Road Rage & Aggression: Don’t Be A Victim

(Last Updated On: November 28, 2018)

Recognizing Aggression, Passive Aggression & Cluelessness

road rage - angry

Road Rage. You know. That’s a driver who speeds down the interstate. He owns the road. If you’re in front of him and don’t get out of the way, look out! He may try to force you off the road, or simply put a bullet through your head.

Is that what we mean by road rage? Well, not necessarily.

Road rage is an emotion. It may lead to assault or murder, but it doesn’t have to. More frequently, road rage simply increases aggression. And more aggression increases the risk that someone will miscalculate, leading to injury or damage.

Since road rage is a feeling, I don’t think any of us is immune to it. How does it feel when a cellphone-distracted driver ahead of you sits through most of a green light, delaying you an entire cycle? How about when you’re following at a safe distance and someone forces his way in front of you for no good reason?

Only a saint would not feel road rage at times like these. And most saints were never tested in this way. (Fun fact: most saints never drove a motor vehicle!)

            Road Rage, the Summary

We have previously discussed driving to arrive in good time without getting a traffic ticket.

However, today’s blog covers something even more important: your personal safety:

  • With a polarized and angry world around us, how can we keep safe while driving?
  • How can we recognize and avoid road rage in others that may put us at risk?
  • And how do we best manage our natural instinct to push back against aggression or stupidity on the part of other drivers?

I have combed both the good sources and the bad ones to assemble what seems to be the best advice. So settle in, and we’ll answer all these questions! If you want to jump ahead, here are links to key headings:

Road Rage, the Definition

Here’s an official definition of road rage, thanks to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

Road rage: An assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by the operator or passenger(s) of one motor vehicle or precipitated by an incident that occurred on a roadway.

Aggressive driving is a generic phrase describing dangerous driving behaviors, including:

  • Following too closely.
  • Driving too fast.
  • Weaving through traffic.
  • Running stop lights and signs.

Aggressive driving can escalate to rude gestures, yelling, confrontation, physical assault and even murder. Thus road rage is the extreme version of aggressive driving. Here’s the key difference:

Aggressive driving is a traffic violation, while road rage… is a criminal offense.

Not everyone agrees that aggressive driving is a bad thing. The most popular definition in the Urban Dictionary asserts that so-called “aggressive” drivers are actually highly competent drivers who are annoyed by the many timid drivers who slow them down and “cause many accidents.” (This definition ignores the fact that aggressive driving can lead to injury and death of others.)

            Road Rage, the Game

Some people make road rage a source of fun, without getting into a vehicle. The Road Rage video game advertises “when there’s no law to obey, there’s no law to break.” Their advertising images are intended to pump your adrenalin:

  • A tattooed woman riding a motorbike with a chain saw strapped to her back.
  • A rider with a huge metal blade as a sidecar.
  • An axe-wielding rider challenging another who brandishes a mace on a chain.

FYI, reviews of this game are largely negative. Let’s set aside the couch-potato game-playing option and get back on the roadway!

Being in a Car Can Kill You

road rage car accident

The mere process of getting from here to there is fraught with peril. We can ignore shopping-center fender-benders. What’s more important is the preservation of our precious bodies.

4.6 million people are injured in vehicle accidents in the U.S. each year. Since the population is 325 million, that doesn’t seem like much risk. In fact, there’s a 98.6% chance that you won’t have a traffic injury this year.

That may sound pretty safe to you, but every year your accumulated risk rises. It’s more than 50% likely that you’ll be injured badly enough to require medical attention, at least once during your lifetime. Worse than that: every 20 years, someone in your household will probably suffer such an injury. [Math fans: take 0.986 to a high power.]

After the injury, your troubles aren’t over. You can repair your car and your body. However, both of them may retain creaks, groans and pain for many years. And, things can be worse. If you’re hurt in an accident, there’s a 1% chance that it will kill you.

The moral is clear. Transportation is risky, and we should try hard to avoid every accident.

Aggression Can Kill You

What causes accidents? Experts are quick to advise that the leading cause of accidents is driver error. Driver error arises from:

  • Distracted driving.
  • Impairment by alcohol or drugs.
  • Fatigue.
  • Speeding.

However, those factors apply to all accidents, and many of those are minor. The picture becomes much clearer when we focus on road rage, leading to fatal and near-fatal accidents:

  • Each year, 80% of drivers experience significant anger or road rage while driving.
  • 66% of fatal accidents are caused by aggressive driving, including road rage.
  • Even more alarming: 37% of aggressive driving incidents involve a firearm.

