by Lawrence Herzog

Just how confrontational have our roads become? The stories of road rage encounters are a new epidemic. In Winnipeg, a 25-year-old man was charged with dangerous operation of a motor vehicle and assault. The incident began when another man stopped his car at a red light. The accused repeatedly bumped him from behind and nearly pushed him into the intersection. Trying to escape the attack, the first man drove to a parking lot, but the accused pursued him and punched him twice in the face, before returning to his vehicle and attempting to run him over.

Elsewhere, a young Saskatoon man was charged after he allegedly jumped out of a vehicle after being cut off, and smashed the offender’s window with an axe. A young woman forced off Edmonton’s Sherwood Park Freeway by an angry driver ended up rolling her vehicle in the ditch. She was taken to the hospital with shoulder, neck and back injuries; a 27-year-old man was charged with dangerous driving.

In Calgary, a 23-year-old man was sentenced to three months under house arrest and fined $500 after he chased and punched a 65-year-old man who had blocked him from changing lanes. “Crimes resulting from road rage are on the increase,” wrote provincial court Assistant Chief Judge Brian Stevenson in his decision on the case.

Is such behaviour truly on the increase? Or are these isolated incidents, perpetrated by a few individuals who bring their stress with them when they get behind the wheel?

Fact: 72 per Cent of Canadians blame Road Rage on the stress and frustration of daily life

Canadian police forces don’t track charges specifically related to road rage, so getting a handle on the exact magnitude of the problem locally is difficult. But according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 66 per cent of all traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving actions, such as passing on the right, running red lights and tailgating. As well, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that the incidence of road rage more than doubled between 1986 and 1996.

There’s even a website – www.roadragers.com – dedicated to people who have felt their blood pressure rising and who want to vent some steam at other drivers. It was started in 1999 by Mark Nelson, a Winnipeg Internet consultant, who says he is distressed by the anger he feels for other drivers from time to time. He says the heaviest traffic on the site is from Americans, followed by Canadians, then the United Kingdom and Australia.

Definition
Aggressive Driving

A traffic offence or combination of offences, such as following too closely, speeding or unsafe lane changes. The trigger for the aggressive driver is usually traffic congestion combined with a schedule that is nearly impossible to meet.

The site offers an online confessional community that encourages angry drivers to calm down by posting the licence plate number, vehicle make and model, and location of the incident that enraged them. Nelson acknowledges the site’s hall of shame “doesn’t really mean much, as it is unlikely the person who upset you will ever read it. But it just makes people feel better and avoids anyone getting punched out.”

In Wales, Dr. David Lewis, the man credited with first coining the phrase “road rage,” has discovered the new motoring menace he’s dubbed Iceberg Road Rage Syndrome, due to it being hidden beneath a calm exterior. A United Kingdom survey released late last year reveals that not only is Iceberg Road Rage becoming increasingly widespread, but it can prove even more dangerous than the more obvious displays of fury between angry motorists.

Definition
Road Rage

The malicious intent to cause harm to a person or property using a motor vehicle. It is a criminal offence that includes violent acts, ranging from a physical confrontation to an assault with a motor vehicle or weapon.

While Iceberg drivers rarely resort to abusive words, obscene gestures or actual violence against motorists, they do confess to angry thoughts about an inconsiderate fellow motorist. According to Dr. Lewis, these thoughts still make them a menace behind the wheel by distracting them from the road ahead. As a result, they tend to drive much more dangerously and far less responsibly.

“Clearly, the potential for serious errors of judgment under these circumstances is significant and extremely worrying,” Dr. Lewis observes. “I’ve called this syndrome Iceberg Road Rage Syndrome because most of it is hidden beneath what may appear an outwardly calm surface.”

Back home, there’s no doubt that aggressive behaviour behind the wheel is gaining the attention of the motoring public. In a June 2003 poll of 800 Manitobans commissioned by Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI), 45 per cent said that tailgating is a problem on our roads, 44 per cent cited weaving in and out of traffic, and 41 per cent mentioned speeding as a worry. “We’ve never done a campaign specifically targeting road rage, but we have targeted some behaviours that are aggressive and can lead to road rage, such as following too close,” says Brian Smiley, communications officer for MPI.

An April 2000, nationwide CAA membership survey revealed that 47 per cent of those surveyed had been a victim of another person’s road rage, up from 38 per cent in a similar poll in November 1998. While nine per cent reported they had experienced violent behaviour, the most common experiences cited were observing obscene gestures, being cut off in traffic and having another car follow too closely or tailgate. Another 2001 survey, released by the Ottawa-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), found that 65 per cent of the 1,200 Canadians questioned believe aggressive driving is a serious problem.

Doug Beirness, vice-president of research at TIRF, notes that drivers who engage in one type of aggressive behaviour, such as excessive speeding, are also likely to engage in other types of aggressive driving behaviour, like running red lights. And that means aggressive drivers are more dangerous drivers.

Jurisdictions across the continent are battling aggressive driving with various approaches, including capturing drivers’ errant behaviour on video and playing it back for them. The Minnesota State Patrol uses a fixed-wing aircraft to watch for infractions such as speeding, following too closely, running stoplights and signs, weaving in and out of traffic and passing on the shoulder. The video is then beamed down to a patrol car and the motorist pulled over and shown the evidence.

Still, while authorities strive to curb aggressive driving on today’s roads, motorists can do their part to keep a lid on the problem – even into the future. Instead of blowing off steam or exhibiting poor driving habits in front of younger passengers, for example, parents and caregivers can exude a calm, steady attitude at the wheel.

Dr. Leon James, a Hawaii-based social psychologist who has extensively studied road rage in Canada and the U.S., likens this scenario to the “Road Rage Nursery . . . the backseat of the car, where young people pick up the language of the driver. We’re teaching our children as we drive, and we could well be developing a culture of aggressive drivers.”

Sources: drivers.com and Alberta Motor Association


Avoiding road rage

  • Leave yourself enough time to get to your destination; avoid the temptation to speed and “make time” on the road, which puts stress on you and the drivers around you.

  • Don’t take traffic problems personally
  • Avoid eye contact with an aggressive driver
  • Don’t make obscene gestures, which can “make you a player” and escalate the incident
  • Don’t tailgate
  • Use your horn sparingly (the polite honk can be misinterpreted)
  • Don’t block the passing lane (some drivers think you’re aggressively holding them back when you do this)
  • Don’t block the right-hand turn lane
  • Create a relaxing and comfortable environment in your car that will help you stay calm
  • Report aggressive drivers to the police
  • If you believe another driver is attempting to start a fight, immediately get help. Do not get out of your car and do not go home. Instead, proceed to the nearest police station or, if one is not nearby, to a public place
  • Don’t overreact to every mistake on the roadway. Downplay the event and it will fade away.

Sources: AMA, the Canada Safety Council and AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

A version of this feature originally appeared in Westworld Alberta, AMA’s magazine to its members and Going Places, CAA Manitoba’s magazine to its members.

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