Road rage: how to diffuse tensions

We feel protected in vehicles but also less sociable – and if we’re also hungry, tired and emotional, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Last year, Sky News submitted a freedom of information requests to the British Transport Police and the UK's 45 territorial police forces to discover the number of reported crimes that have mentioned the words ‘road rage’.

Only half of the 46 forces were able to provide data but even that revealed 3,549 road rage crimes in 2019. What’s more, some 2,361 road rage offences were recorded between January and October in 2020, a period when significantly fewer journeys were taking place due to coronavirus lockdowns.

Among the written responses, Merseyside Police reported that someone was attacked with a metal pole and stabbed in the head in an incident, while Cambridgeshire Police said a driver used a hammer from his van to hit someone three times.

This adds to the picture painted in a survey by mobile workforce tech firm BigChange, which suggests that one in five (20%) UK drivers experience road rage at least once a week, while for 6% it’s every day.

The 2018 study of more than 1,000 drivers showed that it was most common among younger drivers. Almost half of 18-34 year olds (42%) admitted to experiencing road rage at least once a week. This fell to 20% of drivers aged 35-54 and just 7% of those over 55. The survey also indicated that female drivers are more likely to experience road rage than their male counterparts. More than a quarter (27%) of women who drive regularly for work admitted to getting road rage at least once a week, compared to less than a fifth (18%) of men. 

Why do people 'lose it' while driving?

Harley Street therapist and coach Olivia James tells Brightmile: “Being in a car can make us feel more territorial and defensive and, at the same time, invulnerable and physically protected. We view the car as an extension of our identity and our personal space. It means that reactivity can get amplified, which can be a recipe for road rage.

“If we are walking down the street and someone stops suddenly in front of us, we may roll our eyes and tut, but we are unlikely to hurl abuse or start a physical confrontation. In a car, we feel protected and less sociable, so we may unleash a tirade of choice words, honk our horn and make rude gestures. Depending on the reaction of the other party, things can then diffuse or escalate.”

Olivia adds that we have internal rules about how others should behave on the road. She says: “Real or imagined transgressions of these rules can feel like a personal attack on us and our passengers, even if it’s when someone cuts us up accidentally at a roundabout. I can still remember reading about a driver who ran over a pedestrian who didn't say ‘thank you’ at a zebra crossing. 

Our behaviour as drivers can also be a displacement for frustrations in our general lives. Our fight-flight response can kick in very quickly. And we shouldn’t forget that some people have a very short fuse to start with, which means that behind the wheel they can turn into vengeful tyrants.

What can be done?

Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK's head of campaigns, says that his organisation regularly receives reports from cyclists who've reported bullying, threats and assaults on the highway. “All too often little or no action is taken against the perpetrator,” he says. 

"Given that losing your temper when in control of a tonne or more of metal has potentially fatal consequences for others, aggressive and violent behaviour on our roads should be treated more seriously not less,” he says. As such, Cycling UK is calling on police forces to adopt a zero-tolerance to aggressive behaviour on the road. 

For Olivia, it’s more a case of organisations encouraging motorists to practise good self-care in general life. She says: “Dysregulated [having a poor ability to manage emotional responses], over-stressed people are more likely to descend into road rage. It’s important they can access to professional help with emotional issues and relationship conflicts so they don't affect our behaviour behind the wheel – we all need to learn how to regulate our moods. 

“Also, it sounds simple, but it’s important to avoid driving while hungry or tired. Keep some energy bars or nuts in the car for emergencies and don't drive tired. We all know tired drivers make mistakes but being tired or hungry can also affect our impulse-control so we are more likely to see red and ‘lose it’.”


Did you know? The term ‘road rage’ was first used by US broadcasters in the 1980s in response to shootings on the highway.

Driving behaviours commonly seen as aggressive and dangerous on the roads

  • Hogging the middle lane
  • Not letting you merge
  • Merging at the last minute
  • Parking across two bays
  • Listening to loud music
  • Not driving at the maximum speed limit

Source: RAC 


See also

Rospa’s ‘Road Rage Factsheet’ with suggestions on dealing with, and avoiding, potential conflict.

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