Road Rage: Why We Snap

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 09, 2016

You can’t make this stuff up. Over the weekend in Los Angeles, a guy who apparently didn’t want to stay home and watch the Super Bowl took out his Dodge Challenger (the perfect car for a road rage perpetrator), got on the 605 and, enraged by another driver, began following the other vehicle aggressively.

Michael Douglas: Ready to explode in Falling Down. It didn't work out well for him.
Michael Douglas: Ready to explode in Falling Down. It didn't work out well for him.

The cops got involved and tried to pull the Challenger over—but, of course, this triggered a senseless chase, with the perp (a young white male in his 20s) running red lights, jumping curbs, and making a mad dash through a park. He was apparently on his way home to La Palma (where, what, he’d be immune from prosecution?) but was apprehended in a hospital parking lot.
Where does road rage come from? Obviously, this character (dressed in flip-flops and shorts when he was arrested) wouldn’t have endangered another driver or fled the scene if he’d been thinking rationally. He turned a moving violation into a possible jail term.

Passing rude gestures can turn into something much more serious. (Irish Typepad/Flickr)
Passing rude gestures can turn into something much more serious. (Irish Typepad/Flickr)

A new book entitled Why We Snap, by Douglas Fields, attempts to explain why we do such crazy things. It rejects the standard explanation, that these incidents are just bizarre aberrations and not an innate part of human nature. It's not just a "lizard brain" situation, as TV's Dexter would have it. “We all wish to believe that we are in control of our actions, but the fact is, in certain circumstances we are not,” the book says. “The sad truth is that the right trigger in the right circumstance can unleash a fit of rage in almost anyone.”
But this impulse isn't all bad, Fields says. The author describes how he and his daughter were victimized by a pickpocket in Barcelona, Spain, and how he instantly—without thinking—clotheslined the guy and pinned him down. “Essentially the same pathway in the brain that can result in a violent outburst can also enable us to act heroically and altruistically before our conscious brain knows what we are doing.”

Asked about road rage in an interview with National Geographic, Fields said:

We have the same brain we had 100,000 years ago. But we’re now in a really different environment and these circuits of rage and protection get set off inappropriately by situations in the modern world that didn’t exist when our brains were formed. Why are you suddenly enraged when someone cuts in front of you? It makes no sense. It will only make a couple of seconds difference in your journey. The circuit that’s been tripped misinterpreted the situation.

It can happen to anyone. Fields describes a neighbor of his, a retired 67-year-old Department of Labor employee, who suddenly went ape on a man he thought cut in front of him in line at the Post Office. A verbal argument quickly escalated, and the retiree produced a knife and repeatedly stabbed the man (who, in fact, had done nothing wrong), then fled in his Toyota Corolla. When pulled over soon after, the retiree said, “Maybe I should have stayed home.” Bail was set at $500,000 for this first arrest.

These road freakouts happen all the time. A casual Google search yielded not only the LA example cited above, but another one on Super Bowl day in San Francisco. An enraged driver in a white Lexus shot and injured a person on a scooter, then fled the scene.

A couple more incidents: In Truckee, California, a 25-year-old male went nuts after getting cut off, followed “the offending car” to a bagel shop and shot the driver dead. He went up on a second-degree murder beef. In Little Falls, New Jersey, another 25-year-old male ran a mother and her two children off the road at 80 mph. Both of the mother’s legs were broken, and the two children received minor injuries. The perp got eight months.

Something made them snap, and if Fields is to be believed their “circuits of rage and protection” were inadvertently tripped. It’s hardly uncommon. 

A study appearing on the National Institutes of Health site says that “about one third of the citizenry report committing road rage at one time or another,” though only two percent of the incidents result in major harm to cars or people. They’ve actually come up with a medical syndrome that can lead to road rage—it’s called Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Watch out for people with IEDs!

A Harvard study found 17 percent of 2,400 licensed drivers interviewed had taken it beyond mere rage. Some 17 percent “admitted to making obscene or rude gestures in the past year,” and another nine percent “admitted to aggressively following too closely.”

The typical perp is—no surprise—a young male, and psychological factors, plus alcoholism and substance abuse, are often involved, says the NIH study. Harvard says that highway maniacs tend to be the selfsame young adult males, binge drinkers, people once arrested for non-traffic violation, and people who ride around in cars with guns.

And I didn’t need an academic study to tell me that “busy roads” and “carrying a firearm” are contributing factors. Yes, I saw Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

The tells me that if you:

  • Tailgate
  • Use your horn
  • Flash headlights
  • Change lanes quickly and often
  • Gesture to other drivers
  • Talk on a cell phone.

...​you tend to be an aggressive driver, if not necessarily a road rager.

Seriously, if you do any of those things you need to seriously cut it out. Remember, as Fields said, the guy who cuts you off is going to delay your journey only by two seconds. Get a grip. Fight back impulses. Count to 10. If you’re in a murderous mood, stay off the roads.

Here's the LA road rage incident on film. Helicopters following are a local news feature, immortalized since the O.J. Bronco drive (now timely because of the mini-series):


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