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On the Road - Road Rage

National Accident Helpline’s Start Safe, Stay Safe campaign takes a look at road rage, how to avoid it as a new driver and how to deal with it when it's directed at you.

What is road rage?

Nowadays, the term “road rage” is used rather loosely, but what does it actually mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines road rage as “sudden violent anger provoked in a motorist by the actions of another driver.” However, this implies that the driver has a valid reason to be angry in the first place – and this is not always the case. Some drivers have their own issues which can cause them to react unfairly to others. These actions can range from rude gestures out of a window, to heated arguments or even threats of physical violence.

The impact of road rage can be detrimental for everyone involved and engaging in such behaviour can even claim lives. In fact, latest government statistics show that of 3,493 reported accidents which involved aggressive driving, 833 were fatal or serious. [1]

road rage

Research carried out by (where data was obtained from 15 police forces) found that road rage incidents have increased a whopping 70% since 2012 in the UK. More than 53% of Brits admitted that the poor driving of others makes them angry, with tailgating being one of the most common causes. [2]

As a new and/or young driver, there are bound to be occasions when you feel angry at something another driver has done - particularly if it’s illegal or puts you in danger. You may even experience other drivers’ anger towards you which can provoke the same feeling back. At National Accident Helpline, we’ve compiled useful information on avoiding road rage and how to deal with it if you’re on the receiving end.

The law on road rage

Perhaps the most high-profile road rage case involved former Heavyweight Champion boxer Mike Tyson, who was jailed in 1999 after assaulting two motorists after a car accident. [3]

However, it’s worth noting that in the UK road rage, or any breach of the Highway Code, is not in itself an offence, but prosecutors can hold any failure to comply with the Highway Code against you in a court of law and you could receive penalty points and a fine for careless driving.

Road ragers can also be charged with serious crimes depending on their actions during a road rage incident. For example, if a driver threw a punch at another driver, they could be charged for assault or bodily harm.

Rude gestures and comments can be intimidating but aren’t classed as serious offences. If you’ve been a victim of something more serious, such as threats of violence, assault or damage to your vehicle, you should report the incident to the police. You can also complete the online form on the Operation Crackdown website.

Ask an expert

Matthew Bowes

Matthew Bowes is a relational body psychotherapist with extensive experience that includes working with people who suffer from anger and rage issues. Matthew works in private practice in Brighton, East Sussex.

The below responses are basic guidelines to help with understanding road rage, how to deal with it and what to do when we experience it from others. If you need more expert help, please seek advice from a psychotherapist or counsellor.

Is “road rage” a simple term as we often believe?

No. Road rage is a generalised term and there are many complex levels to it. On one end of the spectrum, it may involve angry gestures and verbal aggression and on the other end, it may involve seriously life-threatening bullying and/or intimidating driving and potential acts of extreme physical violence.

Significantly, neither end of the spectrum can be separated from the other and what might start out as an angry verbal exchange between drivers can quickly escalate into a much more dangerous situation. Often our rage is rooted in traumatic, complex life experiences of which road rage is only one manifestation.

What happens to our body when we get angry?

When we get angry our heart rate and blood pressure increase, our arteries, which carry our blood, tense up, adrenaline and the hormone testosterone are released into the blood stream and our body is prepared for ‘fight or flight’.

How can this lead to anger?

Roughly speaking, when overwhelmed by rage we lose our capacity for rational thought and reasoning because the co-ordinating area at the front of our brain becomes inhibited and the older, more primal areas of the brain can react unmediated.

Our mental focus becomes narrowed to the perceived threat or object of our anger, which we express through aggressive facial expressions, threatening gestures, shouting and at its most extreme, physical violence.

We all get angry from time to time but how would someone know if he/she could benefit from anger management?

The key questions to ask are: Is my anger causing me or others problems and am I putting myself or others in danger because of my anger? This could include road rage, and physical or emotional violence towards oneself (self-harm) or others – such as verbal or physical abuse towards partners or colleagues.

