POSTED ON JULY 2, 2008:
Tense times, distracted drivers foment increasing road rage
Name Game. The reason for the lack of precise definition for the phrase "road rage" is that it was the news media that originally coined the phrase in the first place, not the academic community.
Whether you're seeing it in the evening news, or by firsthand experience on the road, it seems that this phenomenon we call "road rage" just gets worse.
There are angry, angry people on the road, and they're recognizable by the daily occurrences of honked horns, high-speed cut-offs and lane changes, and that universally recognizable means of non-verbal communication, the bird.
And that's on a good day.
On a bad day, a road rage flare-up might make headlines, such as the recent roadside scenario that left 29-year-old John Hines dead from multiple stab wounds.
One Saturday night in mid-May, he was riding in a friend's car along Interstate 244 when his friend inadvertently cut off another driver.
The other driver apparently took it personally, so he followed them off the interstate. They both pulled over and got out of their cars for a face-to-face confrontation. The two drivers reportedly resolved the matter amicably, but, strangely, Hines and the other car's passenger, 38-year-old Alexander Busby, did not. Their confrontation quickly turned physical and escalated when Busby allegedly drew a knife and stabbed Hines multiple times, killing him.
The incident echoed another roadside slaying from last year.
By the time this goes to print, 68-year-old Kenneth Ray Gumm will have likely been sentenced for first-degree manslaughter for the shooting death of 47-year-old Dale Allen Turney last June.
According to Gumm, Turney tailgated him and made obscene gestures as they both drove north on Riverside Drive.
So, Gumm pulled into a parking lot along Riverside Park, and Turney followed.
The ensuing argument escalated and, according to Gumm, Turney kept advancing while Gumm kept backing away, all the while warning Turney to keep his distance or be shot.
When Turney backed him up against his car, Gumm drew his firearm, for which he had a conceal-carry permit, and shot him to death.
The popular media attributed both incidents to "road rage."
Of course, two occurrences within a year hardly make a pattern, but then, those are only the two most extreme and recent examples of "road rage" in Tulsa.
What's all the Fuss About?
So, how bad is it, really?
Well, that depends on who's asked, and whose definition of "road rage" they're going by.
"One of the most important questions we struggle with in this field is how to define it," said Dr. Ronald Nathan, an Albany, N.Y.-based psychologist and author whom the American Psychological Association recommended to UTW as an expert on the subject of road rage.
He said the phenomenon we call "road rage" can't be tracked unless it's measured, and it can only be measured if it's defined.
But, there is no common definition of the phrase in any legal, medical or psychological sense.
Officer Jason Willingham, spokesman for the Tulsa Police Department, concurred.
Because "road rage" is such a broad, nebulous term in its common usage, Willingham said the phrase encompasses everything from the aforementioned slayings to the bird flipping and cussing seen every day during rush hour traffic.
"Typically, most road rage doesn't end in assaults and shootings, and there are different types of road rage," he said.
"In its smallest, most typical form, it's pretty widespread. It's definitely an issue," he added.
But, short of installing a video camera on every dashboard, Willingham said there is no way to know just how widespread it really is.
The extreme manifestations, though, are pretty hard to miss.
As Nathan defines it, "road rage" is an "intense hostility directed by one angry motorist to another motorist."
Another APA-recommended "road rage expert" chuckled a bit, though, when asked if there is a medical or psychological definition for "road rage."
"I don't think so," answered Dr. Scott Geller, a professor of psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
His amusement came at the notion that "road rage" would be distinguishable from plain, old generic "rage."
"I guess the psychological definition would be 'negative emotions following frustration,' but there's no specific psychological label at this point for 'road rage,'" Geller explained.
As the other APA-approved road rage guru explained, the reason for the lack of precise definition for the phrase is that it was the news media that originally coined the phrase in the first place, not the academic community.
The first appearance of the phrase "road rage" that Nathan knows about was in 1984, in an article in the Los Angeles Times about a truck driver who opened fire on a car that had cut him off.
According to the Nexus Media database, which tracks national news coverage, the phrase appeared in about three stories a year for the next six years, the psychologist said.
By 1994, there were 27 mentions, 500 in 1995, then 4,000 by 1997, and now "road rage" is a part of the popular lexicon.
"The media is following something and science is trying to catch up," said Nathan.
"But I can't say we've done that great a job of tracking it," he added.
