"Emotion still triumphs over reason, anger over restraint, and hate over love. Perhaps the only thing that has significantly changed through the centuries is the human capacity to say, 'I'm sorry.'" - Roy L. Brooks, The Age of Apology (1999).
Picture this. You're traveling in the left lane along a major interstate as a passenger in a sports utility vehicle at the rate of 85 mph when all of a sudden a motorist recklessly veers in front of your vehicle forcing your driver to hit the brakes in order to avoid a collision. Then, infuriated at the reckless motorist, your driver moves to the right lane, aligns herself with the offending motorist, yells at the motorist, and then proceeds to toss a bottle of Gatorade out of the window to hit the motorist's car. What do you do?
Or, picture this. You're a passenger in a vehicle on your way to a movie theatre with a group of friends. Everyone knows that the movie has already started and is keenly aware of the driver's intent to "make-up time" by speeding. When your driver approaches a car ahead of him going about 15 miles per hour slower than he is, he jokingly begins to speculate aloud about the I.Q. of the slower driver. Eventually, he begins to flash his headlights and honk the horn at the slower driver, who retaliates by driving even slower. In response, your driver becomes angry and begins to yell and make obscene gestures to the driver ahead, who then signals for your driver to join him on the roadside to settle their rising annoyance with each other. When both cars pull to the side of the road and the drivers exit their vehicles, what do you do? These scenarios are true experiences of "road rage," but they do not tell the whole story.
This 2-part study was conducted to: 1) more closely examine the conflict phenomenon associated with growing reports of aggression and violence on the roadways, and 2) present a conflict model analysis of road rage that might prompt discussion and further research among CR theorists. Ultimately, it is hoped that further analysis will support efforts to resolve the phenomenon of road rage.
When I first began researching the phenomenon coined "road rage" by the British tabloid press (Stephen, 1999), I expected that most incidents and concerns would be limited to the industrialized societies of the West, which are generally considered to be more fast-paced, individualistic, and congested than less industrialized nations. And in fact, my findings - which due to a relative dearth of scholarly research are based largely on my analysis of 33 newspaper and magazine reports covering a three-year period from June 1997 to July 2000 - do suggest that the phenomenon of road rage is a more frequent occurrence in Britain, Canada, and the United States than in other countries. However, my findings also indicate that road rage is by no means limited to Western societies. The following stories represent brief excerpts of road rage reports from the popular press and suggest that road rage is indeed a global phenomenon.
The picture painted by reports of road rage in the United States is not much different.
This brief sampling of road rage stories coming from countries across the globe confirms its proliferation as a random, albeit widespread, form of potentially deadly interpersonal violence. Yet, despite its commonness, road rage presents a series of unique challenges to researchers, making it unlike most other forms of interpersonal violence. First, it usually involves expressed aggression between strangers. Second, it is related in some way to a driving incident. Third, it involves a perceived threat of "invasion" into one's space, and thus, one's identity. Fourth, it is a conflict phenomenon that has yet to secure a universally agreed upon definition. Fifth, there are, by some standards, insufficient quantifiable data documenting its existence. Sixth, theories about its causes abound, proposing an extremely broad range of probabilities. Seventh, the inability to target causes for the phenomenon presents major challenges to resolving it.
Collectively, these challenges may account for the relatively low level of scholarship dedicated to the study of road rage, particularly in comparison to the scholarly attention given to other, more quantifiable and definitive types of interpersonal violence, such as street crime, domestic abuse, and school violence. This paper will first explore the challenges associated with defining, quantifying, explaining, and remedying the road rage phenomenon and will later present a conflict resolution framework for its analysis.
It is difficult to comprehensively and competently address any issue without first having an accurate understanding of its meaning. Where road rage is concerned, its definition is made particularly complex because of the wide range of behaviors that might or might not constitute the phenomenon. The following survey of variant jurisdictional definitions of road rage depicts this challenge.
