What to Do if You’re the Victim of Road Rage
How to keep a cool head in the face of aggression
Being from Boston, home to some of the country’s worst drivers, I know something about road rage. When I was in my 20s the driver of the car I was riding in angered another driver. That driver and his carful of passengers pulled up alongside us, rolled down their windows and starting shouting and throwing things at us — heavy, metal-sounding things that clanged against our car and dented the exterior. Eventually, we sped ahead and lost them.
We were lucky. Some road-rage incidents end very badly, with drivers getting killed.
Why are drivers so hot behind the wheel? “Many road rage-type incidents are precipitated by certain common driving behaviors,” says Sergeant Thomas Ryan of the Massachusetts State Police. “Some of these discourteous, unsafe and sometimes illegal behaviors include following too closely or tailgating, using the left lane as a travel lane rather than a passing lane, failing to use a turn indicator and ‘cutting someone off,’ not yielding to someone who is trying to change lanes and unnecessarily using your horn.”
I can still hear the sound of the horn blowing from another incident, which combined at least three of those behaviors. A woman on the Interstate cut off my then-boyfriend. The traffic was stop-and-go and she immediately had to brake hard. My boyfriend slammed on his brakes — and his horn. For several minutes, he refused to lay off it. Traffic was stopped, so the other driver had nowhere to go. I could see her shrugging, her arms raised as if to say, “what can I do?” I tried to pry his hand off the horn, but he was red in the face and wouldn’t budge. Eventually he stopped — and I stopped dating him.
Related: How to Make Your Next Car Safer
The psychology behind road rage
Why do we take strangers’ actions on the road as a personal attack?
“Cars have always had a very deep significance to us for lots of unconscious reasons,” says David Reiss, MD, a psychiatrist who focuses on trauma and personality dynamics. “A car can come to represent my sense of self and my self-esteem. If it’s the one place that you feel more in control and more powerful, and you perceive it as being attacked, even if it is really innocent or simple, it can be perceived as a personal insult. Of course that’s not logical or rational, and most of us know not to act on it. But it becomes easy to act on it.”.
If you’re the victim of road rage, your options depend on just how aggressive the other driver’s actions are. “If their behavior is limited to hand gestures or honking their horn, do not engage them in kind. Focus on your driving, and don’t make eye contact. Showing a lack of willingness to engage will, more often than not, diffuse the situation,” Ryan says.
But what if it doesn’t? Like the time I was in college, working nights as a valet for an upscale restaurant. We parked the cars eight city blocks away and had to move quickly when VIP customers called for their vehicles. I was driving a blue BMW out of the valet parking lot and, in my haste, accidentally cut off an SUV. The SUV followed me back to the restaurant, tailgating, swerving and flashing his high beams the whole time. When I parked the car, the driver hopped out, ran to my car and punched the driver’s seat window while yelling profanity. I was too afraid to get out of the car. (Photo: ottoflick/Shutterstock)
What I should have done, says Ryan, was this: “If their behavior becomes more aggressive or dangerous, like tailgating or following you for an extended period, and you feel threatened by the behavior, call 911 and report the incident. Also, don’t pull over and engage the aggressor. If you must pull over somewhere, try to find a police department, fire department or at least a public area where other people are around. Stay in your vehicle until police arrive.”
"You have no idea what’s going on in the mind of the other person or how dangerous they may be,” says Reiss, the psychiatrist. “The worst thing to do is get out of the car and try to reason because the person may see this as aggressive. The best thing to do is disengage as best as you can,” he adds.
If the situation develops into a face-to-face confrontation, “apologize, even if it’s not your fault,” Reiss advises. “This isn’t a person you want to have a relationship with of any kind. You don’t want to correct them, you don’t want to tell them they’re wrong. You already have a means of escape.”
You may want to express your anger at the other driver, but most of us realize we shouldn’t. At the same time, you don’t have to lie to yourself about being upset on the road, Reiss says. “Don’t deny those feelings. Say to yourself, ‘yes, it feels like an insult, but was it intentional? Is it a big deal? Is it really worth pursuing this?’ Everybody, at times, gets their feelings hurt, and you just have to bear with it to a certain extent. Ground yourself — ‘I’m just driving to work or going to the store. This isn’t about me and isn’t personal.’”
As The Standells’ song goes, Boston, you’re my home. And while I love the rich city history and the incredibly intelligent people in Boston (we have more than 35 colleges and universities), I’ve learned my lessons when it comes to navigating the hotheads on its roads.