The Science Of Road Rage

Jul 30, 2019

Milwaukee has faced devastating road range incidents this summer. In two of the most extreme incidents, drivers opened fire on cars with children, killing a 3-year-old and wounding a 5-year-old. As a result, community members and officials alike are seeking to understand how these road rage incidents happen.

So, why do people react with rage in their cars?

"Primarily, it's the same reason why people feel like they're entitled to be angry on certain social media platforms," says Dr. Himanshu Agrawal, a psychiatrist at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "There's this illusion that no one can recognize us, therefore we're not accountable."

He says roads are the perfect storm because there's a sense of urgency, and that everybody has the perception of being stressed for time.

Agrawal says road rage transcends all kinds of demographics: urban, rural, suburban, male, female, and all socioeconomic statuses. 

"Usually what is seen as the model incident of road rage includes multiple stressors on somebody who is already stressed or repressing that stress. It's considered the proverbial last straw — when something just clicks," he explains.

"There's this illusion that no one can recognize us, therefore we're not accountable."

"Oftentimes, when people who have been the perpetrators of road rage are interviewed, they really can't explain why they were sent into such a frenzy," Agrawal says.

He says that speaks to the seriousness of the problem: No one is completely immune from road rage and it can strike anywhere without much notice. Also, Agrawal says it's important to note that there's no data that people with diagnosed mental illness are more likely to have road rage.

Based on the research that Agrawal 's read, he says the difference between road rage and homicidal road rage lies on a spectrum: "It depends on how much anger you have, and, of course a big part of that is access. So if you're very, very angry, and you have a gun right next to you, you might be more likely to do more damage." 

Feeling anger is normal and natural, says Agrawal.  "But the behavior that you engage in after feeling angry, you certainly can devise a plan for that," he explains.

Agrawal shares some tips on how not to get swept up in angry driving: 

Control the music
"The first thing that comes to mind is: be aware of other factors that might be affecting your mood," he says. "For example, be aware of what music you're listening to, what music makes you calmer and what music excites you."

Distract yourself
"There's a saying, 'You can't always control how you feel, but you can control what you feel or say next.' " he says.

Have a passenger
"There's that bystander effect of, 'Oh, someone's watching me, I'd better behave,' " he explains.

Agrawal says everyone has something different that works for them, but find out what works for you when you're angry and keep that alive in your car.