Why does driving make people angry?
October 18, 2015 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Yesterday I had a rather disturbing encounter with a fellow suffering badly from road rage. Having worked as a commercial driver, I really don't understand what causes this?

As I was attempting to merge onto a busy roadway I was forced to stop because the merger lane was too short and there were too many cars for me to do it safely. I don't think I waited more than a minute, but as soon as I stopped, a male driver behind me literally started to lose control of himself.

Once I merged onto the roadway, he drove alongside of me and started to scream at me from inside his pickup truck, before he cut me off and deliberately stayed closely in front of me, forcing me to slow down to avoid hitting him. Eventually he managed to box me in between oncoming traffic, his truck, and a parked car on the road. He proceeded to leave the vehicle and approach my car with what appeared to be a blunt object of some kind before I managed to speedily drive away.

What causes this kind of behavior? He clearly wasn't in a rush of any kind if he had time to stop his vehicle to confront me in such an aggressive manner.

Road rage seems like such a common issue that people struggle with. What I don't understand is what about driving makes people angry?

I used to drive 53 foot 18-wheelers, and in all my years of commercial and non-commerical driving, I've never honked a horn out of anger, I've never exceeded the posted speed limit, and I've never had to rush anywhere.

When I am driving I am focused on driving safely, not on getting back at other drivers that might be driving slow, might have made a driving error, or whatever the case. If I am making a turn or merging into traffic, I won't do it until I feel it is safe to do so, regardless of whether it takes me 30 seconds or 20 hours, and I expect this of other drivers too.

My years of working as a commercial driver have made me much more aware of how angry other drivers really are. When I got my first job driving in cities, my co-worker used to keep a baseball bat in his truck, having had too many road raged drivers attack him or his truck. It was a daily occurrence that people would swear at me, throw things at my truck, flip me off, etc.

So, I ask, what about driving makes people angry?
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Human Relations (36 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Anxiety is generally the source of almost every unpleasant interaction you have in the world (or a delusional state, which is kind of its own special category).

Maybe it was general anxiety that you happened to get in the middle of, maybe he was specifically anxious about being able to control his environment, maybe he's suffering from toxic masculinity or post-traumatic stress or sleep/nutritional issues or drugs or an endocrine imbalance. Whatever it is, his adrenaline spiked high enough that his behavior seemed - to himself - rational and not at all dangerous.

It sounds like you really don't suffer much anxiety on the road, and that's true of plenty of drivers, or at least it doesn't get bad enough to behave irrationally. But there's a small percentage of people who do, at least periodically.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:58 PM on October 18, 2015 [12 favorites]

My guess would be that it's the fact that driving is a situation where you have to be very alert and where mistakes can get you killed. For some people, this means they are constantly on the edge of having their flight or fight response triggered. Little things can then cause a surge of adrenaline. Personally, I respond by panicking, which means I don't drive much. But I imagine the same physical response I feel would trigger rage in other people with different life experiences and hormonal make-ups.
posted by lollusc at 8:01 PM on October 18, 2015 [17 favorites]

Many people like this have bad or short tempers anyway. They're the same type to freak out and yell in a load of normal everyday activities. At least that's been my experience in extreme cases. They aren't patient calm people and driving is an annoying thing and they get mad at people easily. Plus it's doubled by the fact that they feel "safe" to express the emotions in a two-ton metal box without as much fear of retaliation. Some people freak out due to anxiety but I think that's more reaction in terms of someone endangering their life or doing some illegal maneuver.

The one time someone physically got out of their car in the middle of traffic and started pounding on my window for me NOT turning against traffic as I was yielding at a green - it turned out the guy was clearly mentally unstable. My husband recognized him as someone that had been removed from the business he worked at multiple times for erratic and scary behavior... soo...
posted by Crystalinne at 8:11 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Driving takes up a lot of the cognitive resources you might otherwise use for processing social cues and such - especially if you're not all that good at driving in the situation that you're in at the moment (e.g. Los Angeles drivers in the rain.)

People also tend to "act out" more when there's a large audience of strangers watching them, and when they have to coordinate behavior with strangers who don't all share the same understanding of the relevant system. Lines at sporting events are often just as ragey as the 405 at rush hour.
posted by SMPA at 8:12 PM on October 18, 2015

I've never had road rage anywhere near as bad as this guy, but I do tend to get antsy and impatient when driving in traffic.