In his studies, Geller has found that there are conditions unique to the automotive experience that contribute to the "road rage" phenomenon.
"People's personalities change dramatically behind the wheel of a vehicle," said Geller.
"I mean, you could be mild-mannered and calm, even an introvert, but if you get behind the wheel of an automobile, for some people--not everybody, but some people--that state changes their personality," he said.
As he explained, that change is the result of a combination of assumed anonymity and a sense of territorial entitlement.
"We're in our own cars, you see, and we're feeling protected. You would never give someone the finger face-to-face." said Geller.
And that sense of protection and anonymity makes one more apt to engage in what Geller called "escalating reciprocity" over a perceived automotive faux pas.
"Sometimes, we misinterpret the inappropriate behavior of driving, and we assume that the driver was intentional about doing the silly things that sometimes they do. We take it personally and, feeling insulted, we answer with a hand signal--and one that doesn't mean a right or left turn," he said.
Then the driver on the receiving end of the hand signal might respond with one of his or her own, or by some other form of "escalated reciprocity," such as trying to run the bird-flipper off the road, or chasing them down for a fist fight.
"The positive side of reciprocity is, if you do me a favor, I feel obligated to return the favor. But this is the negative side--if you insult me or do something that isn't right, I feel that I have to do it back," Geller said.
He also said the "Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis" might explain why road rage occurs.
"Psychologists have shown numerous times that frustration leads to aggression. Not always, but frustration is often the predecessor to aggression," said Geller.
"And here we have it on the highway, and it's getting worse. People are frustrated--they've got places go and things to do, and the highway is crowded," he continued.
Geller also said Type A personalities, of which he classifies himself, are most susceptible to road rage.
"I couldn't make it in New Jersey. I just couldn't do it," he said.
"I am grateful that I'm here in a relatively less populated community because I am, as are many people, a Type A personality, which means I've got things to do, I want to make things happen and I've got places to go--don't hold me back. Don't slow me up. And traffic can be very frustrating," he continued.
Driving While on Drugs
But, despite being susceptible himself, Geller has little patience for the notion that road rage is a condition for which a person needs medical treatment.
In this reporter's readings about the road rage phenomenon, the term "Intermittent Explosive Disorder" often came up in association with it.
Geller laughed aloud at mention of the phrase.
"That's kind of silly, really," he said in explanation.
"What does 'intermittent' mean? 'Now and again,' and we're all angry or frustrated 'now and again.' It's just an attempt to put a cute little label on something," he said.
"Don't make it more complex than it is. It's just negative emotions behind the wheel, and 'road rage' is the popular word for it, but then academics will come up with something cute like, 'intermittent explosive disorder,'" Geller continued.
All kidding aside, he went on to criticize, "You know, 'disorder' makes it sound like a disease. And that's the problem: alcoholism, 'a disease;' gambling, 'a disease;' shoplifting, 'a disease,' and now road rage, 'a disease.' So now we have a scapegoat, and maybe we can take a pill to remove the disease, and that's wrong on all accounts.
"It's a behavior, man! It's a behavior, and it's influenced by the world in which we live. The medical model doesn't always apply--it's a behavioral model in this case."
And that "world in which we live" is one "full of such modern trappings as "e-mail and voicemail (that) have put us in this mindset of efficiency: getting things done quickly. We used to wait three days for the mail. We don't wait anymore, so we're in this 'get it done fast'-kind of mindset, so we've lost our patience, and losing our patience on the highway leads to negative emotions, and in many cases, road rage," Geller added.
The psychologist said there isn't any data of which he is aware that would indicate where road rage is most prevalent.
"My guess would be it's more prevalent where there are more cars," he said.
"I mean, road rage is not going to happen if I'm not frustrated--if I don't see you as in my way, holding me back, thwarting me from reaching my goal, I'm not going to be frustrated, and am less likely to have road rage," he said.
For its purposes, the American Automobile Association defines road rage as "where actual violence occurs," according to Chuck Mai, spokesman for AAA in Oklahoma.
"Road rage is the end result, sometimes, of aggressive driving, which is much more common," he said.
Examples of aggressive driving, "which happens every day, everywhere," said Mai, are rapid lane changing, speeding, tailgating, running stoplights and reckless driving.
"But 'road rage' itself is kind of a term that has risen in popularity, I think, because of the alliteration and because of the nature of the word itself. It's very attention-getting," he added.
