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Mean streets: Motorists boil over 'in the age of rage'

Road rage

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We've all felt it. The anger that suddenly erupts behind the wheel when someone cuts you off, or is hugging your bumper, or takes too long to make a left-hand turn.

Usually our outbursts are kept within the confines of our car – an obscenity or two, a raised middle finger, a long honk of the horn. In rare instances, though, these moments of road rage explode into fistfights, car chases and deadly collisions, which allegedly was the case Monday when a taxi driver and a skateboarder collided on a busy downtown Toronto street.

The driver, 43-year-old Adib Ibrahim, has been charged with second-degree murder after his taxi allegedly veered into the curb-side lane and struck skateboarder Ralph Bissonnette. Mr. Bissonnette, 28, had, according to witnesses, aggressively rapped on the cabbie's window moments before. Technically, Mr. Bissonnette shouldn't have been riding his board on the road: He should have been on the sidewalk.

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Uncommon as road rage is, it raises questions about why some drivers completely lose it. Are people who drive for a living more susceptible to perpetrating road rage? And what can be done to curb vengeance on our roads?

These questions are perhaps most pressing for congested cities such as Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver, which are getting more congested by the day. In gridlocked urban centres, tragic road-rage incidents aren't just between drivers. They're occurring between motorists and cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, and motorists and skateboarders.

"We are in the age of rage," contends Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii who has studied driver aggression for about two decades. "You see it in many places, like computer rage, surf rage, sidewalk rage, office rage. Rage has become a culturally sanctioned way of expressing your frustration."

It's difficult to assess how prevalent road rage is in Canada or whether it's on the rise. Only the most serious incidents, those resulting in property damage, injuries or death, are reported to the police, and there is no national tally.

A 2001 survey of nearly 1,400 Ontario drivers found nearly half had been shouted at, cursed at or rudely gestured at within the past year. Nearly one in 10 said they'd been threatened with damage to their vehicles or personal injury.

Other research shows the instigators tend to be younger, between 18 and 34. Older drivers seem able to cope better with frustrations, said Robert Mann, a senior scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who has co-authored several studies on road rage.

For all ages, the conditions people drive in matter. Busier streets and long commutes provide more opportunities to get irked by others drivers. How motorists handle that frustration often depends on whether they're already stressed about things at home or at work.

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While Dr. Mann notes serious instances of road rage can at times be linked to drug and alcohol abuse or a psychiatric condition such as intermittent explosive disorder, Dr. James said perpetrators generally are people who ruminate over other drivers' mistakes – whether real or perceived. In many cases, these people don't have anger-management issues in other parts of their life, Dr. James has found.

"The driver is a complex human system. All sorts of emotions and mental states are going on all day long," he noted. "Often, the person might be in a vulnerable situation, upset about something else all together, and this [road encounter]triggers it."

Both Dr. James and Dr. Mann said there's no evidence that people who drive for a living, such as cabbies, are more prone to violent outbursts because of the amount of time they spend on the road. Many times, however, they're on the receiving end of road rage, said Bob Bercovici, who teaches a course on managing road rage with Toronto-based Bina Feldman Consulting.

To combat road rage, Mr. Bercovici believes driver training should include learning to manage emotions, saying people don't tend to think about the consequences of leaning on their horns, flipping the bird or chasing another motorist. Other experts contend more needs to be done to ease gridlock and separate motorists from cyclists with additional bike lanes.

"Road rage is a kind of a temper-tantrum skill that you give yourself permission to perform," Dr. James said. "It's not always like it's portrayed – uncontrollable rage, going temporarily insane.

"Road rage … is a rage that has been building up inside that you did not manage."

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  • Younger motorists, aged 16 to 44, are more likely to drive aggressively in traffic (15 per cent) compared with people over 45 (6 per cent).
  • Drivers aged 16 to 24 use their horn more when they’re annoyed (12 per cent) compared with drivers over 25 (5 per cent).
  • Men tend to drive more aggressively – 16 per cent versus 6 per cent of women.
  • Aggressive drivers are more likely to have been cited for traffic violations.

Source: Traffic Injury Research Foundation

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