Other questions to ask are: Am I putting my job/relationship at risk? Is my anger so overwhelming at times that I find myself feeling depressed because of my outbursts? Am I feeling deep shame or guilt because of it? If you feel the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’ it may be worth consulting with a therapist to help you understand what is going on and help find ways of not becoming controlled by it.

What long-term effects can road rage have if it’s ignored?

If someone suffers from frequent and on-going road rage it is likely that they are experiencing high levels of stress and rage in other areas of their life too. A recent report [4] highlighted mounting evidence that links rage with a range of illnesses including heart disease, stroke, cancer and common problems such as colds and flu. Out of control on-going rage is also linked to issues such as poor self-esteem, depression and self-harm.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people in the survey also described anger as having a likely negative effect on relationships. And needless to say, one could speculate that specifically on-going road rage is also very likely to increase one’s chances of injury or death through road traffic accidents or getting into fights.

How would you help someone who suffers from road rage?

There are several ways that this could be approached. Firstly, I’d be interested in the lifestyle of the person coming to therapy – things like taking certain recreational drugs, alcohol and caffeine consumption, how someone tends to organise their day (i.e. do they tend to leave things to the last minute) are all potential stressors which could create conditions for road rage. Becoming aware of what triggers our anger and using de-escalation and relaxation techniques can help tackle the immediate issue.

Then, if the client is willing, I would want to look more deeply at what might be lying behind the anger. In my experience anger is generally bound up with or on top of other strong, painful emotions such as deep sadness, anxiety or fear. On the whole I find that working to uncover and get in touch with these deeper emotions is key to facilitating long-term and lasting change.

If young drivers have parents who frequently show road rage, how does this impact them?

It really depends on the nature of the relationship between the parent and the young driver. Recent studies by Professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore and others have shown that when we are most likely to be learning to drive, i.e. in our teens and early 20s, it is a critical time for brain development – particularly in the areas of risk taking, social interactions and moral identity.

It’s been shown that at this age we are particularly susceptible to peer influence – so one could speculate that if a young driver really looks up to the road-raging parent (and there could be very complicated reasons why they do this), it is possible that they might be influenced to take risks and/or emulate the latter’s moral code. However, it is equally possible that they might be traumatised by the experience and chose not to mirror their parent’s behaviour.

Furthermore, the research suggests that we are more likely to come under the influence of our peers, people our own age, the mates we hang out with - so this is when we need to be particularly aware.

If a young driver believes a friend or family member suffers from bad road rage, how should they approach the issue?

It may not be easy as just a casual chat because the reasons behind someone’s road rage may be very complex and run far deeper than perhaps is apparent. For example, if we criticise or make judgments about the person who’s suffering from road rage, it may make them feel shameful and defensive, resulting in further expressions of rage, which are likely to be directed towards us.

If it feels important to bring it to their attention, first of all make we need to make sure that we do it in a situation where we feel safe, i.e. we may want to have a brother, sister, another parent or friend nearby. Also it’s good to have in mind the six-foot rule – if you or someone else begins to feel signs of rage, keeping a distance of about six feet at all times reduces the possibility of physical attack if your temperature boils over.

When it feels safe, tell them about your experience of their behaviour. It’s also helpful to separate the behaviour, i.e. the rage, from the person. In other words, try to convey “I like you, but I don’t like what you’re doing”. If it feels safe to do so, and the family member shows signs of remorse or wanting to do something about their rage, advise them to seek help. If you feel up for it, you could offer to support them as they go through this process.

What is a key exercise someone could do if they feel road rage coming on themselves?

The first thing I’d suggest would be to focus on the breathing - exhale deeply and focus on taking slow, mindful breaths. Feel and focus on the contact you are making with the car seat while maintaining awareness of your driving, what’s going on the road etc. If deep breathing makes you feel worse, then focus on the second part, the contact your bottom and back are making with the seat.

The aim of these strategies is to help ‘ground’ ourselves, lower our heart rate, slow down our fight/flight response and stop the angry feelings from overwhelming us and thus create the space for the front part of our brain to kick in so we can think a bit about what’s going on.

