I was angry. Again. This time, directly in front of me in the left lane, a red Peugeot was traveling well below the speed limit. Oblivious to my needs, the driver stayed in the lane despite my tailgating and flashing headlights. “Get out of the way! Can you not see that you’re blocking traffic!?” I yelled. From the passenger seat my colleague Laura looked at me in shock. “Wow”, she said, “Are you always like this when you drive?” We made it to our meeting on time, but I was still flushed with frustration and embarrassment, unable to focus on the meeting.
The United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines road rage as when a driver “commits moving traffic offenses so as to endanger other persons or property.” [i] Researchers estimate that 8 million American drivers have admitted to significant anger and aggression on the road. [ii] That’s a lot of drivers. As a result, the NHTSA and the Auto Vantage auto club estimate that 66% of traffic deaths are caused by aggressive driving. [iii] Surging rush hour traffic, entangled traffic patterns, decaying public transportation options, road construction and numerous other interferences can make commutes perilous, and turn, some, like me, into a jerk.
One Monday morning, late to work, I was stunned into compassion and civility. Despite the roads being full, which meant I’d never ‘beat the traffic’ anyway, I was determined to overtake the blue Toyota in front of me so that I could just make it through a yellow light. Even now, months later, my stomach tightens in regret when I recall my pointless aggression. As I sped by, I looked over at the driver so as to express my disdain with a hostile look. In the driver’s seat sat an elderly woman who seemed rattled and sad as she slowed down as the light turned red. My anger evaporated; compassion took its place.
I’ve never physically hurt any other driver or vehicle. Nonetheless, the statistics show that I was lucky. Determined to change my behavior, I began investigating how to do so most effectively.
What can you do when colliding factors make road rage so common and potentially lethal?
1. Assess yourself. Studies show that it’s the expression of anger that leads to dangerous driving patterns. [iv] In the same situation two drivers might feel equal levels of anger, but express their anger in radically different – safe or dangerous – ways. The Driving Anger Expression (DAX) Inventory instrument measures how a driver expresses their anger. The inventory can help you to understand your level of anger and, more importantly, how to correct potentially destructive driving behaviors. https://www.anger-lab.com/resources/Instruments/DAX.pdf. My DAX results revealed my tendency to express both verbally and physically aggressive behaviors.
2. Test the time it takes. To determine how many minutes I was actually saving by aggressively overtaking other cars, I timed my commutes over 3 weeks. All things considered I only gained on average 3 minutes per trip when I sped my way through traffic. Realizing that my impatience didn’t save me time, and enflamed my stress, I began to relax during, and even enjoyed, my commutes. Instead of fixating on my needs, I was able to enjoy podcasts or music, and mentally plan for my day.
3. Make up a story. To engage my compassion while driving, I began making up stories about the drivers whose driving might madden me. Now I tell myself, “Perhaps this person just learned that her husband has cancer and is driving so slowly because she is in shock.” Or, if a driver overtakes me dangerously, I imagine he’s in a rush to get home to his sick child. As a result, cars became more than steel objects to me. Every car has a human driving it and they are doing the best they can. Driving with empathy, as opposed to rage, has forever altered how I experience being in my car amidst traffic, congested or not.
A few months after my conversion from angry to kind driver, another colleague Joe and I were driving together to a company off-site. While on the highway, the driver behind us began honking at me for no obvious reason. Nevertheless, I calmly moved into the right lane to let her pass while Joe and I continued discussing the off-site’s agenda. Joe saw the driver give me a nasty look as she sped by. Joe said, “Wow”, he said, “Are you always like this when you drive?” Proudly, I said yes.