According to several recent studies, incidents of road rage are on the rise. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that fatal car crashes linked to aggressive driving increased by over 500% in just the ten years between 2006 (80 fatalities) and 2015 (467 fatalities). Additionally, the use of guns in aggressive driving incidents more than doubled in just two years around that same time period. In 2014, there were 247 incidents of guns recorded, but by 2016 that number had risen to 620.
It isn’t just these extreme incidents of road rage that should worry drivers. The problem appears to be wide-ranging. In a 2016 study by the American Automobile Association, almost 80% of drivers admitted to extreme aggression, anger or road rage while driving at least once a year. This aggressive driving was expressed in various ways, from the 104 million Americans who purposely ride another car’s bumper (also known as tailgating) to the 95 million who yell at other drivers and the 67 million who make obscene gestures. An additional 24 million cut off other vehicles, and 6 million rammed or bumped another car, while 6 million drivers actually exited their vehicles in order to confront another driver.
Our highways may seem like dangerous places, and they can be, but there are ways you can protect yourself against aggressive drivers in particular.
The best reaction to an aggressive driver is no reaction at all. Ignore them and do not do anything that will escalate the situation. This includes challenging aggressive drivers verbally or by tailgating or cutting them off. Two wrongs don't make a right, and responding to aggression on the road with your own aggressive gestures or behavior isn't helpful.
Experts also recommend avoiding making eye contact with an aggressive driver or other occupants of their car.
Avoiding conflict starts with being a courteous driver. Unfortunately, many people react on the road in ways they would never do in other public situations. Being a polite driver means not doing the same things that likely enrage you when others do them.
Never attempt to take the right of way — it isn’t necessarily yours to grab. It has to be granted by other drivers and you can't simply muscle your way into things. At night, be sure you switch to your low beams when oncoming traffic approaches or when you come up behind another driver to avoid blinding them with your lights.
Also, avoid irritating your fellow drivers when possible. For example, if you’re driving slowly, keep to the slow lanes except to pass and never straddle lanes. Allow others to merge and pass you easily. Use your signals when you’re changing lanes or turning, and avoid running yellow lights.
Forgive and Forget
Always assume that a driver who makes a mistake is not doing it intentionally. Let it go. Never assume that it is directed at you either — they could be simply having a bad day or could even be rushing to the hospital or another emergency.
If another driver is genuinely aggressive, honking your horn or yelling at them will only serve to escalate the situation, not diffuse it. And, if the other driver’s behavior was unintentional, your venting will not change anything. It could easily rattle an inexperienced driver and cause them to make even more mistakes, or react in a more dangerous way.
Protect Yourself and Others
While you should always assume that driver error was unintentional, never assume that an aggressive driver will behave rationally. Take steps to protect yourself and the other occupants of your vehicle. Continue to drive at normal speed. Never get out of your car and never lower your window. Try to avoid making eye contact with the aggressive driver if they pull up alongside you. If you must stop for traffic, do not pull right up to the car ahead of you. Instead, give yourself enough room to pull away if necessary.
However, try to avoid speeding away, as that may encourage a chase or cause the aggressive drive to react by likewise speeding up or driving dangerously. Instead, shift to the slow lane and separate yourself from the situation as much as possible.
Given the statistics, there is a pretty good chance you will encounter an aggressive driver at some point. Your best bet is to avoid conflict by ignoring the driver's actions. You may very well be in the right, but proving it won’t be worth it.
Avoid the temptation to roll down your window and yell at the offending driver or speed up behind someone who cut you off. Even flashing a rude gesture from within your car may catch the driver's eye and escalate the conflict. The satisfaction you get from that moment of revenge will be fleeting, and if there is an aggressive driver behind the wheel, the results could be devastating to you or your occupants.
Have your cell phone ready and call the police immediately if you feel threatened. Familiarize yourself with any state call numbers for reporting aggressive driving. In the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, for example, you can dial #77 on a cell phone to report dangerous drivers. If an aggressive driver continues to follow or threaten you, drive directly to a police station or another public and busy spot such as a fire station or hospital. Honk your horn to get attention, but do not leave your car unless and until the aggressive driver is gone.
Stay Alert — and Stay Safe
Police forces across North America are combining efforts to target aggressive drivers, and they’re using increasingly sophisticated technology to reduce the problem. While law enforcement does its part to keep highways safe from aggressive driving, keep yourself and your occupants safe by following these tips.