In Canada, the Ontario police define road rage as "random acts of violence or aggressive behavior carried out by frustrated or over-stressed drivers" (The Toronto Star, 10 June, 2000). In this case, an act of violence would be much easier to ascertain than aggressive behavior, since what constitutes aggression may be entirely subjective. As such, it is the "aggressive behavior" component of road rage that makes the phenomenon particularly challenging to define and, thus, address.
In an interview with People magazine, Dr. Arnold Nerenberg, a California-based psychologist who treats patients with difficulty controlling their anger on the road, defines road rage as, "When one driver lets another driver know that he or she is angry because of something the other driver did. In expressing that anger, the driver might make obscene gestures, scream, honk, put on the brakes, cut in front or brandish a weapon. Or even use the weapon" (Free, September 1997). But even this definition leaves certain questions unanswered. For example, while brandishing and/or using a weapon clearly constitutes a violent act and might readily be classified in this context as road rage, should such an act be included in the same category as other expressions of anger? Surely, expressing anger in and of itself should not consistently be equated with rage. This suggests that, "Aggressive driving and road rage are blurred terms and difficult to distinguish," writes Patrick Bedard of Car and Driver (1998). Bedard goes on to ask, "Can you criminalize impatience?"
Dr. Ricardo Martinez, head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines aggressive drivers as "individuals who are more likely to speed, tailgate, fail to yield, weave in and out of traffic, pass on the right, make improper and unsafe lane changes, run stop signs and red lights, make hand and facial gestures, scream, honk, flash their lights, be impaired by alcohol or drugs, drive unbelted or take other unsafe actions" (Car and Driver, October 1997, p. 7). But in many instances, all of these behaviors may not be associated with rage-like or violent behavior; indeed, all are not generally considered to be unduly offensive under some circumstances. In this case, two questions emerge: How do you legislate hand and facial gestures, and to what degree does such legislation impinge upon rights for the freedom of speech?
In a 47-page study of road rage, funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAA), researchers Daniel B. Rathbone and Jorg C. Huckabee (1999) define road rage as when "an angry or impatient motorist or passenger intentionally injures or kills another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian, or attempts or threatens to injure or kill another motorist, passenger or pedestrian" (p. 2). In their report, the researchers explain that road rage incidents might be "distinguished from other traffic incidents by their willful and criminal nature" (p. 2). But what about those instances where one driver aggresses another and unintentionally causes the latter to be involved in a violent and/or deadly accident or unintentionally causes the latter to suffer such emotional duress as to produce a deadly heart attack or stroke? Should the aggressing driver be charged with road rage? After all, under Rathbone and Huckabee's definition the aggressor would not be guilty of road rage unless his act was intentional.
Where any behavior on the part of one driver, random or nonrandom, intentional or unintentional, jeopardizes the physical well being of another driver a clear case of road rage may well be underway. At the same time, however, the "aggressive" act could be a case of poor driving skills on the part of one or both drivers. Rathbone and Huckabee point out that, " road rage and aggressive driving are not synonymous. Road rage is uncontrollable anger that results in violence or threatened violence on the road; it is criminal behavior. Aggressive driving does not rise to the level of criminal behavior" (p. 3).
That there is no singular, definitive confirmation of what constitutes road rage - except in those cases where intent to harass, harm, or injure are clearly distinguishable - complicates institutional efforts to assess its causes, quantify its impact, and prevent its increase. What is clear, however, is that there do exist those individuals in our global society who are rude, hostile, bad-tempered, competitive, and sometimes violent - while they are in control of a 3,000-pound vehicle, which is sometimes used as a weapon.
Consistent with efforts to define road rage are similar efforts to identify or profile the perpetrators of road rage. Interestingly, research confirms that we may all, at one point or another, be motivated to behave in ways consistent with that of a road rager. In fact, in his 1997 testimony before the U.S. Congress, Dr. Leon James, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Hawaii and renowned expert on the topic of road rage, stated that his research "confirmed that, to some degree, nearly every driver has feelings of rage and thoughts of retaliation" (p. 2).