For what it's worth, I used to drive mostly for work, and in that scenario, I didn't feel this way at all. If I got stuck in traffic I'd just remind myself that I was getting paid to just sit here and listen to the radio, and it could be worse, I could be in the office trying to keep busy under the watchful eyes of my boss.

Now, though, every second these jackass Los Angeles drivers continue not to understand how merging works is a second of my time that is gone forever. (And yes, my frustration really does tend to focus on dumb people who are driving wrong, though I also find inexplicable traffic jams especially frustrating as well. For some reason if I know why there's traffic, it's not as bad.)
posted by Sara C. at 8:15 PM on October 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

Very we'll said, Lyn Never! I'm going to second that it's general anxiety and a feeling of loss of control. I do not have road rage, but I've been in a car with someone that does on occasion and if I say something in relation to said event, it can heighten the emotion for him. It's frightening and potentially unsafe. My anxiety manifests in different ways; we are just built differently and other environmental factors or physical ones like lack of sleep and nutrition can influence the situation.
posted by happysocks at 8:17 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

People can't apprehend the totality of the traffic problem, so fixate on the particular driving style of the drivers immediately in front of or next to them, and also ascribe to them malicious intention or stupidity, because of the fundamental attribution error (although they may in some cases not be wrong, either. Not in your case, I imagine).
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:18 PM on October 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Some people feel anonymous and/or entitled in there cars.
Had it been your next door neighbor, and he recognized you, it's likely he would've been more forgiving & patient.

That doesn't excuse road rage, but seems to coincide with it.
posted by artdrectr at 8:22 PM on October 18, 2015

I agree anxiety makes sense. I don't drive but I'm not comfortable being a passenger either and will get really snappy out of fear if the driver (of the vehicle I'm in) is behaving in a way that I don't consider 100% safe.

Also it's probably partly like how people are complete arseholes in the comments section of articles. There's a sense of anonymity provided by yelling at someone from a separate vehicle.

And you do sound particularly calm OP. Without even meeting you I'd put you on the (small) list of people I don't mind being a passenger with :-)
posted by kitten magic at 8:23 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I become irrationally angry when I drive, and it's because I live in a city where the number of cars exceeds the infrastructure's ability to accommodate them, and the congestion is compounded by an abundance of timid drivers whose preference in all situations is to abdicate their right-of-way.

I have never in my life had to stop at the end of a merge lane if the lane I was merging into wasn't stopped, and I too have driven all sizes and types of vehicles. You don't stop at the end of a merge lane. You go. You merge.
posted by mammoth at 8:27 PM on October 18, 2015 [41 favorites]

He never learned to manage anger, and probably feels entitled to expressing anger. It seems like a lot of men and women act on anger to feel powerful and/or masculine (since anger is acceptable for men and women aren't allowed to be angry about anything ever without being treated like a psycho.)

The guy screaming at you enjoyed it and got a huge rush from it probably. I've seen men do this a lot.

I personally (and I'm a woman) feel really guilty and overwhelmed if I'm irritable even. I've been socialized that way. If someone is driving too fast, I feel a lot of fear and switch lanes and smile (I don't want someone to chase after me and ram my car). I smile and let people go ahead of me. I give them the benefit of the doubt. I do a lot of work, not just in driving, but in every facet of my life to never appear angry because I'll just feel ashamed and guilty and regretful later. And that's just part of my upbringing and kind of something that was reinforced in me through a longterm relationship.
posted by discopolo at 8:28 PM on October 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

Oh hey there, former professional driver as well. Bad driving comes just as often from an overabundance of caution as it does a shortage of it. At the risk of being just another asshole, if you stopped in the merge lane I'd be mentally telling you to get fucked too. That's right near the stupidest and most irritating thing anyone can do on the road. Still though, you can't attack people for being shitty at driving. You flip them off and forget about it. You definitely didn't deserve to be damn near attacked.

To answer your question, it's the perceived incompetence of other drivers. The Dunning-Kruger effect applies.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:41 PM on October 18, 2015 [19 favorites]

Also, you're a defensive driver (not "timid", by the sounds of it!). I think everyone should be, but a lot of people aren't, unfortunately, they just want to go as fast as possible, so they're frustrated by feeling blocked.

