Ottawa·Nowhere Fast

Why we're wired to get angry behind the wheel

Psychology professor Ryan Martin knows a thing or two about anger — and he explains to CBC Ottawa traffic reporter Doug Hempstead why our brains and bodies are hardwired for road rage.

Psychology professor Ryan Martin says there are 4 key elements

Why does being stuck in traffic make us rant and rage? According to one U.S. expert who studies the psychology of anger, there are four separate reasons. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

The word my father used to use was "simmer" — as in "simmer down, son."

It seems to me there's a great deal of tension and anger among Ottawa's drivers, and not just the commuting ones, either.

That anger seems to be there all the time. To me, it seems like competitive behaviour. The roads are filled with people who need to chill, to perhaps take a step back from their rat race they're running and look at the big picture.

Sure, getting ahead of that car could save you 10-15 seconds. But stopping to pet a dog could eat that time up, or dropping your keys in the parking lot.

So why such fury over 15 seconds?

I decided to find out.

Ryan Martin is a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who researches anger and violence. He also writes a blog about his work called All the Rage. (Submitted)

Designed to enrage

At the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay there's a professor of psychology named Ryan Martin. I had many questions, and he had all the answers. He studies this stuff.

In fact, he's gone as far to say that if you were an evil genius and wanted to develop a situation guaranteed to make people angry, it would look a lot like driving.

Why 2 horns are better than 1

4 years ago
Duration 1:16
Doug Hempstead on why cars need more than one horn, to prevent road rage. What do you think?

There are four causes for that anger, Martin says: tension, goal-blocking, unwritten rules and anonymous offenders.

There's tension, he says, because driving is potentially dangerous and it makes us nervous. Our heart rate increases, our muscles tense up — basically, we're primed for anger.

Add to that the feeling you get when something gets in your way: this is the goal-blocking part.

We're going from A to B, and every red light, slow driver or reversing plow potentially gets us leaning on our horns because our progress is being hindered.

'Inflammatory labelling'

The unwritten rules part involves all those things we swear by, but aren't necessarily law -- like the speed we feel is appropriate.

When someone violates our personal, unwritten rules, Martin says, we're offended by the behaviour. 

"Most people don't drive the speed limit. But how fast over the speed limit you go is one of those unwritten rules," he says.

"If you think you should drive five over, and that's OK, then the person driving the speed limit feels like an obstacle to you."

Often what happens next is we lash out, because — and this is the anonymous offenders part now — we're all isolated in our own vehicles, not dealing with others face-to-face.

It becomes much easier for you to react with aggression.- Ryan Martin

This makes it really easy for us to give another driver a label like "complete idiot," even though, for all we know, they might be brilliant.

We also sometimes make assumptions about other drivers' motivations — for instance, that they saw us and just don't care — and when we do so, Martin says, the anger flows and it makes it easy for us to hate them.

It's what he calls "inflammatory labelling."

"There's a level of social distance that exists while you're driving that makes it easier for people to react that way," says Martin. "It becomes much easier for you to react with aggression."

So how do we change this behaviour? People need to simply decide to practise thinking differently about the world around them. Those changes require effort.

For me, it happened almost two years ago when I was passed on the right by another driver. My buddy Derek, who was sitting in the passenger seat, said, "Wow, if that's the kind of world you want, buddy —  you better go ahead."

Seems simple, but it changed my perspective forever.

Do you have a story about road rage on Ottawa-Gatineau's streets? Send us an email.

This is part of CBC Ottawa's special series Nowhere Fast, a look at how and why people commute in the capital region. 

We'll be looking at the people, numbers and stories that are part of your daily trip to and from work.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?