The findings of a road rage study conducted by Paul Overberg (1999) and reported in the Columbia Journalism Review also suggested a relatively broad profile of road ragers. Overberg wrote, "All else being equal, aggressive drivers were women as often as men; as likely to drive cars or minivans as pickups and sport utility vehicles; most prevalent in the western and southern portions of the United States and least prevalent in the Northeast; disproportionately under 25, yet well represented among the middle-aged" (p. 28). These findings were consistent with those of California psychologist Dr. Arnold Nerenberg who found that contrary to popular opinion, road rage is not a gender-based issue. According to Nerenberg, "Based on my preliminary research, 45 percent of road rage incidents are committed by women; 55 percent are committed by men. It appears that men are doing most of the shootings and women are doing most of the ramming" (People, September 1, 1997, p. 59). The findings by Overberg and Nerenberg are disputed however, by those of AAA, which indicate that "the typical profile of such a driver is relatively young, poorly educated males who have criminal records, histories of violence and drug or alcohol problems" (New Statesman, April 2, 1999, p. 24). The wide discrepancy in these findings (and other findings reported in this paper) supports my concern that more research be dedicated to the study of this phenomenon.
While legislative representatives, law enforcement officials, stakeholder organizations, and interested individuals continue the dilemma of defining road rage, another closely related issue involves quantifying the frequency of road rage to find evidence of its increase or decrease. Whether or not road rage is an increasing phenomenon impacts the degree to which: 1) researchers will give it scholarly attention, 2) foundations will provide financial incentives to support further investigation, and 3) institutionalized programs will be designed to address it.
In an effort to find evidence of a road rage trend in the United States, Overberg wrote about his team's search for statistics. According to Overberg, "We knew there was no real definition of road rage, and we quickly found that there weren't even good measures of its level, let alone whether it was on the rise. It was, we reasoned, the tip of a dangerous iceberg called aggressive driving" (p. 28). Overberg concluded that efforts to measure road rage trends were impossible since "aggressive driving is fleeting and elusive" (p. 28). Similarly, a January 1999 article in Consumer's Research Magazine concluded, "There's no objective evidence to support the notion that highway hostility is increasing despite recent media attention rediscovering aggressive drivers this has been a problem in one form or another for most of this century" (p. 19).
There exists a problem in logic, though, that suggests that if a demons- ratable increase in road rage cannot be proven its existence might not warrant further attention. If indeed road rage has been around for most of the century, I question why it has not been given the same level of study as have other forms of interpersonal violence. The fact that the phenomenon of road rage has received more attention in the past 10 years (much due to the efforts of media) than it did in the previous decade could be evidence of not only its increase but also its increasing volatility.
There are strong indicators of the prevalence of more deadly manifestations of road rage, particularly manifestations linked to fire arms. The greater access to fire arms means that more drivers have the very real potential of being armed on the road. (In fact, there have been some reports where drivers have suggested a necessity to be armed for self-protection in the event that they are attacked by a road rager.) Sergeant Peggy Gamble, head of Ontario's Road Rage Intervention Tool, notes, " back in the 1970s and 80s when you gave a motorist the finger it was terrible. It happens so often now it's become normal" (The Toronto Star, June 10, 2000). Along with the more frequent use of "the finger" has come the dilution of its perceived power, prompting some drivers to use more strongly aggressive and violent behavior -- as documented in many of the stories cited earlier.
In addition to the propensity for the more prevalent use of deadly weapons in the commission of road rage, today's phenomenon exists in a social milieu of more widespread cultural and interpersonal violence than in previous times. Violence propagated by the media, the movie industry, music, and other forms of popular culture impacts the degree to which individuals today are disposed to perceive and act out with aggressive and/or violent behavior. "By cultural violence, we mean those aspects of culture that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence (Galtung, 1990, p. 305). Reporters Jason Vest and Warren Cohen, who researched a road rage cover story for U.S. News & World Report, agree that road rage is a part of our social system. They write, "In reality, there's a confluence of emotional and demographic factors that changes the average citizen from mere motorist to Mad Max" (p. 24). Writers for Bully OnLine, a website dedicated to diminishing the power of bullies throughout the world, propose that "rage" permeates our daily living. They write, "Road rage, air rage, office rage, desk rage, work rage, bike rage rage is the word of the moment" (p. 1).