(That said, where I am, it's typical for the flow of traffic to go ~10 kph faster than the posted limit, and it's advisable to go with the flow of traffic, if it's not much faster than that. Or that's what I remember learning, anyway.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:41 PM on October 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've always theorized that people bring their own notions of personal space out onto the road with them. If you're uncomfortable standing near someone, you won't drive near anyone, either -- you might be slower, more cautious, etc. On the other hand, someone that feels no anxiety in crowds might tend to tailgate other drivers.

And since everyone has different definitions of personal space, it's a chaotic soup of mismatching expectations.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:49 PM on October 18, 2015

I'm generally a really calm person but driving gives me a ton of rage pretty much every day. For me, it's a lot about the lack of control. I just want to get to where I'm going in a timely manner, and people/things seem to constantly interfere with that goal. I tend to time things pretty exactly, (especially getting to work because I'm paid hourly, so I consider wasted time as equal to wasted money) so when other people slow me down, I get very upset. Especially if factors outside my control result in my being late.

Construction, bad drivers, very slow drivers, inconsiderate drivers (like, I'm sorry you didn't change lanes in time to make your turn but that doesn't make it my fault! Turn around or go to the next street up omg), people who don't seem to know traffic laws (flashing yellow means proceed with caution here and NO ONE seems to know that) can all get me worked up. It's awesome that you don't feel this way because seriously just typing this up has my heart thudding!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 8:52 PM on October 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think in most cases it is that people are in a hurry and are not thinking clearly. Obviously not this guy.

I would guess that he is having a really really bad day. Sick family member, divorce, bankruptcy, other extremely stressful events ... Unfortunately many people take out their unrelated anger on random strangers. Nothing to do with you or your driving at all.
posted by miyabo at 9:19 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also when driving you only see the backs of other cars, not the fronts. Therefore it looks like every single driver on the road has their back turned to you. How nasty!

So from this guys pov, when you stopped short, you did it on purpose. Just to spite him. Of course you did - you did something nasty with your back turned to him. It wasn't an accidental snub either - you decided to stop. And it was meant for him since of course the world revolves around him. Mix those kinds of beliefs in with an angry personality and you get road rage.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:20 PM on October 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

I used to drive rather aggressively and would tailgate anyone who cut me off. I would let anger get the better of me while driving, being more interested in being right than being safe. After tailgating someone at 70 on a highway and realizing, after he got off it, that I could have killed both of us, I stopped driving aggressively and decided that if someone is acting in such a way that they have decided that it is more important that they be in front of me than we both not be in full-body casts, well, I am more than willing to let them go than put my health at risk.

People feel indestructible in their cars. They believe they are in complete control and they are invested in being right. When something comes along that challenges that, from being forced to slow down or stop at a dangerous intersection to having to back off because someone has decided they need to change lanes right there and then, they get angry. Back when I was driving aggressively, I described myself as one of the calmest people I knew. These days, I still consider myself that, but I realize I was not at the time.

tl;dr: People are more interested in being right and not wasting their precious time than they are in the safety of those around them and themselves, especially if they believe that they should be in control.
posted by Hactar at 9:22 PM on October 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

I don't act on road rage, but I've gotten angry when driving. Often when someone else isn't obeying the rules (they don't signal a turn, or they tailgate me when they could easily pass me).

This all, I suspect, stems from anxiety and the knowledge that my life is in the hands of strangers when I drive, and when they aren't paying attention and obeying the rules, I'm in danger.
posted by bunderful at 9:27 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I get pretty bad road rage, but only when it's intentional - other people honking, etc. What you did accidentally mimicked a shitty driving behavior which is to slow down or stop if you think the guy behind you is being an ass. It's an action people having road rage do. Stopping in the merge lane is so weird he probably thought you were doing it on purpose and reacted accordingly.
posted by corb at 9:31 PM on October 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm generally not an angry driver, but I do find myself getting angry when I feel very stuck behind someone else, which seems like the case with your situation yesterday. A lot of my driving is on two-lane double-yellow country roads, where I can't pass someone who's going slower than I want unless they choose to pull over (and I don't particularly speed, but a lot of tourists around here go 10-15 miles under the speed limit), and so it does feel rude when they don't pull over (or speed up). And so I feel powerless and ignored, which can certainly trigger anger, especially for people who feel entitled never to feel powerless or ignored.