It’s clear that the deadliest accidents overwhelmingly arise from aggressive driving, especially when it escalates into road rage. Our survival requires recognizing and avoiding aggression and road rage, both in others and in ourselves.

Diagnosis: Aggressive? Passive Aggressive? Or Clueless?

Drivers are not simply driving. As they drive, the way they behave sends signals about how they feel. And at the same time they receive signals from other drivers and react to them. Continuous nonverbal communication.

Most of the time we’re driving, we can and do treat other cars as things, not people. They are anonymous objects that follow the rules of the road. We maneuver amid them to get where we’re going without injury or unwanted delay.

However, now and then one vehicle, or a few, behave differently from the majority. How we act to keep ourselves safe requires decoding the other driver’s intent.

            Some Drivers Communicate Their State of Mind

road rage congestion

When drivers don’t blend in with the traffic, they are usually expressing one of three states of mind:

  • Aggressive. This driver is expressing impatience, anger or supreme pride in his driving skills. Frequent symptoms are tailgating, weaving through traffic, cutting others off, speeding, sudden acceleration and braking, and honking.
  • Clueless. Such a driver does things that annoy you “by mistake.” For example, a driver may ignore your signal and not let you change lanes. Or may merge too closely in front of you as if you didn’t exist. We have already mentioned the driver who starts up so slowly when the light turns green that you have to wait for the next green light.
  • Passive Aggressive. This is a driver who is not at all clueless. This driver does things that a clueless driver might do. However, they are only pretending to be ignorant or inattentive. They are in fact, for whatever reason, acting aggressively but trying to hide it.

Sometimes it’s hard to be sure whether a driver is being Clueless or Passively Aggressive. You could find out by making an aggressive response to test them. You could observe whether they continue to behave ignorantly, or whether they become more aggressive.

I strongly recommend that you don’t test another driver this way! If the driver is clueless, you have not learned anything. But if they are aggressive, you are escalating the situation. That is risky for you, for the other driver, and for everyone else on the road.

            Get Yourself Outta There!

Think about it this way. You don’t need to be sure which feeling a driver is showing. All you need to know is that all three of these drivers are dangerous to be around. You should take pains not to provoke them, and to move far away from them. Why?

  • Because an Aggressive driver of the impatient or angry sort can easily advance to road rage regardless of what you do or don’t do.
  • Because a Clueless driver is a hazard to navigation and may make a mistake that draws you into an injury accident.
  • And because a Passive Aggressive driver is probably angry and even more likely to escalate into road rage than an Aggressive driver.

We (Yes, You and I) Are Not Innocent

I assert that you and I are not innocent of sending these signals.

Guilty by intent? Perhaps not. After all, anyone who survives past age 30 and has average intelligence does not take unnecessary risks.

However, our intent lies deep in our heart of hearts. Only our actions are visible to other drivers. And sometimes our actions appear aggressive or clueless to other people.

            Guilt By Action

Examples of guilt by action abound. For example:

  • You change lanes and oops! There’s someone bearing down on you who (hopefully) hits their brakes in time to avoid a crash.
  • You don’t see someone merging in from an on-ramp on your right. Thus you don’t make room for him, causing him difficulty.
  • At a four way stop, you proceed at a time when some else thinks it’s their turn.
  • Sometimes, you gradually overtake another car, then it overtakes you, and then you repeat. I do not recommend this! The first time you repeat, you are, perhaps unintentionally, being aggressive. Either drive faster to get well ahead of the other, or drop back so they are clearly in the lead. Don’t dance with a stranger.

Most of the time, you say “darn it” to yourself and forget about it. But if the other driver responds in an angry manner, you need to soothe the situation immediately.

Does this strike you as a wimpy response? Yes. But it’s a necessary one.

We must keep reminding ourselves: Driving is not a contest, nor a test of courage. Driving is a risky activity involving tons of steel moving at a mile per minute. Society tolerates it only as a necessity. Whoever wants to demonstrate their inborn superiority should save it for the tennis court or the poker table.

Defusing Anger Before It Rises To Road Rage

How do we defuse anger? Hey, it’s a jungle out there. We are talking about primal responses, so behave accordingly. Generally, that means an act of apology, or of submission. Wild animals do this frequently, to save their skin.

