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driving concerns

I read your story on road rage. I still don't understand why people who wouldn't throw punches if somebody accidentally butts in front of them at Starbucks suddenly try to push somebody off the road for accidentally cutting them off or honking. I've had drivers do this to me, and I'm a mom with a minivan full of kids. – Karen, Edmonton

If you accidentally cut in front of somebody at Starbucks, you can shrug and apologize. But it's tougher to say, "Sorry, my fault," when you're surrounded by metal and going 110 km/h.

"On the road, if somebody cuts you off, you have no idea why and we tend to jump to the conclusion that they did it on purpose," said Dr. Christine Wickens, with the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). "If somebody bumps into you in the grocery store, you can see that they're trying to avoid a small child or they say 'Sorry,' or you can see a sense of regret on their face."

Because there's no context, you don't know that it was a mom who was distracted because her kids were fighting over the iPad.

You assume she's a menace who doesn't know how to drive.

But even if you knew she'd had a reason, you might not care, because you have no idea who she is.

"Our vehicles are a little territorial, and there's anonymity – the idea that you and this driver will never see each other again," Wickens said. "If you and your neighbour get in a crash when you pull out of the driveway, will you scream at them?"

Driving is already stressful – and dangerous.

When somebody does something that we think is unsafe, we might decide we have a right to teach them a lesson.

A 2011 Australian study found that subjects used aggressive driving – such as tailgating – as a way to correct other people's driving.

"That's dangerous," Wickens said. "If anger is clouding your judgment, and you're trying to teach someone a lesson, you may not be thinking about safety."

Wickens's own research looked at driver's reports of their own aggressive driving behaviours in the previous 12 months. It showed that drivers who reported mild aggression – things like swearing or giving someone the finger – had a higher chance of getting in a crash than drivers who hadn't.

The likelihood of a crash grew as the behaviour got worse.

Two-thirds of drivers said they'd engaged in minor aggression. Two per cent said they'd done something serious, such as getting into a physical fight with another driver.

"Two per cent sounds small – but if you consider that we have 9.5-million licensed drivers [in Ontario], that means 200,000 drivers engage in serious aggression," Wickens said.

So why do some people lash out when they feel slighted on the road and others don't?

"It could be your personality; if you're somebody who's hostile or experiences anger in your life, you're more likely to act out," Wickens said. "It's narcissists and the other personality types related to anger."

Emotions and stress can get amplified when you're on the road.

"If you've had a tough day at work, that kind of stress can carry over into the driving environment," Wickens said. "Or if you're late, something that would normally be a normal annoyance might lead to aggressive behaviour."

Another thing that can amp up stress? If you're lost, it's a hot day and you don't have the air conditioning on, there's a lousy smell in your car, or even if you're in an ugly part of the city where there are no trees, Wickens said.

"In and of themselves, those things don't cause aggression, but they add to the mix," Wickens said.

What should you do if you feel rage on the road?

Well, the same thing you do to avoid punching strangers at Starbucks. Calm down, consider the consequences and avoid as much of the stress as you can in the first place.

"I usually recommend giving yourself lots of time to get somewhere," Wickens said. "There are also breathing techniques you can do, or put on music. Basically, recognize that it's not worth it."

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