Honk If You Think I'm Rude
By: Joseph Siano
Date: February 15, 2004
Source: Siano, Joseph. "Honk If You Think I'm Rude." New York Times, February 15, 2004, 〈http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html/〉 (accessed January 31, 2006).
About the Author: Joseph Siano is a journalist who writes for the New York Times. His articles are regularly featured in the Travel section of the newspaper. Siano is perhaps best-known for his contributions to the popular "What's Doing In …?" feature of the Sunday New York Times Travel section.
Road rage, a less aggressive form of what has been termed roadway violence, is a nearly ubiquitous experience in America. Virtually every driver (and probably most passengers) has experienced it, whether as the aggressor or as the victim. It can be as benign as quietly grumbling or name-calling when another driver executes a (subjectively) foolish or dangerous vehicular maneuver (backs up without first scanning the immediate area, cuts off another driver by changing lanes abruptly, etc.) or as potentially dangerous as intentionally hitting another driver's vehicle, tailgating another driver for an extended distance, forcing the other driver off the road, or using a weapon to inflict harm to another vehicle or its driver.
Road rage is not a purely American phenomenon. It also has been widely reported (and studied) in the United Kingdom, Australia, Greece, Austria, Ireland, India, China, Japan, and many countries in Europe. Road rage is most likely to occur when there is a confluence of events—bad driving combined with poor road conditions (e.g. rough road surfaces, impaired visibility, traffic congestion, etc.), and an individual predisposition to respond aggressively under circumstances of stress or perceived provocation. There may be other factors operating in individual circumstances as well.
The Automobile Association of America (AAA) has issued a very precise definition of road rage, This definition characterizes road rage as a criminal act and draws a sharp distinction between road rage and aggressive driving. Road rage is defined as "an incident in which an angry or impatient motorist or passenger intentionally injures or kills another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian, or attempts or threatens to injure or kill another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian." It must be emphasized that road rage and aggressive driving are not synonymous. Road rage is uncontrolled anger that results in violence or threatened violence on the road; it is criminal behavior. Aggressive driving does not rise to the level of criminal behavior. Aggressive driving includes tailgating, abrupt lane changes, and speeding, alone or in combination. These potentially dangerous behaviors are traffic offenses, but are not criminal behavior.
According to statistics gathered by AAA, incidents of aggressive driving increased by more than fifty percent during the last decade of the twentieth century. The United States Department of Transportation reports that nearly seventy percent of all motor vehicle collisions that result in a fatality can be attributed, at least in part, to aggressive driving. It should be noted, however, that much of the commentary on the incidence of road rage and aggressive driving is derived from anecdotal evidence—subjective statements of individuals involved in motor vehicle accidents, media reports, and the like. There is a relatively small amount of rigorous scientific study of road rage and aggressive driving behavior published in scholarly and scientific literature, in comparison to the large number of reports and articles on road rage appearing in the popular press.
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Although crowded traffic conditions are often cited as a contributory factor to displays of road rage, that is unlikely to be accurate. When traffic is moving slowly—or not at all—there are no opportunities for swerving, rapid lane changes, or cutting off another driver. Those actions can only occur when traffic is moving well, and an impulsive driver can choose to maneuver in dangerous ways in order to "make up time."
There is a tendency for a driver to feel both invincible and anonymous when behind the wheel. Protected by at least a thousand pounds of very responsive and comfortable machinery (we live in the era of programmable, heated seats; custom sound systems; electronically adjustable window locks, doors, and mirrors; deeply tinted windows; onboard navigation systems, and exquisitely responsive automotive engineering), it is easy for a driver to believe that no harm could possibly befall him. Viewing similar vehicles, it is easy to forget that they are driven by fellow humans—possibly even acquaintances, friends, family, or coworkers. In a moment of fury, it is a simple matter for a driver to ignore the possibility that harm can come to anyone and to forget that the other driver is a human being as well. Criminal thinking occurs when perpetrators (those who commit crimes upon the property or person of another) believe that their victims deserve "whatever they get." Victims are dehumanized and treated as if they are incapable of appreciating the severity of their alleged offense against the perpetrator. This type of rationalization makes it very easy for the perpetrator to commit an aggressive act without thinking about its real consequences. In rage behavior, criminal thinking is quite common. The perpetrator does not have to take responsibility for the act, because the other driver "deserved" what he got—in fact, he was "asking for it."
The character of roadway violence is often somewhat different in America than it is in many other countries. Elsewhere in the world, roadway aggression may be fueled by too little space, too many vehicles, and antiquated roadways. In the United States, there is an implicit belief in the concept of manifest destiny—that it is acceptable to defend one's own property (human or material) by whatever means necessary. Americans are explicitly permitted to bear arms and to use them in order to protect that which belongs to them. A motor vehicle is both a costly piece of property and a reflection of the self—therefore doubly essential to protect.
Road rage, as defined in the United States, usually involves a chain of events without any direct expression of interpersonal violence. It is generally initiated by a "bad driving" maneuver by one driver. The perceived victim becomes angry and responds with some form of non-contact aggression, such as horn honking, light flashing, gestures, or shouting. If it ends there, that is simple road rage, and it is not a criminal action. If the behavior escalates, and there is an act of either vehicular violence (using the vehicle as a weapon) or direct interpersonal violence (use of a weapon, fists, etc., to cause bodily harm to the other driver), then it is roadway violence and is considered a criminal assault. Available published research suggests that while road rage is commonly experienced by most drivers (as either victim or aggressor), roadway violence is comparatively rare, contrary to media reports.
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