Mean streets

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.

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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.


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?

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