On the road, emotion can be lethal


April 16, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Chalk up another two lives to Driving While Angry.

Last week's fatal accident on Interstate 270, in which two occupants of a Chrysler Sebring convertible were forced into and over a guardrail after exchanging obscene gestures with the driver of a pickup truck, was a particularly grisly example of the consequences of road rage.

And a ridiculous reason to die.

The crash left Christian M. Luciano, 28, and Lindsay L. Bender, 25, mangled and lifeless on the side of a highway in Frederick County. Two families in Pennsylvania mourn as their children's deaths become the subject of mocking comments on Internet message boards. And a possible vehicular sociopath remains on the road, ready to administer his brand of "justice" to the next person who offends him.

There are few statistics on how many people die as a result of anger on the roads each year. Those studies that do exist tend to focus on high-profile, possibly criminal incidents. But those numbers almost certainly understate the significance of anger in the 42,000 deaths each year on American highway.

There are no laws preventing drivers from getting on the road in a foul mood. You can't measure rage on someone's breath. But anger can be just as deadly as alcohol on the roads.

Dr. Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii and co-author of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving, said driving with a seething rage can be described as "emotionally impaired driving" and compares the effect to chemical impairment.

"There are similar effects on perception and judgment," he said.

In 1999, Colorado State University psychology professor Jerry Deffenbacher issued a study in which he compared "high-anger" drivers - those who measured in the top 25 percent in tests - with the "low anger" drivers in the bottom quarter. He found that the high-anger drivers were three to four times more likely to engage in aggressive behavior and 2 1/2 times as likely to engage in risky behavior than the low-anger group.

You don't have to turn into a raging, finger-wagging lunatic for anger to affect your driving. Have you ever found yourself stewing over one of life's injustices while the speedometer crept toward - or past - 80? I have. Anger - whether driving-related or not - has a way of making the foot just a little heavier, judgment a bit cloudier and the mind more distracted.

Of course, for many drivers, anger is a state achieved after taking the wheel. Other drivers go too slow in the left lane. They blow by us at an insane speed. They tailgate. They cut us off. They blast their horns. They chatter on cell phones. And sometimes they make obscene gestures.

More than a few of the e-mails to this column suggest that left-lane huggers, tailgaters, cell phone users and assorted other drivers are responsible for road rage. Their actions, it is suggested, push good drivers into a state of righteous wrath.

James said people in his line of work hear that a lot.

"`It's not my fault. He pushed my button.' We call that the Button Myth. There is no button," he said.

In other words, the person responsible for road rage is the one who gives in to that emotion. It doesn't matter if the other driver just cut you off while text-messaging, throwing beer bottles out the window and giving you the finger. Every driver's task is to remain cool in the face of provocation.

James believes raging against "idiot drivers" just adds to the stress. He contends that drivers need to cut the other guy some slack.

For instance, did that guy in the SUV deliberately cut you off? Or did he just make a less-than-judicious lane change that we might have made ourselves when we were younger? Jumping to the first conclusion is the road to rage. Seeing it the second way puts the situation in a far different light.

The Maryland driver's manual warns against getting on the road while angry or emotionally upset. It urges drivers not to make faces or angry gestures at other motorists. It counsels against making eye contact with other drivers and urges simple courtesy. These are good messages - too important to bury in pages 26-28 of a 104-page document.

Where are the ads saying "Friends don't let friends drive angry"? Where are the public service messages warning young men and women not to accept a ride from an angry driver? Where are the admonitions to passengers not to argue with a driver while the car is in motion? These are messages that should be at the core of driver's education.

James believes children start learning how to behave on the road from parental example from the time they're very small.

"In our book, we call the back seat the car road rage nursery," he said.

Deffenbacher is less certain of the parental role and thinks the influence of peers in one's late teens might be stronger. Hang with an angry crowd, turn into an angry driver.

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