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Drive Culture Sidewalk rage percolated by cyclists, cars and smartphones

Pedestrians walk through Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto.

Nickbeer/istock

We recently moved downtown and now we walk pretty much everywhere – and it’s making my husband crazy. He tells off other pedestrians who he thinks aren’t walking fast enough or are staring at their phones. He threatened to punch a cyclist riding on the sidewalk. When a car stopped in the crosswalk and we had to walk around it, he threw a latte at the windshield. He said that was justified because the driver was breaking the law. I’m worried that he’s going to get charged with something. – Elena, Vancouver

Rage isn’t reserved for roads – or drivers.

“Sidewalk rage is a culturally learned, aggressive-behaviour style of walking and standing in public places,” said Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii. “Walking in crowded places is essentially competitive, which makes pedestrians vulnerable to each other by threatening the personal space bubble that everyone is taught to observe and respect.”

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It’s one thing to get annoyed if a pokey pedestrian, sidewalk cyclist or crosswalk-blocking car gets in your way, but if you retaliate with threats of violence or by hitting someone or their car, they could call the cops on you.

“If a pedestrian loses their mind and starts threatening behaviour, you’re opening up a whole new can of worms,” said Const. Jason Doucette, Vancouver police spokesman. “You could be part of a police investigation.”

Just like with road rage, there are no specific laws against sidewalk rage. But, you could face possible criminal charges, including mischief and assault.

“If you hit or shove someone, unless it’s a consensual fight, charges can be laid,” said Sgt. Clint Stibbe with Toronto Police. “If you’re yelling and causing a disturbance, you can be held until you calm down … it doesn’t mean you’ll be criminally charged.”

So how often does it happen? We checked with police forces in major cities and heard back from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. None of them specifically keep track of pedestrian rage incidents.

“I suspect the numbers are quite low – people will lose their cool and then, as they walk away, the emotion drains and they realize they overreacted,” Doucette said. “As a pedestrian and someone who spends a lot of time in the city, I do see it – and I’ve had to check my own emotions.”

And even if you limit yourself to cursing, the person you’re yelling at could retaliate physically – or even with their car.

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Curbing sidewalk rage?

How do people go from hurling dirty looks to hurling lattes? Researchers are still trying to figure that out.

“The overt expression of hostility and aggressiveness is preceded by private mental venting that consists of irrational assumptions regarding other pedestrians,” James said. “Self-reports by pedestrians indicate it is common to fantasize about violent acts against the inconsiderate sidewalk blockers.”

So, instead of giving that driver blocking the crosswalk the benefit of the doubt (maybe he just mistakenly thought he could get through before the light changed), you assume the jerk did it deliberately – he’s in the wrong.

And those fantasies about punishing him can quickly turn real, James said.

“To bring venting under control before it explodes requires motivation and self-training,” James said. “We need to practice monitoring our thoughts when walking in crowded places.”

In other words, we all need to realize when our thoughts are ridiculous – “Wait, I want to shove a stranger into traffic because he’s on his cellphone?” – and calm down.

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But it’s not isolated. James thinks it’s part of a bigger breakdown of civility (see: Twitter). So does Stibbe.

“I think civility is being lost in society because we’re all out for ourselves – we all want instant gratification and people are cutting each other off to save five seconds,” Stibbe said. “We’re not willing to give that person a bit of a break – everybody’s got to calm down and understand that there will be challenges.”

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