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Is Road Rage a Mental Disorder?


Updated November 25, 2003

"Road rage" is a popular topic on the talk show circuit. I once saw an episode of 'Politically Incorrect' that featured a psychologist (Arnold Nerenberg, Ph.D.) who claimed to have "discovered" road rage as a new mental disorder. It bothers me when people discover new disorders, especially when they appear to be setting themselves up as pioneers in the treatment of these "disorders." The same thing happened with "Internet addiction" a few years ago. While some people clearly have problems with their Internet use, this does not mean that they are necessarily 'addicted' to the Internet.

There has been a backlash in the United States over the pathologizing of behavior.   Some fear that defining road rage as a mental disorder will allow criminals to plead that they were mentally ill and not responsible for their actions.  This opinion was expressed by several on Politically Incorrect, and Dr. Nerenberg was defensive all night.  The "insanity defense" is actually a legal concept and it is not directly related to diagnosed mental illness.  I doubt that we will see criminals defended because they suffer from a mental illness called road rage. 

The psychologist who "discovered the disorder" of road rage described it as an impulse control disorder. Many of us have an impulse to "flip off" or curse at a driver who annoys us. Most of us don't do it; or we curse quietly. Others of us honk or flash our lights to express our annoyance. A few of us take out our shotguns and fire at other drivers.

Interstate traffic in southeast Virginia and elsewhere has been steadily becoming more crowded. All traffic between Norfolk and Williamsburg is required to squeeze through one of two tunnels. Back-ups of an hour or two are common when there is an accident in the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. I was stuck in a 90 minute back-up recently, and I got an opportunity to witness and experience a mild form of road rage.

As traffic ground to a halt on the interstate I noticed myself becoming extremely impatient. I was in no particular hurry, but I did not want to just sit there. Cars started using the shoulder to whiz by me, and I found myself getting irritated at them. Eventually I used the shoulder myself for a short distance to get off at the nearest exit.   I was able to drive down a parallel road before becoming stuck again as I approached the Interstate closer to the tunnel.  As I merged in with another lane of traffic a car quickly drove beside me to keep me from entering the lane.  It began to feel like a competition.  I kept driving and she kept driving.  She screamed something at me about a lawsuit, and I stopped to let her continue.  My heart was pounding as I pulled into the lane behind her.

Was this woman suffering from a mental disorder?  Was I?  Some of our driving behavior may stem from our innate territoriality.  A recent study found that motorists take significantly longer to leave a parking place if someone else is waiting for it   We seem to be saying "I have this space right now, and I won't give it up until I'm ready."  Driving slowly in the "fast lane" seems to be conveying a similar message.  Cars also provide some degree of anonymity.   It feels like it is my car against your car rather than me against. you.  This anonymity may allow us to act out impulses we would never act out face-to-face.  As highways become more crowded these problems will only get worse. 

The Iowa Department of Transportation has a site devoted to preventing road rage.  They note that "persons who are characteristically cynics, rude, angry or aggressive are prone to get angry [on the highway] more often."   Impatient "type A" personalities may also be more likely to express their rage on the highway.  The Iowa site lists the following Common Motorist Irritants:

  • Tailgating to pressure a driver to go faster or get out of the way.
  • Flashing lights in order to signal persons to move to another lane.
  • Obscene gesturing.
  • Changing lanes without signaling.
  • Blasting the horn.
  • Frequently changing lanes by weaving back and forth.
  • Racing to beat a yellow light that's about to turn red.
  • Traveling in the passing or left lane at a slower speed, making it impossible for others to pass.
  • Driving with the high beams on behind another vehicle or toward oncoming traffic.
  • Cutting people off.
  • Slowing down after passing someone.
  • Not making a right turn in the right-hand turn lane.
  • Not reacting quickly after the red light turns green. (from Iowa DOT Road Rage Page)  

One of the bests way to avoid becoming a victim of a "road rage" driver is to consciously avoid responding in kind.  Remember that what may appear to be harassment may be simply a mistake in driving. One study found that a large percentage of drivers reported having been tailgated, but only a very much small number admitted to having tailgated others.  If the other driver's aggressive behavior is intentional, the best thing to do is to avoid eye contact and get out of the way.  Don't allow driving to become a competition.

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