Road rage stems from drivers' 'illusion of superiority' — but there's an easy fix, studies say (Denver7)

Traffic Safety Pulse News

As agencies around Colorado investigate recent road rage crimes, scientific studies have analyzed the correlation between aggressive driving and drivers' so-called "illusion of superiority."

This year has included a multitude of cases: Two people were killed on Interstate 25 in mid June and a man now faces a murder charge; a 48-year-old man was killed in a road rage-related shooting in Aurora in early June and two 18-year-olds were arrested; and a Denver man was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder after a fatal road rage shooting in May. In March, a 34-year-old was sentenced to almost a century in prison for a Parker road rage shooting.

In 2022, Colorado State Patrol emergency dispatchers answered 31,760 calls related to road rage or aggressive driving. This is a 4.5% increase over 2021, they reported.

The factors that lead to fatal crashes vary, but several of them are connected to these types of risky driving. Below is the breakdown for factors in fatal crashes in the United States and Colorado in 2020.

Across the nation and world, humans are wired to think that they are often less biased and prone to errors than those around them, according to a 2018 study titled "The relationship between drivers’ illusion of superiority, aggressive driving, and self-reported risky driving behaviors." It was published in a 2018 edition of Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.

A van pulled over on the side of the road next to a road sign that says, "Federal Blvd next left." Debris litters the road and caution tape surrounds the area.

These “beliefs are considered illusionary because it is unlikely for a majority of people to be above average in every domain," the study reads, adding, "The perception that the others’ driving skills are deficient and the illusion of one’s superiority can determine a driver to engage in aggressive behaviors."

When that "superiority" is challenged — whether by somebody running a red light, speeding, or something else that creates a perceived threat — that driver can become angry and place heavy blame on another person. They no longer feel in control of the situation, even though they weren't in the first place. But that "illusion of superiority" can convince the brain to think otherwise, the study reads.

It can become a vicious cycle. reported that about half the drivers on the receiving end of aggressive driving admit to responding with the same types of behaviors, like tailgating, honking or rude hand gestures.

What are the main triggers for aggressive driving and easy ways to calm down?

Road rage and aggressive driving have become one of the most popular topics for traffic-related studies.

One of them, titled "Preliminary evidence of the efficacy of the Reducing Aggressive Driving (RAD) program," looked at how about 100 people were triggered on the roads and explored ways they could combat an intense level of anger while driving.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Safety Research in July 2022, was based in Australia. It included people between 18 and 74 years old who virtually attended one two-hour Reduce Aggressive Driving (RAD) program.

According to the study, about 50% of people engage in aggressive driving and when this happens, their odds of becoming involved in a crash increase 15-fold. While the risks of aggressive driving are similar to driving distracted or impaired, it typically comes with more serious injuries, the study found.

The drivers who participated in the study identified multiple triggers for road rage. It included familiar human experiences like running late, being tired or hungry, GPS failures, traffic and lacking proper etiquette. But it can also include dangers from other drivers, like slower drivers in the left lane, reckless driving, tailgating, and discrimination based on the type or size of vehicle, the study found.

The RAD program study also found that the most commonly used countermeasures for aggressive driving are reactionary, like fines or mandatory training after an incident — they are not preventative. In the moment, it is mostly up to the angered driver to calm themselves down.

"Evidence suggests that anger and aggression can be reduced through cognitive training, behavioral therapy, or focusing on reducing physical arousal," according to the study.

That was the next part of the study — determining ways different personalities can address road rage in a healthy and safe way. In total, the group of 100 came up with 38 different solutions.

Of those, 60% were cognitive, such as using the 5x5x5 rule, which means thinking, "Will this matter in five minutes, five hours or five days?" About 37% of solutions were behavioral, and included actions like pulling over, stopping the car (where and when safe), an apology wave and avoiding congestion hotspots. Lastly, 3% were relaxation-based, meaning mostly deep breathing to re-center the mind.

The most common strategies the participants adopted and used over the course of several months were simply ignoring the irritant driver, the 5x5x5 rule and listening to music or podcasts.

In addition, other resolutions include:

  • Be mindful of the other person, understanding it could be somebody you know.
  • Personalize the other driver by imagining it's a parent, child, boss, neighbor, volunteer, etc.
  • Think of the consequences, like a crash and dealing with a police report, an insurance headache or jail time.
  • Swear or vent out loud to release anger.
  • Think of what your parents, partner, children or friends would say about your actions in the situation.
  • Do not take an aggressive driver's actions personally.
  • Leave extra time to get to your destination and check for traffic before you leave.
  • Be empathetic of other drivers. They might be having a bad day.
  • Before driving somewhere, be aware of your state of mind. Are you stressed? Hungry? Angry?
  • Listen to feel-good music or interesting podcasts.
  • Act as a driver who can serve as an example for kids.

The participants provided a report on any aggressive driving one month and again four months after the RAD program. The study found significant declines in their anger on the roads during both check-ins.

"Even as road users, we’re still all imperfect humans trying to do what we think is appropriate," one participant said after the program.

Who is most likely to engage in aggressive driving?

While the studies had various findings on if age had any correlation to a person's decision to drive aggressively or not, they all agreed on the correlation for genders.

The 2018 Traffic Psychology and Behaviour study found no correlation with age, but said women have a lower risk of risky driving and are more unlikely to use the vehicle to "express" their anger when compared to men. reported that males under the age of 19 are the most likely to exhibit road rage in the United States.

A study published in Traffic Psychology and Behaviour in 2019 also found that women, people over the age of 29 and drivers who have been in at least two crashes perceived behaviors as more aggressive than others. On the flip side, people who saw those same behaviors as less aggressive included motorcyclists, people younger than 30 and men.

In Colorado, you can report an aggressive driver by calling *277, which will connect you to a dispatcher with Colorado State Patrol.