Why do some of us experience road rage? Rochelle Sewell investigates what causes drivers to morph into angry, threatening and sometimes violent aggressors behind the wheel.
It was a sunny Thursday afternoon on a busy suburban road in central Auckland when a workshop grade spanner was thrown at Helen Reid’s car, cutting through the air and narrowly missing her windscreen.
Reid had been distracted by her three student friends in the car and momentarily crossed the centre line. She recalls the driver of the neighbouring vehicle: a middle-aged man with the build of a wrestler. He wasn’t happy. He shifted across into her lane and followed her so closely that she was certain their bumpers would connect.
Forgetting her destination, Reid began to drive around quiet back streets to test the theory that she was being followed. After a few minutes of cat and mouse, she pulled over to stop and consider her options. The other driver stopped too. He opened his door aggressively. Frightened, Reid turned her key and hit the gas pedal to escape. The man got back into the driver’s seat and resumed the chase. It continued for 10 more minutes before Reid, seeking refuge, drove toward the Auckland Central Police station. As she headed down Greys Ave, she looked in horror at her rear-vision mirror. She could see the driver reaching out of his window and clutching a long metal object. He flung the spanner toward her car as he passed, just outside the station. When it missed he drove off into the web of centralcity streets. Reid reported the incident to the police, but the assailant was never found. “I was worried,
scared and flabbergasted that it went on for so long,” she says. To this day it astounds her that road rage like this happens in this country.
Reid’s story isn’t unique. In the past few months the news has been full of similar incidents. There’s the Indian man from Auckland who was spat at and subjected to a tirade of racial abuse for allegedly tailgating another driver. That incident was caught on film. There’s the victim from Hawke’s Bay who was punched so hard that his broken tooth was left embedded in the roof of his mouth. The enraged driver was forced to pay the dental bill. Then there’s the heavily pregnant woman in Christchurch who was left bruised and shaken after her car was reversed into during a road rage clash, before the driver took off.
WHAT CAUSES ROAD RAGE?
Experts believe that human behaviour changes when we get behind the wheel. In his investigative book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt raises the idea that cars provide a personal armour to hide behind. The feted author-journalist suggests people behave differently in cars.
Vanderbilt also suggests that human beings want to see fairness prevail. However, this desire for fairness can work both ways when driving. The anonymity of driving means people are more likely to behave unfairly towards others, such as running red lights, or cutting people off in their lanes. However when people feel that other drivers have treated them unfairly, they are more likely to reciprocate bad behaviours – like aggressively tailgating someone who has done the same to them.
Psychiatrist Dr Ian Lambie from the University of Auckland agrees. “People feel disinhibited [on the road]. Being physically separated from another person lessens the social controls we have over certain things. It acts as a guard. We forget that we are actually in charge of a lethal weapon.” We also stop editing our behaviours as much. “There are things we would say when driving in our car that we are far less likely to say in a one-to-one situation because of social etiquette and the consequences of our actions.”
However, Lambie also suggests that road rage resulting in dangerous, and sometimes illegal actions, probably happens when people already have problems managing their behaviour. Associate Professor Robert Isler, Director of the Road Safety and Research Group at the University of Waikato, shares this view. “I believe that personalities don’t change when people get in the car. Some people have regulation and impulse issues and the car may be a place where they can easily show this behaviour. These people make assumptions when they drive and assume other people are deliberately making them angry.”
Consider the case of Jennifer’s Hogg’s mother. “Mum doesn’t like to talk about what happened. She’s in her 70s and of that generation where you don’t make much of a fuss,” says Hogg. However she is more than happy to talk about how her mother became a victim of road rage (an account she
confirmed with her mother). “It was early one morning in Wellington, Mum was a nurse and was heading in to work a shift at the hospital. She was stopped at an intersection on Cuba St and the roads were pretty quiet. There was just one car ahead of her at the lights. The light turned green and the car in front of Mum just sat there.”
Hogg describes her mother as a patient person who would have waited a while before giving the car a toot.
“Next thing, a scowling young woman jumps out of the car in front. Mum’s window was open. She was fair game. The lady approached the car from Mum’s side, reached in with a closed first and punched her nose so hard that she broke it. Before Mum could recover, the woman raced back to her car and drove off. It was a quiet time of day and there weren’t any witnesses around.
“There’s not many times in my life that I’ve seen Mum so shaken up,” Hogg recalls. “Mum would never let her anger boil up into an act of violence. The bruising hung around for weeks.”