How should someone react in order to keep safe if they are on the receiving end of road rage?

This is a difficult question to answer because the instances where road rage can occur and the reasons behind it are multiple and complex. What is paramount here is the victim’s safety. We can have no idea about the state of the person who is raging at us and how dangerous the situation might be. If driving, the rule of thumb would be - don’t get involved. There’s likely to be an impulse to respond angrily and really this is to be avoided.

We can use the breathing and grounding techniques mentioned above to help calm ourselves down. In the situation where an angry driver gets out of the car and comes towards us, the best advice would be to stay in the car, lock the doors, close the windows and immediately call the police for assistance or attract the attention of passers-by.

You can follow Matthew at @MatBowesTherapy

What annoys you most?


Tailgating Defined

If you type in “tailgating” in Google images, you’ll probably see a car surrounded by people cooking up some delicious-looking food – sounds appealing, but the American term is very different from what we mean when we talk about tailgating here in the UK.

You're classed as tailgating if you drive closer to the car in front than is safe and, according to the Highway Code, this is any gap that is less than two seconds in normal driving conditions.

Not only does it indicate that the tailgater is experiencing road rage, but it can also provoke anger in the motorist being tailgated.

Just wait, don't tailgate!

According to road-safety charity Brake, more than 50% of drivers admit to tailgating at some point [5], but it’s important to realise how dangerous this can be. When tailgating, drivers may not have enough time to react should the motorist in front need to reduce their speed or brake sharply. It can also cause considerable stress for the driver being tailgated, leading to nervous driving as a result - which is never a good thing!

The 2-second rule

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re leaving a safe gap between you and the car in front, remember the simple 2-second rule. Choose a fixed point such as a road sign or a building that is in line with the car in front of you, and if you reach that point within two seconds, it’s an indication that you are driving too closely. Remember to reduce speed safely and always leave more room during bad weather conditions.

road rage

Types of tailgaters 

While there’s never any excuse for tailgating, it can help to know why people do it, as not all of them are aware they’re causing a problem. Here are the main types of tailgaters and what your basic response should be:

Aggressive tailgaters: These drivers deliberately tailgate in order to intimidate or provoke a reaction from another driver. There’s simply one thing to remember here: when it’s safe, let them pass. They have an intent to be dangerous and it’s best to protect yourself by allowing them to get ahead.

Impatient tailgaters: Drivers who want to get ahead for reasons such as running late. Once again, it’s best to let them pass as it’s possible they have a genuine need that is causing them to be impatient. While their behaviour is unacceptable, they have the potential to turn into aggressive drivers, which is best avoided.

Ignorant tailgaters: Those who are unaware of what they’re doing and the dangers associated with it. They aren’t often looking to get ahead so while you could allow them to pass you, another method of dealing with passive tailgaters is to ease off the accelerator and give yourself even more distance between you and the car in front. Avoid braking as the ignorant tailgater behind you is unlikely to be paying close attention to your brake lights.

How to get rid of troubling tailgaters

Tailgating drivers may annoy you, however it is important not to react in an aggressive manner as this could easily escalate into a much more serious road rage incident. The important thing to remember is that it’s not worth it. Your primary concern needs to be yourself, your passengers and your vehicle. Don’t fall into the temptation of speeding up as you’ll then be tailgating the car in front of you. To safely get rid of a tailgater, here are some tips to consider:

Reduce your speed: On a straight road with no oncoming traffic, slow down and allow the tailgater to overtake you.

On a motorway? Change lane: If you’re being tailgated on a motorway in the central or right-hand land, move over to the left and allow them to pass. You can always re-join the lane you were in after you’ve got rid of them.

Pull over safely: If the road permits, pull over safely and allow the vehicle to get well ahead before moving off.

Go around a roundabout: If you’ve tried all the above but still haven’t got rid of the stubborn tailgater, it might be worth using an upcoming roundabout to do a whole extra turn. This isn’t something that should become a habit but in extreme situations, it can be a wise action to take, particularly if your safety is at stake.