RoadRage: Anger Looking for a Target to Attack

Safety is our first and #1 need and when our safety switch is flipped, even mild-mannered individuals behind the wheel of an automobile are capable of becoming stark-raving lunatics. Road rage is serious business. Road rage is an expression of chronic cultural stress acted out in dangerous ways. Unless we are driving a Smart Car or a Prius, an automobile can make us feel powerful. The power of the engine somehow travels up the steering column into the hands grasping the wheel.

In addition, conscious or unconscious meaning exists between an owner and his/her automobile. An automobile for many persons may be a status symbol. It may be an expression of how I see myself. In my son’s late adolescence, he spent a small fortune on his truck, lowering the chassis, chrome rims, big tires, neon lighting, and stereo systems with speakers powerful enough to bring down small airplanes. In and out of his subculture, his truck screamed like a strutting peacock, “NOTICE ME.” An automobile can be seen as an extension and expression of my own identity, depending on the make, model, and the price tag. An automobile also provides us with an entitled place where we believe we are supposed to feel safe. We tend to believe we are supposed to feel safe in “our own space,” which especially includes our automobiles.

The activation of the rage sensor occurs when a fellow motorist rides too closely to our bumper, cuts us off, or gives the one-finger salute. When this happens at interstate speeds of 70 miles per hour or higher, the immediate reaction of anger, or “rage”, is because our need for safety has been disrupted and destabilized by the blatant injustice or incompetence of another driver.

Free-floating anger is chronic anger looking for a target to attack. Persons carrying free-floating anger are like thunderclouds ready to discharge lightning bolts. Road rage is often an incident from a random encounter. Someone you do not knowbecomes the target for all the free-floating anger and anxiety going on in your life. With a constant state of chronic stress, anxiety, and anger floating around, a sudden threat to safety is escalated by the heightened reaction of a driver or passenger with his/her finger on the trigger of an automatic weapon or the vehicle itself becoming a 3000-pound battering ram. Violence, if not diffused, will always escalate.

So what should you do if you find yourself the target of a road rage incident? 

1)    Assess the threat. Is this someone who is three lanes over giving you the finger because they don’t like your FSU sticker on your car or someone in the parking lot who has stalked up behind you carrying a loaded 9mm threatening to shoot you if you don’t give them your keys? If it is not an immediate threat don’t give it any of your energy.

2)    Do not escalate. Don’t return the one finger salute.

3)    Don’t get into a shouting match. Verbal violence always precedes physical violence. Remember, there are any number of people carrying loaded weapons in their cars. Don’t let a shouting match turn into a shooting match.

4)    If possible, head for a place that is well lit and populated. If necessary, get out of the car and head inside the Travel Mart, Gas Station, or Restaurant.

5)    Report aggressive drivers. If you are being tailgated or if other drivers are making threats call 911. Better yet, have someone else in the car make the call. Try not to appear ruffled or intimidated. Be casual. Note the make and color of the car and the tag number if you can get it.

The Boston Marathon Massacre: When We Don't Feel Safe . . . Nothing Else Matters

Safety is our number one need. Simply put, if we do not feel safe, nothing else matters. We react instinctually to threat in this way. Anger and anxiety are reactive emotions we experience to a real or imagined threat to our safety.

The economic tsunami caused from the bursting housing and credit bubbles has sent us on a cycle from boom to bust not seen since the great depression. The automotive industry has been the bell weather economic indicator for the stability of capitalism for decades. Do you remember, “How General Motors goes, so goes the nation?” Revelations of corporate greed have sent shock waves from Wall Street to Main Street. The current digital photo of western capitalism captures an astonishing and staggering image of one huge Ponzi scheme.

As for our individual health, we await the coming of each new pandemic from bird flu to swine flu with dread. As for the health of our planet, our carbon footprint has created the fungus of global warming that promises to make our planet as inhabitable as a soiled and smelly tennis shoe.

Our foundations for safety have been forever destabilized. Prior to 9-11-2001, the United States could depend on its geographical boundaries to insure a modicum of safety. Terrorism always happened “over there.” We now know that our safety is no longer an inalienable guaranteed constitutional right. We now know what the rest of the world knows: safety can no longer be taken for granted. We now know that 9-11 is a dividing line in history, marking time “before” and “after.” The “new normal” continues to raise anxiety to new levels. Our collective consensus is not if there will be another terrorist strike but when and where. Fighting a war on terror without boundaries and borders may well mean that our nation and the world will now be in a state of war in perpetuity. We have notched up both anxiety and anger through isolated and prolonged acts of “holy violence.”[ii]

 We cannot live purposefully, creatively, and with passion if we are stuck in a protective mode. Our psychological safety needs trigger anger and anxiety when there are real or imagined threats to issues of justice or competence.


[i] Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (Novato: New World Library, 1991), 103.

[ii] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroad, 1995).