Despite concerns about quantifying road rage, recent studies have produced some of the "numbers" that the quantitative-driven, linear-thinking culture of the West so strongly craves. For example, a recent Gallup International Poll found that 80.4% of people surveyed in Britain, 78.1% of people surveyed in the Netherlands, 76.6% of people surveyed in Greece and 72.7% of people surveyed in Luxembourg report having been victims of road rage (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, May 14, 2000). A study in Australia estimated that about one-half of all traffic accidents may be due to road rage (U.S. News & World Report, June 2, 1997).
In the United States, studies to quantify road rage have also been helpful in assessing the phenomenon. In his 1997 testimony before a congressional committee, NHTSA head Ricardo Martinez reported that cases of "violent aggressive driving" were growing by 7% a year. He speculated that "approximately 28,000 deaths on America's roads each year, or two-thirds of the total, are wholly or partly the result of bad temper" (Economist, July 26,1997). During that same year, a study by AAA estimated that only 218 driving-related fatalities could be directly attributed to enraged driving, although 12,610 injuries were identified as attributable to aggressive driving (U.S. News and World Report, June 2, 1997). Also in 1997, Michigan-based EPIC-MRA conducted a study of aggressive driving. The firm's findings concluded that 80% of drivers are angry most or all of the time while driving and that more than a third of the respondents are impatient while waiting at stoplights, for passengers, or for a parking space (Time, January 12, 1998). Once again, such discrepancies in findings suggest the need for more dedicated investigation into this phenomenon.
Consistent with the variations in data collected about the profiles of road ragers and its trends is the abundant conjecture regarding the causes of the behaviors associated with the phenomenon. The wide diversity of probable causes for road rage suggests that, in some cases, officials and other experts are grasping for answers to understand what provokes the phenomenon. The list of probable causes includes:
This non-exhaustive list of probable causes for road rage ranges from the sociological to the psychological, with responsibility being randomly attributed to the individual, society-at-large, and, in some cases, the environment. It includes issues related to public administration, law enforcement, legislation, philosophy, education, psychology, sociology, economics, communication, family structure, musical preferences, and the weather. It encompasses human needs, cultural values, and social mores. That this list is so abundant and diverse suggests the extraordinary degree to which road rage impacts our existence and, paradoxically, is impacted by our existence. This suggests that road rage is clearly, like other forms of violence, pervasive. That this is the case further exacerbates efforts to "treat" the problem.
Not surprisingly, just as there are varied approaches to defining road rage, discrepancies in quantifying road rage, and inconsistencies in identifying causes for road rage there are also innumerable tactics designed to bring an end to the phenomenon. These include:
In addition to institutional approaches to end road rage, several individuals have written books and devised other creative measures to address the phenomenon. Nerenberg's booklet, "Overcoming Road Rage: The 10-step Compassion Program" is written from a therapeutic perspective, while motorist Gary McKay's self-published, "Road Rage: Commuter Combat in America" includes interviews and stories of road rage from throughout the world. Taking the campaign against road rage one step further, British computer consultant Robbie Crawford has created "electronic display panels for rear windshields which are programmed to flash messages such as 'sorry' and 'thank you'" in an effort to quell the angst of some drivers (Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 1999, p. 2).
As individuals and officials throughout the world are becoming more dedicated to ending the aggression and violence associated with road rage, it seems only fitting that a conflict resolution analysis be applied to the phenomenon.
That there are varied approaches to defining, quantifying, explaining, and remedying road rage reflects the complexity of the phenomenon. And like any other manifested conflict between human beings, road rage is indeed based on the confluence of many factors. In fact, the conflict, aggression, and violence associated with road rage relegate it to both a subsystem/component of the larger social system and a discrete system in and of itself. Certainly, its manifestations reflect the overwhelming influence of social forces; and yet, its manifestations are very much restricted to incidents somehow connected with road-related angst. This suggests that road rage might be studied as part of a greater social system of conflict, aggression, and violence and as a self-contained, distinct phenomenon. Consequently, there are many approaches that conflict theorists could apply to its analysis.
