Road Rage Prevention and Deflation: Making Roads Safer for Interpersonal AND Intermodal Interaction

Road Rage is aggressive anger and dangerous behavior.  It carries overtones of self-righteous arrogance and potential violence.  It’s incredibly scary and deeply disturbing, especially as the number of carried guns and the amount of culture-permeating violence increases.  To reduce our chances of becoming the victim – or the initiator – of road rage, we need to de-escalate tense situations.  

When confronted by an emotionally out of control or threatening person, our first act must be to remove ourselves to safety.  More often, however, we are faced with an unintentionally and unknowingly endangering behavior by a thoughtless person.  Both situations are frightening and infuriating, but exploding in anger is not usually our best response – either in its deterrence effect or its impact on ourselves.  Anger may sometimes give us a feeling of regaining control, but makes others see us as being out of control. 

Sometimes, even merely trying to assertively deal with the situation triggers fury rather than understanding, potentially creating an escalating feedback loop that spirals out of control into emotional or even physical injury.  Sometimes, we need to walk away – for our own sake.  Without compromising our right to be on the roads, the route towards more civil interaction is to always try to make ourselves part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  We need to be true to our better selves, doing what we can to make our streets safer and more welcoming places for everyone. Our goal must always be to make our roads friendly at the level of interpersonal interaction as well as mode interaction – which also implies the importance of improving our street design, of adopting and implementing Compete Streets and Vision Zero programs. 

A panel discussion organized by Ken Carlson, chair of the Somerville Bicycle Committee, prompted some thoughts and this blog.  (Full disclosure: I moderated the session and will lead another panel at MassDOT's upcoming Moving Together Conference.)  I’m writing this from the perspective of being a year-round cyclist who occasionally drives a car or takes transit, and starts or ends every trip with some distance on foot.


The good news is that full-blown road rage is relatively rare (although reportedly more common in the Northeast than elsewhere), and seems most typically directed against other drivers rather than anyone else.  As I’m writing this, more than 10 bicyclists and at least as 13 pedestrians have been killed by cars and trucks in Eastern Massachusetts over the past year.  However, there is no evidence that any of them died as a result of road rage.  (There is some evidence that most of the cyclists were wearing helmets.) 

There are times when someone clearly is on the attack.   Drivers who deliberately drive into cyclists, or push cyclists off the road, or brush close or honk as they pass in order to harass and scare.  One Boston cyclist recently wrote that “I had another close call today with a driver who actually circled around the rotary to chase me down for more confrontation.”  These people are criminals, intentionally trying to harm. The road ragers are probably a subset of those drivers who still believe that bicycles don’t belong in the road, that cyclists are unwanted invaders whose presence slows cars down and creates congestion, that bikers are rich kids pampered by permissive authorities with no respect for the unavoidable centrality of car travel in most people’s lives.  It must be infuriating to see us moving faster than they are through the jammed-up streets, probably having a more enjoyable experience at what they perceive as their expense.

There are also people who, perhaps inadvertently, do something that endangers others but then explode in fury if questioned or called on it.  They may be emotionally unstable, neurotically defensive, off their meds, or simply anti-social.  But they are also scary and unsafe to be around.  Recently, in Cambridge, a driver tried to run over the bicyclist who had confronted him about making a dangerous move.

Both the emotionless attacker and the emotional responder are dangerous people.  The best strategy is to back off.  Call the police.  If you can, take a picture of the car or write down any business identification on the vehicle.  With the plate number it is sometimes possible to find out the name and address of the car owner: a letter sent to that address can trigger family or employer pressure on the driver.  Even without any information, sharing the story with others helps:  post to a discussion list, talk about it at gatherings, tell your city councilors about the problem.


Often, however, the term “road rage” is also used to describe less deliberate but still dangerous actions by people whose arrogance or sense of entitlement leads them into self-serving behaviors that have the unintentional side effect of endangering others.  Drivers who race down residential streets where kids might run out from the sidewalk, or speed around turns without looking, or change lanes to jam themselves in front of other cars, or block crosswalks and bike lanes, or come too close to a bicyclist when trying to pass.  It’s as if the drivers' needs for speed or convenience are the only thing that matters, as if no one else is there or of any importance.