So do we all get angry when we get behind the wheel? “You just can’t generalise,” Lambie says. “For some people bad driving around them will simply go over their heads. It won’t mean anything. Or they’ll register that it’s happened but [decide] it’s not worth getting upset. A person’s reaction to a situation is about their level of impulsivity, and their innate level of emotional self-regulation. In layman’s terms, it’s whether they have a short fuse.” He says it may depend on their genetic and psychological makeup and their upbringing. “Whether they’ve been modelled on how to get aggressive, or seen this behaviour in their parents or peers. Another thing to consider is are they stressed or are there other factors at play that will influence how they react to a situation.”
Isler supports this view. “We need to remind ourselves why people are reacting so strongly and consider whether they’re under pressure or they’re burnt out. Anger is part of an anxiety response. You fight or you flight. You can’t run away in a car, so for some people they fight and express their feelings in anger.”
What about the reactions of younger drivers? “The front lobes of the brain need time to develop before people have fully functional control of their impulses, working memory, emotional function, metacognition, and enough self-regulation to respond appropriately in all situations” says Isler. “Front lobes are not fully developed in humans by the age of 25, which is why young people don’t realise risks or have enough emotional regulation when they get behind the wheel.”
The assault on Jennifer Hogg’s mother is an extreme case, says Lambie. “Few people would go and punch another person when there’s such little provocation. Most people are less impulsive. “The real danger is what could happen when a violent reaction threatens someone’s safety.”
Are New Zealanders more likely to rage at bad drivers because we generally expect a safer standard of driving? In his book Traffic, Vanderbilt argues that perceived “safe roads” are actually less safe, because driving becomes an automatic action and awareness of outside risks falls. Compare driving standards in Rome with Auckland and you’ll see that a New Zealander’s tolerance for unexpected driving
manoeuvres is much lower. Isler also suggests that we need to look at history. When there was less traffic in New Zealand, people were freer to live and drive by their own rules. Increased population has meant we need new rules to manage a different system. In Europe, there are many more traffic rules because of the size of the population. Everyone accepts them because otherwise chaos would ensue.
Expectations may differ between regions too. The Automobile Association conducts a quarterly survey of its 1.6 million members. The first survey of 2017 found the driving behaviours that most annoyed its members were related to courtesy and respect. The highest-ranked driving annoyances included tailgating, not indicating, drivers on cell phones, unreasonably slow driving and running red lights.
So what happens if you combine bad manners and bad driving, a busy location and an angry driver? The consequences are potentially lethal.
Peter Laing* had a scary day recently. “I was driving along a main road in Auckland, heading towards the motorway onramp where there are two lanes of entry on a sweeping bend. As I pulled into the entry lane, a young guy in a souped-up boy-racer car cut through into my lane. He totally cut me up. It was dangerous and I was annoyed, so I gave him the bird. I got the bird in return. The driver was in front of me at this point and as we rounded the bend he began to jump on the brakes at random, forcing me to brake hard behind him. Then he drove really slowly onto the motorway, unreasonably slowly, forcing me to pass him.” Laing accelerated to around 100 or 110km an hour. “Next thing I knew, he accelerated in the lane next to me to catch up. He started swerving toward me as though he was trying to swipe me from the side, so I had to swerve away. As he was doing this he was going nuts with the hand signals and yelling abuse.” He swerved several times. “Eventually I managed to slow down and get behind him. He obviously got bored and drove away.”
Whether or not drivers display good manners may depend on where you live, Lambie notes. “Think about Auckland, where the roads are busy and the logistics of getting to a destination on time can be a challenge. You have to become accommodating but also you have to become the accommodator. It’s a reciprocal arrangement. I’m from Dunedin and I believe that people are more courteous where there is less pressure. The pressure of getting places makes it worse, coupled with the type of person who might think and act in an aggressive way.”
After his frightening experience, Laing has resolved to keep his emotions in check behind the wheel. “I decided I’d never antagonise another driver like that again, even if they were in the wrong,” he says. “The reaction was so utterly irrational. It’s not worth the risk.”
Anger behind the wheel can descend into criminal offences such as assault, intent to injure, and reckless driving. But road rage that stops short of assault isn’t an offence in New Zealand, so the evidence of this growing phenomenon is often anecdotal. As part of the police’s Community Roadwatch programme, you can take down the details of the car and driver and call *555 to report dangerous driving to the police, who will look out for the car. You can report dangerous behaviour using an online Community Roadwatch form or go to your nearest police station to press charges. But in many cases the frightened victim doesn’t get identifying details, and is left to tell the tale. Do we need to take road rage in New Zealand more seriously?