In the context of this paper, I propose to analyze road rage as a distinct system of behavior at the level of the individual agent. In this light, I will address the identity issues associated with road rage. Identity involves issues of self-consciousness and being; it includes a sense of valuation placed on one's own existence and the right to exist and "be" as one chooses. An individual's pursuit of identity authentication and preservation are needs expressed as identity assertion. As a result, perceived threats to one's identity may be considered a challenge to one's being and may, therefore, provoke a series of emotions ranging from fear to hostility to anger. The origin of the anger and hostility apparent in road rage could very well be initiated by fear -- the fear of being disrespected, unacknowledged, injured, violated, and losing control are closely aligned to the fear of being forced to sacrifice, compromise, or in some cases relinquish one's identity. Ultimately, the emotions provoked by the perceived threats may lead to a struggle between the self and the other where each are enjoined in a vicious cycle to assert his/her identity. It is because the concept of identity relates to basic, universal human needs (Burton, 1990) that I propose to utilize Terrell Northrup's (1989) From Identity to Escalation framework, as outlined in "The Dynamic of Identity in Personal and Social Conflict," in the analysis of conflict linked to road rage. Consequently, I suggest that the conflict escalation processes depicted in Northrup's model parallel the intrapsychic and emotional experiences of individuals as they strive to maintain identity in the midst of road rage conflict.
According to Northrup, "Identity plays a major role in the conduct of any conflictual relationship" (p. 55). She defines identity as "an abiding sense of self and of the relationship of the self to the world [it's] more than a psychological sense of self [it's] extended to encompass a sense of self in relation to the world " (p. 55). Research of actual road rage incidents suggests that, during those moments most immediately preceding its manifestation, the conflict is escalated by an agent's perception of a threat to his/her identity. When identity is threatened, frustrated, or denied, identity needs may cause individuals to act in uncharacteristic and even harmful ways (Burton, 1990). In fact, Burton suggests that an individual's pursuit of the fulfillment of identity needs could lead him to act out in defensive and aggressive ways that are "outside the legal norms of society" (p. 36). In addition to the narrative that follows, the chart on presented at the end of this paper depicts the application of Northrup's model to the escalation of conflict during road rage incidents.
Northrup's four stages of conflict - From Identity to Escalation:
Stage 1: Threat
This first stage is characterized by an agent's perception of a threat. When this occurs, Northrup suggests "an event is perceived as invalidating the core sense of identity of one or both of the parties the threat destroys the ability to predict events" (p. 68). Where an agent's experience of road rage might be considered, a driver's sense of identity will likely feel threatened by another driver's action or inaction. For example, "John" might perceive that his identity is invalidated or threatened by "Mary" when she tailgates, cuts him off, or nearly sideswipes his vehicle. Or, John might feel that Mary is disrespecting his person when she honks her horn at him, makes obscene facial and hand gestures, or drives so slowly as to interfere with his need to be somewhere at a particular time. Finally, John might perceive that his identity is invalidated or threatened when Mary stops short after failing to signal a turn, abruptly applies her brakes, or flashes her high beam headlights at him. In either case, John might choose to respond to or ignore what he perceives as a "threat." Presuming however, that John does not ignore his perceptions of invalidation and threat, or that Mary persists in behavior that denies respect for John's identity needs, the conflict moves the Driver(s) to Stage II. In this case, John's response to Mary's behavior could lead Mary to perceive that her identity is being invalidated and/or threatened.
Stage 2: Distortion
In this stage of the conflict, a psychological response to the threat involves a distortion of reality in order to preserve a sense of identity. Northrup writes, "Incoming information is distorted or misperceived in order to maintain the core sense of identity" (p. 70). Where this occurs, John and/or Mary will begin to unconsciously misrepresent what is occurring. For example, where Mary is tailgating John, she may feel that her identity is being invalidated by John's refusal to move into another lane. Her feeling that John is not affording her the respect consistent with acknowledging her identity needs by not recognizing her need to move at a faster pace might lead Mary to perceive John as an insensitive, incompetent, rude, and obnoxious individual. Mary's perception of John could certainly be distorted. It is entirely possible that John is a sensitive, competent, and caring individual who does not understand why Mary will not simply drive around his car.
