Road Rage: What Determines Whether or Not a Driver Will Act Aggressively?


Several notable incidents of road rage have occurred in California in recent months, reported the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. On October 2, for example, a man involved in a tailgating dispute that lasted from Walnut to Glendora was stabbed in a 7-Elevan parking lot.  On October 4, a man in Arcadia rammed into another car that was tailgating and attempted to pass him. The same evening, an off-duty police officer shot two men in a shopping center parking lot after a dispute on the 71 Freeway. A subsequent incident involved a woman having her rear window shattered after failing to move out of the way for a car flashing its high beams at her.

“Road rage is a major problem throughout California and the rest of the United States,” explained car accident lawyer James Ballidis. “Drivers who act on their aggression face licensing and criminal penalties.”

These incidents, as well as numerous others, indicate that road rage is a serious threat that can happen at any time. Although sometimes thought of as a rush-hour phenomenon, only one of the violent October incidents occurred at rush hour. Anecdotal evidence from local law enforcement also indicates that road range can occur at any time.

Robert Nemerovski, a San Francisco psychologist and a specialist in road rage, agrees that road rage is not necessarily linked to rush hour traffic. Nemerovski claims that people have come to expect long commutes and thus aren’t necessarily frustrated during rush hour. Instead, road rage may be tied to personality and not to traffic.  Type A personalities who are very goal oriented are prone to road rage, according to Nemerovski, as are those with low self-esteem who view bad driving by others as an insult.

Nemerovski also addresses the differences between men and women when it comes to road rage. While both may become aggressive and angry behind the wheel, men tend to be angered more by obstacles such as construction or slow drivers while women may become more upset as a result of having their boundaries encroached on by tailgaters or when they are cut off.

Understanding Road Rage

Nemerovski’s theories on personality and road rage provide important insight into the road rage phenomenon. However, Nemerovski is not the only one with a theory on the underlying cause of road rage.

Dr. Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, also suggests that some drivers are more prone to road rage than others. Dr. James believes that a driver is more likely to exhibit road rage if he or she is “socialized into a highway of hostility rather than mutual support and peace.”  The New York Times also reported on a 2008 study by Colorado State University showing that those with bumper stickers were more likely to exhibit road rage than those without bumper stickers, regardless of what the bumper stickers said. Even those with bumper stickers encouraging random acts of kindness, for example, were more likely to exhibit higher levels of road rage.

Although many studies focus on the driver exhibiting the road rage, other reports suggest that responsibility for road rage may not lie solely with the driver who becomes aggressive or angry. When Auto took a statistical look at road rage, 84 percent of respondents indicated that other drivers talking on a cell phone was the behavior most likely to incite road rage. Slamming on the breaks and running red lights made 25 percent of surveyed drivers angry.

The drivers responding to the Auto survey, however, by-and-large reported non-violent reactions to behavior that angered them. Forty-three percent, for example, indicated that they would honk the horn at bad drivers. Thirty-six percent of respondents cursed; thirteen percent waved their arms or fists and only ten percent resorted to making obscene gestures. These behaviors are a far cry from stabbing other drivers or purposely ramming into a driver that has caused anger.

The most likely explanation for serious incidents of road rage, therefore, is that road range is a combination of those who have a propensity towards anger encountering an ever-increasing number of distracted or bad drivers.  Texting while driving and talking on cell phones are relatively new problems that have grown in importance significantly in recent years, and they may be contributing to the high number of road rage incidents occurring in California. While the Tribune reports that road range incidents aren’t tracked separately from other crimes, Auto does indicate that New York, New Jersey and California are among the states with the most road rage.

Road Rage Liability

When a driver behaves in an aggressive manner behind the wheel, the driver can become liable for an accident he or she causes. In addition, if a driver turns violent or causes an accident on purpose, that driver can face criminal charges in addition to a civil lawsuit for damages. California law makes both drivers who break driving laws and drivers who drive in an aggressive and dangerous manner responsible for compensating accident victims for pain and suffering, lost wages, emotional distress and other losses.

Additional information on California laws, transportation safety, and the injury claims process is available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.

If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to discuss a specific legal matter with a California car accident lawyer, feel free to call 1-888-834 5055.

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