Another difficulty in tracking the phenomenon is that "collision reports just don't say 'road rage,'" said Kathy Evans, a data analyst for the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office.
"But, we do have some data on other causes of collisions that can be indications of aggressive driving," she added.
In 2006, which is the last year for which the OHSO has data (why is this?), there were 75,408 accidents reported on Oklahoma roads. Of those, more than half were from causes that are consistent with aggressive driving.
The highest proportion, at 11,535 were from failures to yield, followed by 9,725 for speeding, and others were from unsafe lane changes, following too closely and failures to stop.
"Those types of behaviors can be considered 'aggressive driving.' And, when you think about it, when you're driving down the road, you'll see people whipping in and out of traffic, or you'll see somebody riding up on the bumper of someone and following too closely," said Evans.
She qualified, however, that no one can say for sure that any one of those instances were the results of "road rage," or even of aggressive driving.
"But, we can say that these types of behavior could be aggressive. And that's as close as I could get," Evans added.
While there is no hard data on the prevalence of road rage, Lt. George Brown, public information officer for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol in Tulsa, said anecdotal evidence could be taken to suggest that it's on the rise in Oklahoma.
He said motorists can dial *55 on their cell phones to report a "road rage" incident to OHP.
"Road rage calls are prevalent through our dispatch. In the Tulsa metro area, we get maybe one or two calls a week," said Brown.
He echoed Willingham, though, by pointing out those calls rarely involve actual altercations between motorists.
"We look at it like this--if somebody's following too closely, maybe cuts you off, makes a hand gesture, flips their lights, does any aggressive move, we could consider that a 'road rage' incident," said Brown.
During his 11 years in the Tulsa area as a state trooper, Brown said he's seen a "steady increase" in the volume of such calls.
But, he said it's anyone's guess whether that increased call volume is an indication of the rise of actual "road rage" scenarios (whatever that even means).
Brown said it's possible that the "road ragers" have been there all along, but more people have cell phones and are able to report it as it happens than in prior years.
Of course, his talk about people using their cell phones to report road rage raised another line of questioning about whether that might, in fact, be contributing to the problem.
He said cell phones are a significant factor in many accidents dealt with by the OHP.
"We have, not necessarily statistics, but personal experiences as law enforcement officers with people utilizing cell phones, driving down the road, talking on their cell phone, not paying attention and getting involved with a collision. It's very prevalent and very problematic," said Brown.
But, he said calling to report road rage is an "exigent circumstance."
"When someone sees something that is dangerous to other motorists on the highway, yes, we encourage them to pull over, if there's a shoulder available, use your cell phone, call in about the dangerous situation, and then go about normal business," he continued.
Brown explained that, according to some relatively new legislation (what does it say, what is the $$fee?), citations can be written for inattentive driving involving a cell phone if it's determined that cell phone usage contributed to an accident.
Don't Shoot the Messenger
About the increased reportage of road rage, though, Brown said another contributing factor might be a media-driven preoccupation with the phenomenon.
"The media is getting to be a smaller place. . . and people are seeing it more in the media. It's starting to be more on their mind, so they're starting to call in," Brown explained.
Then you'll probably get a lot more calls after we run this story.
"Yeah, we will," he laughed in response.
"But, I understand the media's perspective. I appreciate what you guys are doing, and I encourage the stories," Brown added.
As hinted above, Nathan said that academic attempts to track the prevalence of road rage have sometimes had mixed results.
For instance, according to a telephone survey conducted in Ontario, Canada, the results of which were published in the Journal of Safety Research, 47.5 percent of respondents in 2001 reported having witnessed incidents of road rage, which decreased to 40.6 percent in 2003.
Respondents who identified themselves as road rage perpetrators, though, remained at about one-third between those years.
Nathan cited another report that surveyed Americans, the Response Insurance National Driving Habits Survey, which was released in December of last year.
According to it, he said, "Fully one-half of all drivers who are subjected to aggressive driving behavior respond with aggression of their own, thus risking a more serious confrontation."
Nathan said 50 percent of drivers reported that they respond to obscene gestures, tailgating or getting cut off with horn honking, yelling, retaliatory cut-offs or obscene gestures of their own.
"These are self-reports, though, so their real meaning is up for grabs," he said.
And it could just mean that Canadians are more easy-going than Americans.
