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6 January 2015

I flatter myself to be rather a mild-mannered and tolerant fellow. Only rarely do I get angry and shout at people in public. Most of the time I manage to mind my own business and try to remember that there’s most likely a perfectly good reason for that particular person’s weird and annoying behaviour.

But: when seating myself behind the wheel of my auto-mobile, things change. Any unfortunate passenger will be forced to witness a most distasteful Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde transformation.

"Oh you got to be KIDDING me!? Yes, pull out right in front of me, why don't you? I don't mind slamming on my brakes - not at all!"

“Oh you got to be KIDDING me!? Yes, pull out right in front of me, why don’t you? I don’t mind slamming on my brakes – not at all!”

I shout and gesticulate emphatically. I insult and curse. I make rude gestures. But most of all, I can feel this fiery rage filling me up – consuming me – and making me forget all that rational and good.

“Don’t make me angry – you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”

It seems this is not an isolated phenomenon. I’m not the only person going Hulk in the car. We have coined the term road rage for just this type of behaviour. And it doesn’t seem to be linked to any particular demographics like age, gender or social status. It’s a global thing.

You know me by now: any global human behaviour trigger my curiosity. I immediately start to wonder how this can be, what the origin of it is and if there’s an evolutionary advantage or explanation for it.

The dangers of adrenaline.

The dangers of adrenaline.

So what is this thing called road rage? Well, as those obsessive-compulsive of you enough to follow the link to Wikipedia above can confirm, it’s a display of excessive driving behaviour including erratic and/or threatening manoeuvring, verbal abuse and insulting gestures aimed at drivers of other vehicles. It seems to be exceedingly common in situations of traffic congestion.

Now. We all know that we put on a pretence of civilisation and good behaviour to cover up our more base instincts. Behind that thin lacquer of logic and afterthought lies an ocean of emotional turmoil and flash rage. It’s our primal core – directly inherited from our ape ancestors.

Imagine if you will a bus full of chimpanzees, going on a long trip. The group consists of a mix of different ages, genders and social statuses and most of them don’t know each other. We can easily predict what would happen: within minutes the bus would erupt in chaos with howling and screaming and flinging of distasteful substances.

Well, this all looks very amicable. No shouting or screaming. No flinging of faecal matter.

Well, this all looks very amicable. No shouting or screaming. No flinging of faecal matter.

By contrast, a bus full of human strangers, with the passengers forced into each others’ personal spaces for an extended period of time, fails to erupt into a full-on riot. We all pretend everything is fine and keep our emotions in check, regardless* of the level of stress we feel.

So what’s different with driving a car? Why can’t we control our primal anger in traffic when we’re so good at it elsewhere?

The sense of driving

Let us analyse the sense of driving a car for a moment. As individuals, we’re rather small and powerless. We might be the current top predator on Earth, but we’re still rather weak and slow. We’re not able to soar the skies at great speed like a bird of prey, leap over tall fences like a kangaroo or lift huge trunks of trees like an elephant. Ok, we’re pretty good long-distance runners, but on average we’re rather – well: average.

Homo sapiens - not the most impressive species around, size-wise.

Homo sapiens – not the most impressive species around, size-wise.

And in our modern societies, that feeling of powerlessness is enforced by being part of huge organisations and members of giant nation states. Whatever we do, it most likely won’t affect a huge number of people.

But it’s all good. We repress and control our sense of meaninglessness and lack of power. We go about our daily lives, doing whatever we do for a living. We politely converse with neighbours and colleagues. Society prevails. All in under control.

Then, taking the wheel of our car and getting on the road we suddenly feel a surge of power. Here we are, tiny little monkeys, controlling and manoeuvring a tonne or more of metal and glass. At the push of a pedal, the engine roars. At the twist of the wheel, the metal-beast turn. We can go anywhere, at any speed. We have limitless power. We’re gods.

"Mine! The power is all MINE!"

“Mine! The power is all MINE!”

Until that pillock chose to cut in right in front of you, blocking the road ahead. In an instant, all the power’s gone, all the freedom has evaporated. You’re back at being a cog in the machinery, a mindless drone, forced by others to behave.

Take my power, take my pride – take my sense of control

This sudden loss of power – a power that was given to you only moments earlier – is too much for our fragile minds to handle. We can’t abide this take-back of the rarest of gifts, this sense of being in control of great power for once, and we snap, reverting back to our more primitive selves. How dare that low-life take away my all-too-limited moment of elation? I just managed to get it, for crying out loud!

And that is why road rage is so often associated with traffic congestion. After all, what other scenario symbolise the loss of power and control better than sitting in a machine able to travel at a hundred miles per hour and still being forced to quietly queue, waiting to move but a yard or two, at no more than a snail’s pace?

Actually, a snail would out-pace this traffic.

Actually, a snail would out-pace this traffic.

The weakest link

So there you have it: we find the power of piloting heavy machinery exhilarating. And, since we so seldom get to experience that kind of sense of power, we’re extremely jealous of it and don’t want to lose it. But – traffic being what it is (mainly from consisting of illogical human drivers, all wanting to maintain that rare sense of control) – we will inevitably lose that power, mostly from being stuck in traffic jams. And, just like pushing a button, cue the road rage.

But perhaps things can be better? Perhaps being aware of the reason for our irrational behaviour could change things? Perhaps we, by seeing things logically, could become better at controlling ourselves and finally rid our society of this ugly phenomenon?

I somehow doubt it. History has shown that knowledge has very little effect on how we drive. We’re all slaves to our pent-up emotions, and I see no improvement until we get rid of the weak link of this scenario: human drivers. There’s a potentially glorious future ahead, free of not only traffic related rage but congestions all together. But that’s another post


* Add a little alcohol to the mix and the situation will be completely different. A small dose of mental inhibitor and we’re right back where we started: full of uncontrolled anger and rage.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 January 2015 12:33

    Great article….. Sometimes I use my ‘power’ for good and let others cut in front of me…. Then I get all road ragey when they don’t do that courteous hand wave of acknowledgment…. I’m a complicated monkey….


    • 6 January 2015 13:52

      Thank you, you’re most kind!

      Yes, perhaps you – by the act of them failing to acknowledge your kind gesture of allowing them to take away from your sense of freedom – feel cheated and taken for granted? A perfectly good reason to become enraged, I’d say.


  2. 6 January 2015 20:42

    I am VERY road-ragey. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in this. This will be a very good thing to fall back on when someday someone shoots me for flipping them off for their terrible stupid rude driving ways.

    (I’ve gotten better about screaming at the other drivers as I’ve aged, though. I think most things have mellowed with age. It’s one of the nice things about getting older.)

    I don’t want to be on that bus full of poo-slinging chimps, Andreas, the very thought makes me nervous.


    • 6 January 2015 21:33

      It’s just a hypothetical bus, filled with hypothetical primates and hypothetical faeces. Don’t worry.

      Yes, me too, I think. I’m actively trying to talk myself down from the rage cliff when I notice I’m there. But also, verbalising one’s concerns (ahem) about other drivers is – in my humble opinion – a very good way to let off steam. They can’t hear you, after all, and it’ll avoid a lot of pent-up emotions later. Probably best to avoid gesturing too vividly though, and instead keep both hands on the wheel.


  3. 29 April 2016 23:52

    This explains road rage perfectly! Now, if the idiots around me just knew how to use a turn signal…


    • 30 April 2016 05:52

      Thank you!

      Yes, if only… But to be fair: it’s very complicated to push that turn signal lever – and in the right direction, as well. We’re probably asking for too much.


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