Road rage: Why do people get so aggressive when driving?


The human body basically reacts autonomously to aggression and tenses up. Taking a deep breath or shouting out loud (to yourself) are ways to let off steam. Photo:

You cycled or drove to work this morning and feel like you barely survived, thanks to the number of aggressive drivers out there? Or rather, drivers and cyclists, because let’s be honest, bikers can sometimes behave pretty irresponsible as well.

Whether someone ignores the right of way or yells at you to hurry up, inconsiderate and aggressive behaviour on the road can have serious consequences.

We asked traffic psychologist Bernhard Schlag to explain what makes people unleash their anger while behind the wheel – or on two – and for some tips on how to keep your aggression under control.

Where does all the aggressive behaviour on the road come from, and what is it about traffic that makes otherwise peaceful people boil over all of a sudden?

Schlag says the aggression comes essentially from the fact that many feel disadvantaged on the road, an area of life which is all about prioritising your own needs.

Then there’s the fact that road traffic, especially when driving, offers a great deal of anonymity.

So it often feels like you can get away with aggressive behaviour without any consequences. That’s why many cite road traffic when asked about the number one situation that makes them aggressive.

We can differentiate between two forms of aggression, which also occur with different frequency. Instrumental aggression is a form of aggression where I want to gain advantages, to assert my own interests, even if this is at the expense of others.

Hostile aggression, on the other hand, has the aim of harming others. Luckily, the latter isn’t as common, but the former all the more. You feel disadvantaged, you feel short-changed or you think you have to be particularly fast and the others are in your way – all are signs of instrumental aggression.

It also plays a role that space is limited when it comes to traffic, which is then fought over. The epic battle between car drivers and cyclists is legendary. The resource of street space is simply scarce and is claimed by many at the same time.

This conflict over resources is often the cause of aggressive behaviour in road traffic.

What can I do to get my aggression under control?

Schlag: The human body basically reacts autonomously to aggression and tenses up. Everything that helps to release the tension is helpful.

In the most acute cases, letting off steam can help, for example, by simply taking a deep breath or shouting out loud to yourself.

Shouting at others while waiting at the traffic lights, on the other hand, won’t help. While that can relieve some of your own tension, it will put the other person under pressure and things can quickly spiral out of control, leading to physical violence or physical attacks.

How can I prevent feelings of aggression altogether?

There are a few preventive measures you can take, for example, listening to relaxing music before setting off, to minimise the urge of always having to be the fastest out there, or the one who’s right.

No matter whether you travel by car or by bike, you should always allow enough time to reach your destination without having to race or stress others.

Aim for a steady drive or ride, instead of trying to go over the speed limit. And try not to get upset when others do that, making you feel like you’re the only one abiding by the rules.

Another important aspect: Don’t try to release pent-up anger while driving or cycling.

Finally, you should view fellow road users as partners, not as competitors. – dpa/Peter Loschinger

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