"Or that," he concurred.
Nathan said the "road rage" phenomenon might also be a bit of a red herring on the part of the news media.
He pointed out that incidents such as those cited at the beginning of this piece--the slayings of John Hines and Kenneth Ray Gumm--might have just as likely happened later on that day or evening, but in the form of a bar fight or domestic violence.
For instance, Alex Busby, who wasn't even driving the car involved in the so-called "road rage" incident, might have taken his aggressions out on a fellow bar patron later that night, had Hines not come across his path. But, because the altercation began on the highway, the media cast it as a "road rage" slaying, when it just as likely might have been plain old "rage."
Nathan also cited a 1998 article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, entitled "Road Rage Versus Reality," which reported on several other factors besides aggressive driving contributing to various traffic accidents, which many studies in prior years had simply attributed to an increase in road rage.
"It's either a red herring, or it's a real phenomenon that's been overplayed," said Nathan.
Also, he said surveys typically find that people are roughly twice as likely to be afraid of road ragers than they are of drunk drivers, despite statistics that reveal a much greater likelihood of being killed or injured by a drunk driver than a merely angry or aggressive driver.
"People were more afraid of road rage than they were of drunk driving, which I don't think was an accurate assessment of risk," he said.
"It's important to convey that this is a phenomenon we need to pay attention to, but not get stressed out about," Nathan said.
"We need to protect ourselves from it while we figure out what all these surveys mean," he added.
There are a number of approaches one can take to protecting against road rage.
For instance, Geller said he likely came recommended by the APA for his involvement in what he calls the "polite light."
"I've been looking at changing behavior on a large scale," he told UTW.
"A few years ago, we got a grant and developed what's called a 'polite light.' I paid $15,000 to get 5,000 of these, but they never went anywhere," Geller explained. "But the grant worked out great."
The "polite light," he said, was a "little green light" installed on the back of a car, to be used to communicate with other drivers.
A single flash means "please," twice is "thank you," and three times means "I'm sorry."
"We did a research project where we had billboards in the community of Christiansburg, Va., and we distributed the lights throughout the community. We also told people that they could use their flashers, too, to flash the code," Geller recalled.
He said communication on the road goes a long way toward defusing the "escalated reciprocity" that can happen after a perceived offense, and the "polite light" is optimal for that purpose because hand signals can easily be misinterpreted.
The polite light never quite caught on, though, but Geller said drivers can always fall back on good old-fashioned self-control to avoid giving in to road rage, or doing anything to incite or exacerbate it.
"Slow down, count to 10 and recognize the possible negative consequences of your own inappropriate behavior," he said.
"We need to say that to ourselves--'Behavior should be motivated by consequences,' and we need to adjust our behavior according to the consequences we expect. So, anticipate negative consequences when you flip the bird to someone," Geller added.
Nathan recommends essentially the same approach, but somewhat more systematically.
"Each of us can be aware of our potential for road rage, and there are many ways to protect yourself," he said.
Nathan recently completed an audio lecture entitled "Road Rage Happens: Be Prepared!"
He said the first part contains a lecture on how to train oneself to handle road rage incidents on the road. The second and third parts are instructions for various relaxation exercises designed to prevent succumbing to it.
It should be available for purchase on Amazon or other online outlets by October, he said.
Until then, though, there are a few tips he recommends.
He said drivers should get into the habit of mentally checking themselves according a particular acronym: HALTT.
Before getting behind the wheel, Nathan said people should ask themselves, "Am I hungry? Am I angry? Am I lonely? Am I tired? Am I tense?"
"If you have to drive when you're in a HALTT condition, you may overreact, or underreact if you're tired, and make somebody else angry," he said.
"Also, if you can put yourself in that other driver's place--maybe it's a worried parent whose precious child is in the ER across town?" Nathan also recommended.
But if altruism and the Golden Rule aren't sufficient motivation, he said self-preservation is another consideration.
"Maybe that person has a gun under their dashboard, and they're willing to use it on you," he said.
With those considerations in mind, the Highway Patrol spokesman said, "We discourage anyone trying to catch up to anyone or involving themselves when they see road rage, which would create a further problem. Just stay back and let them go."
"Stay out of their way, switch lanes, take an exit and get away. If you happen to get a tag number, great. That assists us--vehicle description, or possibly a driver description. Call it in and let us know," Brown added.
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