Main Feature Story – Friday, August 10, 2012
Feature: The fast and the furious
When it comes to road rage, Novato psychologist Bob Nemerovski is an information superhighway
by Dani Burlison
Most people toss around the term “road rage” lightly, often referring to the grumpy old man tooting his horn behind us in the Sir Francis Drake right-hand turn lane.
But a quick look at daily headlines around the country shows that serious incidents of driver hooliganism are definitely speeding up.
Bus commuters must thank their lucky stars that the energy often used to drive defensively through hordes of angry, vehicle-wielding madmen can be used instead to read a book while crawling through the Novato Narrows. Drivers new to the crowded Bay Area highways may often suffer from anxiety as they learn to navigate through hundreds of Priuses and SUVs clogging the turnpike.
And let’s not forget the many Marin cyclists who see it through a more serious lens—collisions with angry drivers do more than leave dents in our Trek frames. Road rage can leave cyclists seriously injured. Or worse.
So what, if anything, can be done about road rage? How can we bring a higher level of awareness to mainstream commuters who often dismiss or misunderstand the effects it can have? With these questions in mind, we reached out to Novato psychologist Bob Nemerovski. Nemerovski, 47, is one of Marin’s few—perhaps the only?—experts on the topic of road rage (he specializes in men’s issues, anger and anxiety—road rage-related or not), and has spoken extensively on the topic. He even leads local seminars to educate and inform the general public.
We asked him to shed light on a topic we should all be pondering before we’re driven over the edge by that jerk who just cut us off at the Lucky Drive exit.
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You probably could have developed an expertise on a lot of things—why road rage?
I have been fascinated by this very potentially dangerous phenomenon for many years. In part because of what I have seen in the media, in part because of what I have witnessed in person—and, in one case, threatened by a weapon-wielding rager. But mostly because of the many stories I have heard from friends and family who have been witness or victim to road rage AND those who have expressed great personal concern for the intensity of their own anger while driving. I chose road rage for my doctoral dissertation topic and was astounded by the massive response I received to my requests for subjects. In my psychotherapy practice, I have been surprised by the number of people who have come in for other issues but later revealed that they feel road rage—some are proud of this.
What would make someone proud to intimidate me just because I forgot to use my turn signal?
The answer to this important question is complex. An episode of road rage depends on the intellectual, emotional and personality makeup of each individual driver involved as well as other factors such as each person’s current life circumstances and stressors, coping skills, the situation on the roadway at the time—for example, unexpected congestion—local driving norms, each driver’s comfort in the vehicle such as temperature, and many more potential factors than you have space for. However, one’s tendency to develop frequent and intense driving anger is a key factor in the genesis of road rage. In fact, one of the pioneers of road rage research has gathered solid evidence for a personality trait for excessive driving anger.
Some people are genetically predisposed to ride my tail?
There are many psychological models for the genesis of anger. For my research and clinical work, I use a model I call the T.I.F. model. This stands for “threat,” “injustice” and “frustration.” If we feel threatened, whether it be physically or psychologically—such as when our self-esteem might be deflated—we are prone to feel anger. In the car, this can happen when we are tailgated or someone cuts us off. If we perceive an injustice, such as someone breaking the law or violating a social rule, we are prone to feel anger. On the road, this can happen when someone doesn’t take turns merging. When we are striving to achieve a goal and that goal is frustrated by others, we are prone to feel anger. This happens when we get stuck behind a slow driver when we are late for work.
What is the public’s greatest misunderstanding about road rage?
People don’t realize it, but driving is a social activity, and it consists of countless subtle interpersonal interactions per mile. However, when physical elements of the automobile—such as its cocoon-like protective shell, the power and control provided by sophisticated in-car systems, and awesome horsepower—are merged with the many images of power, freedom and invulnerability broadcast by widespread advertising, drivers gain a false sense that they “own the road.” When thousands of individuals on the road at once believe this, frustration, conflict and anger are inevitable.
You mean others believe they own MY road?
When we are off the road and we encounter others whose needs compete with our own—for example, joining a long line at the local Starbucks—we engage each other in a process of civil communication, both verbal and nonverbal, that allows us to work it out peacefully. Internal morals and external pressures such as social and legal consequences and fear of retaliation appear to manage to keep most non-driving conflicts between strangers aggression-free.
Why would that change in the driver’s seat?
When we have a conflict over competing needs on the road—like when two lanes merge into one—the physical and logistical properties inherent in automobiles, for instance, sound insulation and demands on the driver’s attention, and road travel itself, such as the distance between cars and the speed of events when navigating through traffic, get in the way. These obstacles result in the inability of drivers to hear one another’s speech or accurately interpret facial and other nonverbal communications. This makes any form of message between drivers—such as horn honking or hand waving—ambiguous and subject to misinterpretations that often lead us to believe that we are being mocked, criticized or threatened, all of which can lead to high levels of driving anger and aggressive behaviors.
That one-fingered salute is rarely misinterpreted.
