Road rage isn't a disease, it's a natural response to gridlock

June 22, 2006|By ERIC PETERS

WASHINGTON -- "Road rage" is now an official disease - intermittent explosive disorder, the shrinks call it.

According to a study funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, about 16 million Americans suffer from IED. Inadequate production of the brain chemical serotonin leaves victims unable to regulate their moods properly - and thus, their behavior on the nation's crowded highways.

But is IED really a malady? Or just the natural expression of a heavily overtaxed fight-or-flight mechanism that has been intrinsic to human nature since time immemorial?

In other words, is it reasonable to be stressed out and angry as a consequence of having to sit and stew in endless traffic? Is this the proper and normal state of affairs?

Or is it a sign of health that more and more of us chafe at being caught like lab rats in a continent-size Skinner box - and display our natural frustrations by leaning on our horns, stomping on the gas and doing whatever is in our power to flee?

Think on it for a moment: Modern humans are essentially the same as our ancestors of 100,000 years ago, while widespread and inescapable gridlock is a phenomenon of the last 50 years.

We were not bred for this sort of abuse. We have not had time to evolve new mechanisms - such as an internal morphine release gland, let's say - to cope with an environment our hunter-gatherer systems are completely ill-equipped to deal with.

The chaos, the unremitting noise, the slow boil of constant pressure with no escape valve and the flood of stress hormones that rush into our bloodstream are natural responses to a relentless stream of stressful situations.

We respond very much in the way you'd expect a cornered animal to respond. We get angry. Some of us boil over. Our vision narrows to the singular focus of getting through - and getting away.

Forms of civility become a hobble; as in the case of passengers on a doomed ocean liner, the situation too often devolves to every man for himself. Sink or swim, even if you have to push someone else under to remain afloat.

It's ugly and unpleasant, but it's the reality. Being quiet and polite is not only increasingly difficult, it's apt to leave one holding the short end of the stick, constantly abused by more-aggressive motorists with a passion for self-preservation.

That's not a disease. It's an entirely predictable reaction to an unnatural situation.

Sitting in traffic for a couple of hours every day is madness. Willfully subjecting millions of people to this daily and not expecting negative consequences is like smokers failing to make the connection between pack-a-day habits and emphysema.

We don't need a pill. We need to recognize a dangerous and unhealthy situation for what it is and take steps to ameliorate it. That would include encouraging people to live closer to where they work and governments and businesses to expand telecommuting opportunities instead of herding workers into some distant suburbs through shortsighted land policies.

Failing that, subscribe to satellite radio, gets some books on tape - whatever it takes to get your mind and your glands off the galling prospect of another daily grind. Your blood pressure will thank you. And you might just avoid a fender-bender, a fistfight or worse.

American motorists don't need a pill or therapy on a psychiatrist's couch. If the federal experts really want to curb road rage, they should put policies in place that address the underlying causes rather than label the victims sufferers of so-called intermittent explosive disorder.

Disease-ifying the frustrations of drivers idling their lives away on clogged commuter roads will do nothing to solve the real problems.

Eric Peters is a columnist for The Army Times, The Navy Times and AOL online.

Columnist Thomas Sowell is on vacation.

Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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