Although it’s not commonly described as road rage, I would add bicyclists who cut too close to pedestrians to the “arrogance leading to other’s injury” category as well as bicyclists who zoom around other cyclists waiting at an intersection, don’t move over in response to “car back” calls on group rides, or (most egregiously) race into busy intersections regardless of crossing traffic.  These behaviors can cause car drivers to make sudden serves or stops leading to crashes or even injury among both car occupants and other bicyclists.  When car drivers act in equivalent ways, cyclists are legitimately furious.   Nearby bicyclists should be vocal about their disapproval of misbehaving peers, clear about the way this behavior endangers others (including themselves), and pushy about depicting these actions as the epitome of dick-headedness rather than cool.

But I suspect that in most endangering situations the perpetuator isn’t being anti-social or self-centered.  They just made a thoughtless mistake or distracted blunder.  Or they did something without being aware of the impact.  In fact, we all occasionally make stupid errors or unthinkingly do a rude action.  If we’re lucky the consequences of our error are relatively trivial, the insult relatively minor.  Usually, we only realize what we’ve done in hindsight and sheepishly move on, hoping no one noticed.   If someone does call us on it, usually we’re embarrassed and apologize before going on our way.   Hopefully, because we’re aware of our own potential culpability, when we’re subjected to someone else’s minor mistakes or misbehavior we usually just ignore it, or if we call them on it we do it with civility and accept their apology, and then go on.

Of course, it’s harder to stay cool when the situation goes beyond minor inconvenience, when we feel endangered.   And it’s almost impossible to control our feelings if our children’s safety is at stake. The adrenaline levels are soaring and our righteous indignation is in full flow.  And maybe it actually was totally the other guy’s fault.  It’s difficult not to step into the emotional catapult.  But doing so transforms us into the raging bull of the story, scary and threatening – turning us into a version of what we are protesting against, giving others an excuse to see us as the problem rather than themselves.

The challenging but essential thing to remember is that the other person is usually not consciously out to get us.  In most cases, he probably isn’t even aware of having done something wrong.  Most people’s bad behaviors on the road – including our own – occurs when we’re not paying attention or in a rush or not thinking carefully.  Most of the time, the idea that their action might have negative consequences for others hasn’t even entered the driver’s mind.  Researchers have found that most of us think of ourselves as “above average” in driving ability.  So it’s not surprising that most people are shocked when someone calls them out on bad or dangerous behaviors.  We may want to confront the person, to point out the potential consequences of their behavior, to demand that they be more aware of what they’re doing.  Approaching assertively is appropriate, but difficult in the circumstances.  It’s possible that coming at them in anger may break through their defenses and prompt a new consciousness.  In most cases, however, no matter how justified, it will simply convince them that we’re the one who is out of control.

And then we need to take the even-more-difficult-when-upset next step and ask ourselves, “Did I do anything to set up the situation, to provoke, allow, or increase the danger?”  If you did, apologize – or at least wave and point to yourself.   Even if you don’t think you did anything wrong, trying asking if the other person is ok.  At the least, this tends to keep the situation from escalating, maybe even allowing a useful conversation about how everyone can act safer the next time.


Once the immediate danger is past, we are faced with a more fundamental issue than how to deal with the road safety problem: what we are doing to ourselves.  Holding on to the fright, the anger, the feeling of powerless vulnerability doesn’t do ourselves any good.  One of the respondents to an on-line discussion made the point extremely well:

“I'll admit I have occasionally sworn and yelled at drivers, usually when they have thoughtlessly threatened my life. But every time I've done so, it's ruined my day, leaving me angry and tense, replaying the confrontation in my head and feeling reluctant to get back on my bike. And I've never heard of a driver deciding to be more considerate to cyclists because one of us ‘appeared out of nowhere’ and swore at them. (I know, of course they should look out for us, but that's a driver training issue that can't really be addressed by yelling).  What I've found really helps, and this might sound crazy, is to channel my urge to respond into actions that are positive and kind. Radical niceness, if you will. I blow kisses to drivers who honk at me. I smile, I wave, I yell, "I love you too," or "Isn't it a beautiful day!". Often, my sudden niceness disarms drivers and makes them aware of how petty they were being. At the very least, it gets any onlookers firmly on my side. But most importantly I feel better. The confrontation doesn't linger in my head. I'm able to let it go and ride on, content in the knowledge that while some people will always behave badly, at least I wasn't one of them today.”   posted by embrangled

 We have to give the emergency its due.  Sometimes a wild outburst is both an effective teaching tool and a therapeutic release.  But once we have let the fury pass through and caught our breath, we need to become our better selves again.  For our own sake if not for anyone else’s.   Anger is an abyss from which it can be difficult to climb out.  There’s no gain in letting a SOB ruin our day twice, first by endangering us and then by keeping us in emotional turmoil for hours (or days) afterwards.  We need to heal ourselves.


