home Features Science Corner: The Psychology of Road Rage

Science Corner: The Psychology of Road Rage

Road rage is defined as a sudden violent anger provoked in a motorist by the actions of another driver. In America, 1500 are killed every year as a result of it. What is it about giving someone four wheels on an engine that turns the most placid of us into screaming, red-faced miscreants willing to get hurley out of the boot and swing for someone?

What provokes road rage varies around the world?  In Australia, jaywalking makes people’s blood boil. In Ireland, it’s cyclists (and now you can’t get within 6 feet of them!). Road rage has attracted media headlines since the mid-90s, but there are few in-depth studies into how people incorporate the overall concept of road rage into their own experiences. When asked, many condemned the practise, as it challenges the concept of a civilised self, according to (Lupton, D. 2001). However, this didn’t translate into other people’s behaviour, and many accepted the expression of road rage as normal in an urban context, combined with stress. This feeds into the prevailing theory that road rage is caused by overcrowding. Rats are happy enough in a cage until there is one too many, then they turn on each other and the fur flies. There are more people on the roads now than ever before, so people feel claustrophobic. In such an enclosed environment, every transgression by other drivers, whether it’s real or down to your own faulty perception, suddenly becomes overwhelming.

How do they justify treating/speaking of others this way? They dehumanise the person, they don’t even see the consequences or the victims as people with real families and lives. Road ragers are vindictive, a quality most people would take offence to. The more extreme cases of road rage (physical confrontation) have also been positively correlated with domestic violence.

How do we quantify such an abstract occurrence? (Deffenbacher et al., 1994) developed a scale that is still widely used today. It comprises of “six reliable subscales involving hostile gestures, illegal driving, police presence, slow driving, discourtesy, and traffic obstructions.” All of these things positively correlate together, providing a damning picture of the kind of person who participates in the more gruesome sides of road rage. According to this scale, men were more likely to get angered by slow driving and police presence. Women were more likely to get angered by obstructions and illegal driving. Overall, both sexes were more likely to experience road rage.

If road rage is a natural consequence of over-crowding, how do we help people cope with it? In 2006 a group of clinical psychologists lead by Galovski in Washington D.C. came up with a concise cognitive behavioural therapy that was proven successful in both court and self-referred participants. This multidisciplinary approach seeks to understand and dismantle the road rage, not just ignore it. Watching yourself to see what makes you angry and why is the first step. Things like deep breathing exercises can also help. Getting enough sleep, playing calming music, even keeping photos of your family in the car to remind you of what’s really important, these are all methods used to combat it. Remember, road rage doesn’t come cheap; speeding tickets, increased insurance premiums, getting points on your license are all real possibilities. Chronic stress is known to have serious health ramifications down the line too. Is it really worth putting your health on the line for the sake of being right?

Road rage, like many things, is a spectrum. When we say road rage, many think that it’s two drivers pulling into the side of the road and beating each other with whatever they found in the car. This is distancing us from the reality; every time we feel a flare of anger at someone else on the road, every time we drum our fingers in irritation or mutter a swear word at that “useless bitch” ahead of us who totally could have made that orange light, we’re sliding into road rage.


Galovski, T. E., Malta, L. S., & Blanchard, E. B. (2006). Road rage: Assessment and treatment of the angry, aggressive driver. American Psychological Association. Chicago

Lupton, D. (2001). Constructing’road rage’as news: an analysis of two Australian newspapers. Australian Journal of Communication28(3), 23.

Deffenbacher, J. L., Oetting, E. R., & Lynch, R. S. (1994). Development of a driving anger scale. Psychological reports74(1), 83-91.


Mary Collins

Mary Collins is a student of Applied Psychology in UCC and is Features Editor for the UCC Express for 2016/17