In another scenario, where Mary is tailgating John, she may have an emergency situation and have a legitimate need to drive at a faster rate. In fact, she may not consciously realize just how closely she is tailing John's car. In this case, John could perceive Mary as an insensitive, incompetent, rude, and obnoxious individual who refuses to give him a safe driving distance. Certainly, both Mary and John could be wrong about the other. However, during this distortion stage alternative ways of thinking about the other do not occur to the individuals involved. Instead, the other and his behavior are distorted and reduced to a symbol of opposition and competition.
Stage 3: Rigidification
During rigidification, the drivers become more firmly rooted in their distortions and their behavioral responses to the distortions increase. The degree to which each driver continues to perceive an identity threat reflects the degree to which he/she will become more committed to the distorted perceptions of reality. The other is now construed as the complete opposite of the self for "the purpose of putting distance between the self and the threat" (Northrup, 70). During this stage, each Driver might also engage in the psychological processes of projection and depersonalization to further drive the separation of identities. At this point, each Driver may staunchly refuse to give the other "space" or acknowledge the other's identity for fear that in doing so he/she may lose a portion of his/her own identity. Further, each driver's dehumanization of the other begins to grow; it is at this point that thoughts and acts of violence will likely intervene. Northrup suggests that where we begin to objectify the other it is much easier to act out in violence.
Stage 4: Collusion
In this final stage the Drivers give the conflict itself prominence over anything else. According to Northrup, "the parties 'cooperate' in pushing the conflict beyond the escalatory stage to the stage in which the conflict itself becomes defined as self" (p. 75). In other words, each Driver incorporates the conflict into his/her sense of identity. Where this occurs, both drivers act out behaviorally so as to maintain the conflict, and thus, maintain his sense of identity.
In applying Northrup's framework to the analysis of conflict processes occurring in the agent's experience of road rage, we are better able to consider ways to prevent the escalation of the conflict process. For example, if this model indeed typifies the emotional escalation in road ragers, public education campaigns could be conducted to enhance drivers' perceptions of each others' humanity and decrease tendencies toward distortion and depersonalization. Also, for those drivers who are admittedly challenged with controlling their emotions on the road, this model would give therapists and support groups specific points of entry in designing anger management therapies. At this point, however, we are most concerned with finding conflict resolution frameworks that may better support the analysis of road rage. Certainly, other models might employ an analysis of individual conflict styles or the role of social forces in constructing the road experience as a competitive venture. In any event, once the models are applied I believe the options for resolution will be greatly enhanced.
As indicated earlier, there have been many institutional and individual approaches to resolving the road rage dilemma. From Congressional hearings, to law enforcement tactics, to legislative initiatives, to federally-funded research programs, to therapeutic strategies, to educational programs, to enhanced media attention, to books, to electronic display panels, and so forth, stakeholders in varied roles are contemplating how to address the phenomenon. The field of conflict resolution has much to offer in the analysis and probable transformation of this phenomenon. The application of Northrup's framework represents only a minute and fractional attempt to demonstrate how we might influence the study of the agent's experience of escalating conflict, aggression, and violence associated with road rage, and thus, how we might affect positive change toward its resolution. Certainly, its use in this context should provoke discussion and scholarly investigation.
Identity: Abiding Sense of Self
Sense of Self in Relation to World
|Responses During Perceived
Threats to Identity
|Responses During Distortion
|Responses during Rigidification|
|Responses during Collusion|
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Correspondence concerning this article may be sent to:
K. Michelle Scott, Division of Communication Arts, Clark Atlanta University, 223 James P. Brawley Drive SW, Atlanta, GA 30314 Thecommdept@mindspring.com. (404) 880-8299
K. Michelle Scott is a doctoral student in Nova Southeastern University's School of Social and Systemic Studies' Dispute Resolution Program. She is also an instructor at Clark Atlanta University. She has a B.A. in Communication Arts and an M.A. in Speech Communication.
OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute, www.trinstitute.org.