Here are some options:

  • Lift your open hand, then put it down. This is like admitting a foul in sports. Or showing that you’re not holding a weapon and therefore mean no harm. (No, not an “up yours” gesture!)
  • Once you’ve done this, make no other gestures. They could be misinterpreted.
  • Allow plenty of room for them to pass you.
  • If the angry person is beside you or ahead of you, slow down to let him get ahead of you. Then slow even more, to let him get so far ahead that other cars come between you.
  • If the angry person is behind you, don’t slow down! Look for a chance to move out of his way, preferably into a slower lane on your right.

What if an angry driver tries to stay close to you? Then you’ve got a problem.

Slow down or move farther away. Whatever you do, don’t pull over and stop. That’s a signal that you want a fistfight or a shooting duel.

A reasonable opponent will eventually give up, after you have groveled by showing enough submission. An unreasonable adversary means that you need to phone 911 or have a defensive driving course under your belt.

            Hogs on the Road

Motorcycle riders are a special case. Media and entertainment have created stereotypes of riders that are not representative. However no one, including the riders themselves, ignores these memes.

Some riders are truly tough and rowdy men and women. But some are meek souls who dress up in toughness like a costume. And still others deny the biker image and take pride in being nice regular folks. You really don’t know who that rider is from a quick glance.

However, one thing is certain. Riding is risky for the rider, because the bike provides almost no physical protection. For that reason, for their survival riders must adopt a large personal space. That is, they must maintain more distance from other vehicles than car drivers do.

What happens when someone in a vehicle enters a rider’s extra-large personal territory?

  • It seizes their attention.
  • It raises their blood pressure.
  • And if they are easily angered, it makes them furious, real fast!

For these reasons, it makes good sense to keep an extra-large distance between you and motorcycle riders. Such behavior is prudent and safe. Better yet, it’s simple courtesy toward our neighbors on the roadway.

Some People Are Mobile Explosive Devices

road rage collision

A few drivers are cruising around, stoked with anger, looking for a fight. If you keep your eyes open, you may be able to spot such a person before they do anything bad, by their “tells”:

  • People with a lot of stickers and decals on their car reveal that they are territorial by nature. The number of stickers correlates with a propensity for road rage. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t matter what the political persuasion of those stickers is!
  • Motorists with guns are more likely to act aggressively and demonstrate road rage. This datum suggests that if there’s a big gun show in town, be extra cautious!
  • Drivers of “high-performance vehicles” report experiencing more road rage.
  • An obnoxiously loud radio, played with windows open, identifies an aggressive driver. He is asserting that he owns your (auditory) space.
  • People are more aggressive on hotter days. On a warm day, you’ll sometimes see cars with their windows rolled down, perhaps because the AC is broken. Open car windows signal a hot and therefore potentially dangerous driver.

If you think you have spotted one of these moving time bombs, keep far away!

Defense from Road Rage

Sometimes however you are caught by surprise. You have literally done nothing, but another driver starts behaving aggressively.

When you see a driver making multiple challenging moves, you should assume that he is a nut case. I say “he” because… well, you know.

Here’s your defense from road rage:

  • Your goal is to not be noticed by the hostile driver. Let’s call him the nut. Do whatever the traffic around you is doing, but maneuver to put distance and other cars between you and the nut.
  • Assume that the nut has a very large personal space. That is, he thinks he owns a large part of the road. If you are in it, he thinks you are trespassing and challenging him. So stay as far away from him as possible.
  • Don’t match him in any way. Don’t match speed. Make yourself go slower, unless you are ahead and can safely disappear out of sight ahead. Don’t ever, ever drive even with him. It’s better to purposely fall back and let some other car be next to him.
  • Don’t speed or accelerate unnecessarily. The nut will see that as a challenge to race. His pumped adrenalin will push him to take even more risks than usual.

I hope this blog quenches your thirst on Road Rage. We’ve talked about how to stay safe, how to recognize road rage in others, and how to keep from signaling aggression ourselves. I wish you safe and gloriously happy driving!

Image Credits (all from
– “Angry” adapted from PublicDomainPictures
– “Car accident” from valtercirillo
– “Congestion” from RettungsgasseJETZTde on
– “Collision” from WikimediaImages


Road Rage & Aggression: Don’t Be A Victim — 2 Comments

  1. Comment by James Brennan (Engineer/Architect) via LinkedIn: This is just one of the many problems that Autonomous Vehicles will alleviate in the next couple of decades. Unless the training data for the Artificial Neural Networks used for control are tainted with this human trait.

    • Good point, James! It’s very difficult to avoid human biases when training software systems that can learn. Racial and gender biases are well known, but your note is the first instance I know of that points out human emotional responses as posing a training problem.

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