If not letting ourselves get unhinged because of the unintentional misdeeds of others is an important step towards friendlier travel, then reducing our own tendencies to do similarly bad moves is an equal responsibility.   Most of the road rage conversation is, appropriately, about car drivers:  getting hit by a car can kill while bike crashes usually “merely” injure.  But it is also time for the active transportation community to begin asserting itself about our own miscreants. 

It’s time to acknowledge that “distracted cycling” is as condemnable as “distracted driving.” Texting or talking on a hand-held phone while in motion is a total no-no regardless of vehicle.  It is possible to set the ear-bud volume low enough to provide a music lift without eliminating the ability to hear what’s going on around you.  But it’s also possible to loose oneself in the rhythm, and headphones should be taboo.

Even more serious is when distraction is actually incapacitation – when we’ve had a few drinks or a good toke.  Twenty percent of bicyclists killed on the road in recent years had blood-alcohol concentrations of 0.08 g/dL or higher – the legal threshold for drunk driving.  As many of us remember from our teens, the person doing the drinking is the last to know he’s impaired.  It’s the responsibility of his friends to put him in a taxi.

Of course, “distracted running and walking” is also bad.  I’ve lost count of how many times a pedestrian has suddenly, and without looking, stepped off the sidewalk into the bike lane right in front of me, often with their ears covered with phones or buds.   It’s even scarier when the pedestrian has their back to me – typically on a path but sometimes in the road.  Staying full speed and brushing close by is dangerous to both them and me.  As I approach I ring my bell, yell, and try to guess when it becomes counter-productive to keep trying because startling them might cause them to jump into me.  (A really loud horn, sounded when I’m still 50 feet or so away, would help even if it feels rude – assuming that they even hear that.)  If the passage is wide enough I swerve as far away as I can, which has its own hazards.  But mostly I have to slow down, losing my momentum and increasing the muscle cost of my trip.   Sometimes I’ll stop and try to explain why unthinkingly following their natural tendency to walk in the center of the path is bad for both of us (another reason that good design includes a dotted center line on all multi-use paths).  But shouting that they are jerks is not likely to win them over. 


More controversial, based on reactions at the Defusing Road Rage panel, is the idea that cyclists (and pedestrians) might be doing things that allow or even induce car drivers to see us as not deserving respect, or that by acting in ways that make them nervous about our presence we prime them for hostility – and perhaps even trigger the rage of those with less control over their emotions. 

Racing into busy intersections, going the wrong way on a busy one-way street, not signaling turns, wearing dark clothes at night without lights or reflective clothes – these all jeopardize the bike rider’s safety.   But they also make car drivers extremely nervous – few of them want to hit or hurt someone, even a close call freaks out almost everyone involved.  As Carolyn Edwards, a self-described “former bike rider now car driver” noted at the panel, “too many cyclists project an air of arrogant irresponsibility, acting as if it’s my responsibility to drive defensively while they ride offensively.” 

Roads are the shared property of everyone.  But that sharing is based on adherence to rules which are intended to make our actions safe, predictable, and conducive for efficient use of the road.  As times and road usage changes, those rules need to also change – a slow process that often leaves obsolete statutes in place far longer than desirable.  Still, the roads work, traffic flows, because we have at least a minimal level of trust that other people will follow the generally accepted rules – that their behavior will be generally predictable and safe.

When bicyclists flagrantly violate what car drivers perceive as the rules of the road or seem to act in ways that violate commonsense self-preservation (including not wearing a helmet) the driver may, perhaps unconsciously, begin to feel that cyclists have removed themselves from the community of trust, from those whose good judgment you trust enough to feel ok about sharing the road with.  After the panel, one audience member told me that “once you’re on the road, you’re just another commuter, no different than anyone else.”  

