I'm not normally an angry person, but that changes on the road. I'm a very defensive driver, but I have shocked myself with my aggressive behaviour and swearing when I'm cut off. It's not so much that other drivers have insulted me; it's that their carelessness or arrogance could cause accidents. I find books on tape help distract me, but is there anything else I could be doing? – Lynda, Toronto
If you get outraged by other drivers, you're not alone – driving makes jerks out of most of us.
And chances are you learned to freak out at other drivers by watching everyone else – including your parents, says one expert.
"The back seat of the car is road rage nursery," said Dr. Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, in an e-mail.
So if you think other drivers are doing risky things on the road, you might make it personal – say, by assuming they're doing it on purpose, calling them names or flipping them off. Worse, you could act out with your car by slamming on the brakes or tailgating.
The trouble is, getting angry at other drivers doesn't actually make the road, or your own driving, any safer – and if the other driver gets angry too, things could escalate.
And research shows that verbally aggressive drivers are more likely to lose control of their vehicles or have near misses.
While there are plenty of tips for what to do when faced with another driver's road rage, what should you do when you're the angry one?
James said he's not aware of research showing that listening to audiobooks or music can quell road rage.
"My opinion from over 30 years of research is that the only effective way to manage traffic emotions is to give yourself reminders, lectures and, especially, arguments why your negative emotions are useless and have no influence or control on the behaviour of others," he said. "I believe this kind of retraining works."
So what mantras, combined with a deep breath or two, can keep you from becoming the Incredible Hulk in your Impala? Dr. James suggests these:
"I'm needlessly stressing myself out."
"Anger behind the wheel makes my own driving less effective and more dangerous to others."
"Everyone makes mistakes, and so do I. It's good for me to be more charitable about other drivers."
"I don't want to be the kind of person who ridicules and judges others. It's not my job and it doesn't influence other drivers."
"I want to stay safe. You never know how the other driver will react. I want to get home safely today."
You don't have to use these exact words. You're just reminding yourself that, while you're behind the wheel, anger is a distraction.
And since other drivers don't know you and can't hear you, if you feel like reacting with your middle finger, horn or your car, consider getting silly.
"Burst out in singing or in sounds of animals and other funny things," Dr. James said. "This technique works because the singing or making loud sounds interferes with the action of adrenalin that empowers and intensifies negative emotions, leading the person to an overt gesture or yelling."
Irwin Altrows, a Kingston psychologist, says angry driving isn't new.
"There's a great Disney cartoon from the 1950s showing Goofy as a Jekyll and Hyde character, depending on whether he's driving."
An initial emotional reaction to danger, such as when someone cuts you off, is normal. But the trick is not to act on it in a dangerous way, Dr. Altrows said. His solution? A death ray.
"You simply make an imaginary death ray machine. That can be as simple as a piece of paper with the words death ray and a picture of a skeleton," he said. "When you feel like acting like a jerk in retaliation for a real or imagined insult, you zap the other driver with it."
He realizes it's ridiculous – and that's the whole point.
"I'm not sure why it works, but my theory is that it works because it's so absurd," he said. "And it's a way of signalling yourself about the absurdity of your angry thoughts."
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