Another important factor that contributes to driving anger and road rage is anonymity, which has been shown in several prominent studies to lead to a psychological state called “deindividuation,” which is believed to reduce our inhibitions to perform antisocial behavior. Essentially, if we believe no one can identify us, we are more likely to engage in antisocial, even hostile behavior.
Sounds similar to bloggers.
Another common source of driving anger is when one gets in the car already frustrated or angry, perhaps as the result of a disappointment at work or a troubling argument with a loved one. The anger that one suppresses from expressing at the boss or his or her spouse can more easily find expression when triggered by the behavior of other drivers on the road. This is referred to as displacement, which means that we are redirecting our anger toward new, less risky targets.
Does road rage affect one physically?
It’s no different from the bodily arousal people experience when they get angry—fight or flight symptoms including increased heart rate, numbness, temperature change, sweating, muscle tension, tight chest, stomach discomfort, etc. There are also cognitive impairments for many people when angry, including impulse-control problems, short-term memory loss, lapses in judgment. Persons with frequent and high levels of anger tend to experience high levels of stress that have been shown to increase risk for cardiovascular events, high blood pressure, stroke, decreased immune functions and other medical problems.
Can friends and family make a difference? Like, “Jeez, Dad, can you stop chasing people down with the Hummer?”
I hear more from family members who are worried about the road rage behaviors of a loved one than from road ragers themselves. This is because people with road rage may have the tendency to externalize responsibility for their potentially dangerous behavior by blaming other drivers who anger them and [they] psychologically avoid seeing their own role in road rage. Their friends and family become concerned about the potential for injuries and death to themselves and other passengers. This concern can lead to a variety of relationship problems.
What about mental health issues—are these people simply crazy?
This has been studied extensively in terms of either aggressive driving or driving anger, and there is no overwhelming evidence for there being one personality style, set of traits or disorder that is associated with these constructs. Some have linked road rage with the DSM diagnosis “Intermittent Explosive Disorder,” but although some road ragers may qualify for that diagnosis, the majority would not, in my opinion. That being said, in my study I looked at the impact of how different people explain and evaluate the behaviors of other drivers. I found evidence to suggest that drivers who are more likely to excuse, accept or explain away the offensive behavior of others on the road are less prone to driving anger and road rage; while drivers who are likely to blame and judge others for their seemingly offensive behavior are more likely to develop driving anger and road rage. This may seem obvious, but knowing that how we think about another driver’s behavior impacts our levels of anger gives us the power to be more mindful and better manage our thoughts and emotions on the road.
In the words of the late Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”
I found support for a link between a driver’s ability to take the perspective of other drivers and lower levels of driving anger. An example would be understanding that someone who is tailgating may be late for work and anxious, and not necessarily trying to be hostile. This makes sense. If we can put ourselves in the shoes of other drivers, we are more capable of understanding their behavior and staying calm. If we can’t appreciate their situation, then we are more likely to get offended, angry and even rageful if their driving bothers us.
The top three “road rage cities” are New York City, Dallas and Detroit. Where’s Marin on that list—fourth?
The Bay Area is usually not listed in the rankings of road rage cities. A number of studies have shown that daily commuters have LESS road rage than those who drive during non-commute hours and areas. This is because commuters expect certain delays so they plan for this emotionally; plus they realize they are all in the same boat. These studies found that road rage is more likely when drivers are expecting clear roads and driving the speed limit, or more, but then are surprised by unexpected slow traffic, construction and any behaviors by other drivers that appear to impede their travel.
SLAMMING THE BRAKES ON ROAD RAGE
“The roadway is a sort of moving community, and we are only one of many who are on our way somewhere to do something that is uniquely important to us,” reminds Bob Nemerovski. “Just as we don’t all rush en masse into the local coffee shop and shout out our drink orders without any semblance of order, societal rules and common courtesy, we can truly all get along on the road and get to our destinations in an orderly, safe and peaceful manner.”
Here are the Top Ten ways to cage your rage:
10. Think socially rather than selfishly, and try to imagine the other driver’s perspective—e.g., “I bet he’s late for work like I was yesterday. I’ll let him pass.”
9. Play it safe and smart—move to a different lane; pull over and calm down.
8. Don’t be a vigilante—let the highway patrol, not me, punish dangerous drivers.
7. Practice acceptance—”let it go” or FIDO—”forget it; drive on.”
6. Use humor—Tell yourself, “He must be rushing to get to his driving school class!”
5. Exercise altruism—purposely allow others to merge and pass. It feels good!
4. Reduce your stress and anger triggers—practice mindful breathing; listen to relaxing music instead of aggravating talk radio; put down the phone; etc.
3. Enjoy the ride—focus on the scenery; enjoy the company of your passengers. Instead of making good TIME…make time GOOD!)
2. Leave 10 minutes early so you won’t be rushed and stressed.
And the No. 1 way to avoid road rage…
1. Take public transportation or ride a bike!
Drive your road rage solutions to Dr. Nemerovski at DrNemerovski@gmail.com .
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[Visit www.drnemerovski.com for more about me and my psychotherapy practice]