Road rage behavior is an acquired haste
Mon, Jun. 27, 2005
By Margaret Baker and Robin Fitzgerald, Biloxi Sun Herald

Culturally condoned aggression can change

Road rage is a culturally acquired habit, a generational legacy of children learning to drive by watching bad driving behavior of their parents and of actors in movies and television programs, according to Leon James. He is a traffic psychologist and professor at the University of Hawaii who has studied aggressive driving for more than 20 years.

James maintains many drivers have not learned the emotional skills to control themselves in emergency road situations or to cut other drivers some slack. This lack of self-control and inability to consider alternatives can transform the friendliest of people into "extremely ignorant and anti-social" morons when they get behind the wheel.

In testimony before Congress in 1997, James told lawmakers that aggressive driving is emotionally impaired driving; it may stop short of physical violence, but can easily escalate, causing injuries or death.

"A symptom of road rage everywhere is the unforgivably narrow latitude drivers cut each other for making mistakes," he said. "Emotionally intelligent thinking empowers drivers with an inner power tool we call the 'attitude of latitude.'

"It allows people to think more objectively and realistically about drivers' inevitable mistakes and bad moves. It empowers them to think of alternative explanations for motorists' mistakes - not being 'stupid or careless or incompetent,' but being 'momentarily overwhelmed, scared, confused or unprepared.' And it enables them to deal cautiously with selfish drivers who intentionally do 'stupid' things."

A car is an extension of one's ego and personal freedom, he said.

"The fact is that aggressive driving is a cultural norm because our culture condones the expression of hostility whenever we feel wronged."

James' studies with another psychologist, Diane Nahl, show aggressive driving is more common among men than women, and more common among young drivers than older drivers. The studies and surveys are available on their Internet site, Drdriving.org.

James' report to lawmakers points to universal causes of road rage: "More cars, more traffic, more frustration, more stress, more anger, more hostility." Standard solutions, he says, are "more and better roads, better cars, better laws, better enforcement and better public education programs."

However, he maintains those solutions are not enough. He supports increased public awareness, grass-roots efforts to report incidents and driver education programs that teach emotional intelligence skills.

Some experts believe alcohol, illicit-drug use and certain personality types contribute to road rage. Most agree that any road-rage incident, even if it doesn't end in violence, can be traumatic.

The driver whose mistake provokes the next incident could easily be one of us.