And driving itself is stressful, and doing a lot of it tends to decrease people's overall happiness, and so the roads are filled with unhappy stressed-out people.
posted by jaguar at 9:46 PM on October 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

I get angry when I drive because it's the most dangerous thing I do all day and I don't like it when I perceive others as not taking this responsibility seriously or making unsafe choices. For example, if the highway is moving at all and you're coming to a complete stop in the merge lane, you are Not Using The Merge Lane As Intended, as far as I know. The would really upset me because now everyone behind you also has to accelerate like crazy to merge, which some vehicles are more capable of than others. Anyone in an older car is going to have a very hard time accelerating from a full stop to highway speed. Of course if the highway was also stopped, that's different. But then it ought to have been really easy to just zipper merge in. In any case, I probably would have been yelling at you from behind the wheel.
posted by town of cats at 12:39 AM on October 19, 2015 [13 favorites]

A great many people have control issues. I imagine they are stressed when operating in a high-stakes environment where they do not have control over the other 3,000 drivers around them. Ditto goal-oriented micro-managers. Ditto people with anxiety.

Basically, driving seems to be explicitly designed to push every button available.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:41 AM on October 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

You seem incredibly pleased with your driving skills and seem to take a lot of pride in being unflappable on the road. That's great (for you). But you might try to remember that some drivers find getting behind the wheel to be incredibly stressful - driving is dangerous, and there a lot of details and rules to remember, and sometimes nearby drivers are driving unsafely - and stress can make people very irritable.

Now, the person you encountered today was obviously an outlier. The vast majority of grumpy drivers are content to roll their eyes or swear under their breath or something like that. And I don't personally see it as a moral failure to need to vent a bit in a stressful situation. Actual or potential violence, like you encountered today, seems rare and is of course inexcusable.

If this is truly a regular occurrence for you, you might consider whether or not something you are doing while driving might be inadvertently putting others on edge or violating the social norms of your area. Because I have to admit that my friends, family and I (all frequent drivers) almost never encounter road rage from others. When I do, I can almost always pinpoint why - maybe I'm driving the speed limit, but failing to keep up with traffic and thus slowing others down unnecessarily, or maybe I missed a safe opportunity to turn and now others are waiting on me. Just a thought. I know I would have flipped you off if you came to a complete stop at the end of a merge lane... My car is a bit pokey and merging onto the highway from a stop is genuinely unsafe for me.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:10 AM on October 19, 2015 [18 favorites]

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Please just address the OP's question and skip insulting or criticizing other commenters. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:53 AM on October 19, 2015

A good friend of mine told me of his own road ragey behavior that had occurred well before I met him. At one point he'd reacted to some perceived slight by forcing another driver off the road. punching out the driver's window, taking his keys out of the ignition and throwing them into a field. It's difficult for me to imagine my friend doing this, because every time I've ridden with him he has been absolutely imperturbable even in the face of real driving idiocy. I think his old, remembered behavior is even a bit mystifying to him, but it did approximately coincide with a stressful period in his life that involved a very young and bad marriage and the untimely death of his father. He had also gotten into a lot of fights in high school that accustomed him to seeing physical violence as a fairly normal part of life.

FWIW, those thinking that there's never a reason to stop at the end of an entrance ramp should visit Pittsburgh, where some entrances have no merge lane at all after a huge blind spot, stop sign or hairpin turn. Drivers are expected to accelerate *in* the first lane, so if traffic is moving more than 15mph you have no choice but to stop and wait for a sizable gap, which can take a while to arrive on the margins of rush hour.
posted by jon1270 at 6:16 AM on October 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have a pet theory about road rage. Driving is an activity where contemporary people have an illusion of control in a modern world where personal control is so fleeting. They are doubly enraged at you, first for all the normal road emotion reasons, second for destroying their illusion of control.
posted by bdc34 at 7:28 AM on October 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

I am not on board with criticizing the OP's driving, considering that they barely escaped physical assault by another driver. Come on, people. If that guy had a gun, the poster might be dead.