Of course, it’s also true that many car (and truck and bus) drivers don’t wear seat belts, drive distracted or drunk or high, don’t signal turns or stop for pedestrians, speed up at yellows and run reds, do “rolling stops” at signed intersections, and go above the speed limit whenever road conditions make it possible.  The Vulnerable User perspective is that “whomever can do the most damage bears the most responsibility for avoiding it” which clearly puts the primary focus on cars.  But the emotional reaction to perceived misbehavior of others is the same regardless of what vehicle you’re sitting in – we don’t respect and do feel nervous about the presence of people who seem to be acting dangerously or irresponsibly.  It’s time we understood and accepted that this is a two-way process.


Road rage is traumatic and dramatic.  But it’s not nearly the most important street safety issue.  The biggest issue is the design of our vehicles and streets.  While personality provides the drama, design is the stage on which behavior plays out.  Too many large vehicles have “blind spots” or open side areas that keep the driver from seeing people and allow those knocked off their feet or bike to fall under the wheels.  On the road, despite the fact that speed kills, we generally “do what the pavement tells us” – going fast when the lanes are wide, curves are soft, and surfaces smooth; going slowly when the intersections are frequent, the surrounding area is busy, the space is shared. 

Roads that are not “Complete Streets” with safe, welcoming, and properly maintained facilities for every mode of travel are stressful as well as dangerous.  For many people, it is fear of cars that keeps them from getting on their bike.  And for almost all that do, as panel member Rev. Laura Everett mentioned, “being on the road makes me tense” and as a result “I ride in a state of potential anger.”   For myself, when I’m in a car, running late and stuck in traffic, I know the feeling extends to drivers as well.   So it’s no wonder that so many of us are primed for emotional eruptions.   Improving the streets would both reduce tensions and mistakes.  As would lowering speed limits – now authorized by the Massachusetts Legislature.  As would improving Driver Education and requiring re-testing every 10 years.  (One idea:  people taking the Driver License Road Test should automatically funk if they don’t use their right hand to open their door – a Scandinavian trick that forces the driver to turn his body and head and increases the odds of noticing a bicyclist approaching from behind.)   The Vision Zero insight is that the vast majority of street injuries are not "accidents" but the preventable result of poor design.  (The recent interest in cities and state agencies in passing Vision Zero policies will only be meaningful if they are willing to aggressively implement the new approach even when that lowers speeds and eliminates parking.)  When we are enraged by the lack of safe mobility we need to channel our energy into the Advocacy that addresses the underlying causes rather than the in-our-face results.

Still, we all know that no matter how well a road is designed, people (including ourselves) will occasional make a dangerous move.  Our biggest strategic need is to improve design.  But that doesn't mean that we can totally ignore personal behaviors, including our own.


Despite the unsettling number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths in recent months, our streets are statistically safer than ever before.  My own perception is that in recent years urban drivers have become more generally aware and accepting of the presence of cyclists, even polite and accommodating – a disproportionate number of recent fatalities have occurred in the outer, less heavily cycled suburbs.  But more needs to be done.

At the same time, we – regardless of our mode of travel – need to act civilly and cooperatively and make it clear that we don’t approve of bad behavior by our peers.  We need to not losing our own temper and stay calm when idiots lose theirs. 

In the short run, the most powerful lever for cultural change are the statements and actions of political, religious, cultural, and other public leaders.  Mayor Menino’s “the car is no longer king in Boston” created a palpable shift in city policy and public awareness.   When authority figures start saying that a more multi-modal transportation system is a prerequisite for jobs and livability, when celebrities start calling people who lose their tempers in public “jerks” rather than Crazy Harry heroes, when the media starts carrying stories about the contribution of non-car travel (and travelers) to everyone’s wellbeing – then new norms will emerge.

We just have to stay alive until then.


Thanks to the panelists and the audience for their comments


Some related previous blogs:

>PEOPLE PRIORITY STREETS: Neighborways, Slow Streets, And Safety Zones

>TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT SAFETY:  Looking Beyond Traffic Lights

>GO WHEN IT’S CLEAR, STOP WHEN IT’S DANGEROUS: Why Bikes Should Treat Red Lights and Stop Signs As Yields

>TRAFFIC CONGESTION:  Why It’s Increasing And How To Reduce It


>TRUCKIN’ ON:  Reducing The Danger Of Trucks And Other Large Vehicles

>ROAD RAGE, GUNS, & DEMOCRACY:  Why Road Safety Is About More Than Traffic Lights

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