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'When people are stressed, they engage in objectionable driving behaviour,' says David Wiesenthal, a retired psychology professor at Toronto’s York University.

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The images are terrifying.

A man, his face twisted grotesquely in rage, brandishes a chainsaw as he approaches the camera. A car streaks down an expressway with a terrified man clinging to the hood of the car. Then there’s the outraged guy trying to smash a car window to get at the cowering driver inside.

These are not trailers for the latest Hollywood action flick or horror movie or scenes from battlefields (though the latter might be a matter of semantics.) They are cellphone or dashcam videos showing examples of something taking place regularly on Canadian streets and highways: the phenomenon called road rage.

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Police forces across the country don't keep records on road rage, so the jury is still out on whether or not this reversion to Neanderthal justice is on the rise or simply getting more attention thanks to YouTube.

Read more: Rudeness is the new norm on Canada’s busy urban routes

But there is one undeniable thread connecting these incidents; based on videos like these and news reports, the vast majority of these roadside showdowns take place in big cities. So, if you’re looking for other causes – the breakdown of society, the erosion of civility or the fallout from overly strict toilet training – you’re looking in the wrong place, experts say.

While the causes are complex, the evidence supports big-city traffic congestion, big-city pressures and anonymity provided by big cities as the main factors in road rage.

“With more cars on the road, you have an enhanced chance of encountering drivers who are doing bizarre or risky things,” says David Wiesenthal, a retired psychology professor at Toronto’s York University who has studied all aspects of risky driving.

“Greater amounts of traffic generate more stress. The stress comes from time pressure, vibration, odour, noise, uncomfortable seats. They’re all stressors … when people are stressed, they engage in objectionable driving behaviour.”

His studies and others back that up. A 2013 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Audi concluded that driving in city traffic is almost as stressful as skydiving. That degree of stress leads to escalated conflict that might normally have been dismissed with a shrug.

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“I would argue that the only place you see vengeance in modern, industrial society is on the highway,” Wiesenthal says.

It's the wild west without guns, at least most of the time.

And it is wild. A 2015 State Farm Canada study found that one-third of drivers say they are victims of road rage in one form or another every month.

That's a lot of rage.

Artwork by Michael Osbun.

MICHAEL OSBUN

“Every little thing becomes personal," says Teresa Di Felice, assistant vice-president of government and community relations for the Canadian Automobile Association. "People are rushed in their lives and traffic congestion only makes them feel more rushed.

“People are holding you up, making you late. Every little thing that happens on the road fuels that rage. Honking your horn or screaming is caused by the frustration of trying to get around in a decent amount of time."

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But surely there are times when drivers are rushed and run into congestion in smaller cities. Why don't they all go Neanderthal?

The answer is that they live in small cities and while they may not love their neighbour, they probably know them.

“If my neighbour pulls out of his driveway without looking and I have to slam on my brakes, then they wave to me and I wave back," Wiesenthal says. “I’m not going to give him the bird or a blast on the horn because I know him and I’m going to see him every day.

“On the highway, we don’t know the other drivers and we’re probably never going to see them again. In a small town, they know you and they know your vehicle."

The vehicle gives drivers an anonymity in bigger cities that encourages them to honk a horn, shake a fist or, yes, even reach for that chainsaw. Add in the fact that you have a ready means of escape – the road – and even the meek become emboldened.

But all those drivers clogging up the roads rushing home for dinner or trying to avoid being late for work aren't entirely to blame. A factor beyond their control is the design of our roads, which were never intended to handle the volume of traffic our big cities present.

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The biggest flashpoint is on expressway ramps, where three lanes of heavy traffic suddenly have to accommodate another group of drivers.

Instead of letting other drivers merge, those on the highway often close ranks, which causes drivers to start taking chances, which often leads to conflict.

“Too many people don’t know how to let a car in on a ramp … so it becomes a jockeying issue,” De Felice says. “Traffic has changed dramatically, but the roads haven’t.”

Redesigning roads is a little out of the question because of the cost, but redesigning the way we use them might work, De Felice says.

One possible solution is to meter all ramps to avoid the bumper-car approach to getting on highways.

“Ramp metering delays the flow until the highway can handle it,” she says. “It saves time even though [drivers] feel it slows them down at the beginning.”

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Another potential solution being tried in Alberta is ramp zippering. Basically, instead of moving from the ramp to the highway whenever there’s an opening – or whenever you force one – drivers fill the on-ramp and then merge one by one when they’ve run out of room.

It reduces jockeying, at least in theory.

It's the law in Germany and is being tried elsewhere, though will require some serious re-education.

But while those solutions could reduce conflict on the roads, they won't eliminate them. That would require a serious attitude adjustment.

And while not feeling anger or frustration at other drivers and traffic in general may be a challenge, avoiding confrontation is a necessity, De Felice says.

When another driver honks at you for some perceived slight or you feel like honking at their traffic indiscretions, suppress that urge.

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“Don’t engage,” she says. "We’ve all been there. You don’t know what’s going on in the other driver’s day or life and you don’t know who they are. It’s so easy for the situation to escalate. Don’t retaliate by honking or shaking your fist. Let it go.

“Is it really worth the situation escalating further?”

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