Road rage a result of mental score-keeping, expert says

Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, has made a career studying road rage and its causes.

'Wherever there is traffic, there is road rage,' says road rage expert

There's a little road rage in all of us - the trick is learning to cut it off before it can explode, says expert. (iStock)

The blast of a horn, a curse word muttered aloud: we're all guilty of road rage from time to time.

Those momentary explosions can be chalked up to "mental-driving economy," says Leon James, a psychology professor and road rage researcher at the University of Hawaii.

James' theory is that drivers subconsciously keep track of everything happening in traffic around them — the vehicles they pass and the cars that cut them off.

"Basically, we are very competitive and so we keep track, and as we talk to ourselves about the other drivers negatively, we become at risk that suddenly something happens and we explode," he said.

And it happens to us all.

"Wherever there is traffic, there is road rage," James said.

According to him, road rage is still a relatively recent phenomenon, first making news headlines in the 1980s, which James correlated with increasing traffic congestion and a growing culture of aggressiveness.

"There is a certain culture of hostility and aggressiveness (when we drive) and so people express that because it's part of the habit and part of our culture," he said. "We kind of learn to be aggressive."

That learning begins with children sitting in their car seats, watching their parents, he said.

Measuring rage

To get a better understanding about how his own road rage was ignited, James started traveling with a tape recorder, speaking his thoughts aloud while driving. Then, when he got home, he'd listen back and study his thought processes.

He later handed out tape recorders to his students and asked them to do the same.

The result:  he found people actually get happier when they pass a car and get upset when cars in other lanes are moving faster than their own. Those emotions can add up, creating an underlying current of negativity and hostility which doesn't take a lot to trigger into full blown rage.

To prevent those feelings from adding up, James has a couple of suggestions for people hoping to short-circuit their own road rage:

  • Make sure you're calm and collected before you get in the car
  • Try to adopt a supportive driving style; let people in, wave and smile. "Don't get competitive, let them do whatever they want — it's not your business."
  • Keep perspective:  saving 30 seconds here or there is not going to make all the difference in the grand scheme of your day
  • When you feel the urge to swear aloud or hurl an insult, belt out a song instead. "If you don't like singing, you can make all sorts of funny animal sounds and this will take away your anger," he said.
  • Keep a driving diary with notes about your trip and look for patterns in what upset you

James' most important tip:  always look to improve your own driving and awareness of what's going on around you.

"Driving is the most complicated thing we do and also the most dangerous thing we do every day and it takes more than just a course."


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