the late 1980s, the professor and his colleagues have studied angry driver behavior and, in the past five years, have published a series of interrelated studies on the topic.
While organizations such as the AAA actively seek to reduce the instances of aggressive driving and road rage on our nation's highways, psychologists such as Deffenbacher have focused their research on what has been, and still is, a little-understood, understudied aspect known as angry driving.
In a 1999 Colorado State University study, a group of the university's psychology students volunteered to track their driving emotions for a three-day period. At the outset, they were divided into three groups: high trait driving anger students who indicated they have problems with anger while driving, high trait driving anger students who said they had no problems while driving, and low trait driving anger students who indicated no problems while driving. (Trait anger, as opposed to state anger, is a broad disposition to become angry in a variety of situations.)
The results were hardly surprising. "Although there was some evidence of greater anger and aggressiveness for [high anger with problem] drivers compared to [high anger with no problem] drivers, in general, they were more alike than different," write the authors, who recommended counseling for both groups of high anger drivers to help them reduce the frequency and intensity of their anger. The upshot is that the two high anger groups will require different interventions (that is: approaches to treatment). While those in the first group may be ready for self-help techniques or counseling, those in the second group will first need to become aware of their problem before anything can be done about it.
How do we reach those angry drivers who say they don't have a problem, but actually do? Through information, says Deffenbacher: "We should collect data from [angry drivers] and share it with them. In doing so, we will at least raise the conscious awareness of their feelings, [thoughts], behaviors, and outcomes. But this is only a first step. A second step might be to encourage them to track their driving anger and ask them if it is getting them what they want out of life."
This is why the type of research Deffenbacher and others are doing is important. It raises awareness while, at the same time, it is being folded into the growing body of knowledge that ultimately may result in public health literature on the topic. At that point, explains Deffenbacher, "We can use the public health literature as a place to start designing interventions that will let people know they might have a problem."
The research by Deffenbacher and others on angry driving has shown that even those with low anger levels are not immune from driving anger. Almost everyone has experienced it. The kind of anger that makes you so hot under the collar you could probably steam press the shirt you're wearing--while you're in it.
The personal and health risks of angry driving should be enough to scare straight any angry driver. A partial list includes physical injury to self and others, physical and verbal assault, traffic citations, legal problems, emotional distress, relationship problems with those who are passengers with the angry drivers, and carry-over effects into home or work place.
"This is not a case of pussycats [turning] into [tigers]," says Neil Bernstein, a clinical psychologist in Alexandria whose clients include offenders who the courts have referred to him for problems with anger and impulse control. "[These are people] who have trouble managing their anger in general. A lot of these people have trouble with anger in their lives. It's not a coincidence."
Bernstein says the first step for angry drivers who want to control their anger is for them to acknowledge they have a problem. Next, they must show the will to do something about it. Eventually, they need to translate words into action. "They have to go through all three [steps] for change to occur," he says.
What angry drivers must learn to control are anger impulses that flash brilliantly like fireworks and are gone--often in 20 seconds or less. Chances are, if the right psychological tool or technique is used, those impulses will die out quickly.
"In the driving situation or the impulse situation, decisions are often made instantaneously--so we teach people to use self-talk," says Terrance Schomburg, a Bethesda-based clinical psychologist who runs anger management groups. "Self-talk serves as a verbal antidote to impulsive anger reaction. It's a powerful tool used in cognitive therapy. We rehearse it with clients or groups from week to week."
As for me, I'm doing a lot better now. Fewer traffic tickets. No more traffic accidents. How did I do it? I took a remedial driving course. I met with a counselor who spoon-fed me the anger management skills I needed to grow into a healthy driver.
My favorite technique--the one that I find the most effective--is the self-talk Schomburg describes. Now when I am driving somewhere I play a continuous track of self-talk through my head. It takes the sharp edge off my driving anger.
RESOURCES; Getting help for driving anger:
* American Automobile Association. AAA Potomac's Driver Improvement Program includes a module on aggressive driving. One-day classes are offered twice a month at four locations: Alexandria, Chantilly, Fairfax, and Manassas. Information and registration, 877-457-0711.
* American Psychological Association. APA's online Help Center provides a comprehensive online brochure, Controlling Anger Before It Controls You, http://helping.apa.org/daily/anger.html.
* George Washington University offers affordable mental health services to the local community. Information, 202-994-8645.
* Health Services Classifieds. See these listings in local Washington area newspapers for individual and group therapy referrals.
* State Psychological Associations. Psychologists currently treat driving anger along with other anger problems. State psychological associations in the Washington area can provide referrals for anger management group or individual counseling services: D.C., 202-336-5559; Maryland, 410-992-4258; Virginia, 540-667-5544.
CONTROLLING DRIVING ANGER; Some tips from the experts:
* Keep a journal of your driving anger. Include the number of miles you drove and under what type of traffic conditions. Record what types of incidents triggered your anger. This will help you focus your anger-controlling and help you assess the effectiveness of anger-managing techniques.
* Learn to relax. Deep breathing will slow your physiological reactions. Imagining a pleasant scene will help to take your mind off the immediate aggravation. Play soothing music or relaxation tapes while you drive.
* Show compassion for other drivers. Think about your effect on the person you are victimizing. Think how would you feel if an angry driver insulted or attacked one of your parents, siblings, or children?
* Use humor. Effective use of silly humor will offset and defuse your anger. Imagine you're the supreme ruler of the universe and can banish other drivers to a distant planet. Then, try to step back from the situation and see how petty you are being by getting angry.
* Repeat a key word or phrase you find particularly useful in reducing your anger. Psychologists suggest phrases such as "I can't afford to get another traffic ticket," or "I don't have to react to anything anyone else does."