8leggedfriend, if you did something to annoy someone and they flipped you off, or yelled at you, whatever. This happens. I often mutter and swear when I drive, because I find driving stressful; I'm usually late, there's often construction in the worst possible places, someone always decides to drive slow in the passing lane, etc. Sometimes they probably do see me yelling or making angry faces. I will honk at people who cut me off or nearly hit me. And so on.

But what I don't do is stalk people, force them to park, and get out of my car to assault them. That is not "angry annoyance caused by your cautious driving" that is full-on, entitled violent asshole, criminal assault behavior. That is way over the line and quite frightening. I'm so sorry you had to go through that.

As with other kinds of assault, the fault lies with the perpetrator, not the victim. This is not something you can prevent by "driving better" anymore than wearing baggy clothes can prevent a woman being assaulted. I don't care if you're the most annoying driver ever on the road, that person was way out of line.

God forbid you should ever be in such a situation again, but if you are, try to get the license plate number (if you can do so safely) and call the cops.

I guess the larger issue of "why do assholes act like assholes" is harder to answer. Because they can get away with it. Because they feel entitled. Because rage and adrenalin is a drug. In the end it doesn't matter.
posted by emjaybee at 7:29 AM on October 19, 2015 [16 favorites]

For all the people who say you never stop in a merge ramp...ramp meters are specifically intended to stop people merging on high-flow freeways until there is a gap in the traffic. I agree that in the absence of ramp meters it can be a pretty dangerous practice but if there was really never a need for it no one would have invented the ramp meter or deployed it in all the places it is.

On the point of the OP, I agree it's kind of rude to fault his driving given the inexcusable overreaction of the other driver. That road rage driver should have been arrested. Perhaps try to call 911 on your cell?
posted by zipadee at 7:44 AM on October 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I read somewhere, wish I could find a link to the article, that a lot of the problems occur because peoples perception of their "personal space" expands to include the car, but provides anonymity and a sense of power. So behaviours that would pass uncommented on or not even reallynoticed when walking, ay stopping in front of someone on a side walk say, become magnified in vehicles. Having said that there is absolutely no justification for that idiots reactions.
posted by wwax at 8:18 AM on October 19, 2015

What I don't understand is what about driving makes people angry?

A belief they have a Divine Right to drive? A belief they have a Divine Right to drive along a road devoid of hindrances, obstacles, and other sundry impediments?
posted by Mister Bijou at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think Louis CK's bit about road rage in his Oh My God special is pretty spot on.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:15 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I try not to get angry about bad drivers, but often I start to boil. I holler "I know how to do this really well, why can't they be as good?!" But that's as ineffectual as Homer Simpson yelling "Be funnier!" at his television.

I have to remind myself that I have driven the same route to work for almost 15 years, and used to be a courier dispatcher and pizza driver -- but many of the drivers around me are less experienced behind the wheel and/or less confident and/or might be driving an unfamiliar vehicle and/or aren't familiar with the route and/or are upset or anxious or sad, etc., &c.

(But yeah, these not excused otherwise are selfish jerks and I dream of seeing them broken down with an open sunroof and four flats on a rainy day.)

So now when I start to get mad I try to sing, Broadway-style or lounge-lizard-style, about the other drivers' mistakes, and the singing seems to drain away my tension. (Maybe the extra oxygen?)
posted by wenestvedt at 10:37 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

The guy thought you were intentionally trying to piss him off.
This is almost certainly what happened.

(no excuse for his violent behavior)
posted by artdrectr at 11:46 AM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mod note: A few comments deleted. Folks, let's drop the "how does merging work where you live" side of this - it varies, people should follow local custom, OP can assess what that is where he lives.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:34 AM on October 20, 2015

Having been a crash reconstuctionist and having interviewed scores of drivers both male and female, I agree with many of the reasons listed above. I would add that a large ego and a sense of 'lane entitlement' also plays a big part, especially in male drivers. Female drivers are simply afraid or don't know the correct way to drive or follow rules of the road (or don't care).
posted by donaken at 2:55 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older A web of deceit and misdirection, or, how to ruin...   |   Sourcing Compilations of Sol Lewitt Instructions Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.