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Collegians predisposed to road rage

By Andrew J. Pulskamp

It's quite easy to push the pedal to the metal, flip off that tailgater and scream a string of obscenities at no one in particular while you're driving. It's also easy for that tailgater to get out of his or her car at the next light and start threatening you. Road rage is becoming increasingly common on America's streets and highways and though college students may be the victims of it, often times they are the aggressors.

"We want to retaliate and punish this person and let them know they've done something wrong and make sure they're not going to get away with it."

social psychologist, University of Hawaii

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Leon James, a social psychologist at the University of Hawaii who is also a traffic psychologist known as Dr. Driving, says, "Even though incidences of road rage are rare in the newspapers -- there might be a thousand a year, millions of aggressive exchanges take place on the roads every day." In extreme cases of road rage, people can end up dead - or their passengers can.

- In September of 1999, two brothers were charged with stabbing a man to death in front of his wife and five daughters in a horrific road rage incident in Seattle.

- In October of 1999 a Las Vegas woman was indicted after she allegedly cut off a tractor-trailer that was driving too slowly, then slammed on her brakes. A motorcyclist following that truck crashed into it and died of massive head injuries.

- Last February a still unidentified man got out of his car after a fender bender in San Jose, California. He approached the other driver, reached inside her car, grabbed her dog and threw the bichon frise into oncoming traffic. The canine was killed after being run over.

Although the perpetrators in none of these instances were college-age, James says college students are among a segment of the population that comprises the most aggressive drivers. Basically in the world of road rage, the younger the driver the more aggressive. James explains; "In college, students still have a tendency to act like teenagers in that they take a lot of risks. The question is when do we learn as drivers not to take risks? That's after the college years."

John Richardson, a student at Birmingham Southern College, considers himself to be a good and courteous driver. Even though he's proud of his own habits behind the wheel and relates that his friends are pretty good drivers, too, he says, "There are some good reasons to the notion that [students] are younger and therefore more carefree and less aware of consequences. So they might drive faster and show less caution."

Age isn't the only factor in aggressive driving. James' research also shows that being a road hog has a lot to do with gender and what kind of car a person drives.

James says, in general, men are more aggressive drivers than women. And as far as cars go, if the highways were oceans then sports cars, trucks and sports utility vehicles would be the sharks, whereas economy cars, family cars and vans would be the angel fish.

There are no hard-line explanations as to why different cars are driven more or less aggressively, but James thinks most likely there are multiple factors at play. It might have to do with the idea that more aggressive people are drawn to certain cars, and it could also mean that certain vehicles make drivers feel more aggressive. After all it's easier to feel like the king of the road when one is cruising around in a Ford Explorer rather than a Dodge Neon.

"I've gotten irritated with drivers, especially when I'm running late. ...People going below the speed limit and people who turn on their turn signal and never turn it off."

University of Arkansas student

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Driving for most folks is a very personal thing, which means emotions run high. "Driving is a particularly dramatic and challenging experience for most people," James says. "Things happen fast and whatever happens could cost you money and physical injury."

When people feel threatened on the roads their first instinct is to lash out. James offers, "We want to retaliate and punish this person and let them know they've done something wrong and make sure they're not going to get away with it. We may want to prove that we're not a wimp. There are a thousand reasons and all of them are cultural."

Those cultural reasons were at play when Richardson got into a little accident shortly after he got his license. He says, "I was on my way to school and there was a solid green light ahead of me. ...Someone was coming from the other road and wanted to go left in front of me. I had the right of way but I could have avoided the other person if I just slowed down. But I felt I was right and I went through and they turned and we had a little fender bender."

Richardson's experience certainly doesn't qualify as road rage but the feelings that contributed to his accident, that he was right and therefore had a right to keep going, are the same emotions that road rage feeds on.

"When something happens that threatens you, you are challenged emotionally to respond. But you have to respond intelligently rather than provocatively," says James.

One way to behave intelligently is to drive defensively. Be on the lookout for others who might be on the edge. James has created a list of behaviors that correlate to aggressive driving syndrome, which can be a precursor to road rage.

Signs of Aggressive Driving

1. Drivers who speed.
2. Drivers who yell at other drivers.
3. Drivers who make a lot of insulting gestures or honk a lot.
4. Drivers who tailgate and cut people off.

James says it's best not to retaliate when you're behind the wheel. Patience is the key to avoiding road rage, but such a virtue can be hard to come by when one is behind the wheel, especially considering that most drivers have their own traffic pet peeves. Those little things that can light a fire beneath bedraggled commuters.

"I've gotten irritated with drivers, especially when I'm running late and want to get somewhere in a hurry," says Allison Richards, a student at the University of Arkansas. Among Richards' pet peeves, "People going below the speed limit and people who turn on their turn signal and never turn it off."

Commuters' top pet peeves, according to James, are putting on the turn signal long before they need to, cutting off someone then slowing down, tailgating, aggressive braking or acceleration and late merging.

"I discovered a whole new world while talking on my tape recorder. I was swearing a lot. ...I got angry and really hostile. I was yelling at people."

social psychologist, University of Hawaii

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All these behaviors do nothing but agitate drivers. But do not retaliate. One has to take a step back when these behaviors emerge on the highway. James says the first step to changing a driver's warlike ways on the road is to take a look in the mirror. It's not always the other guy's fault.

"Just like an alcoholic has to acknowledge that they have a problem, traffic emotions need to be acknowledged," says James. He also says a lot of people don't even realize how they're behaving on the roads. One way to find out is to record yourself on the next commute.

"I discovered a whole new world while talking on my tape recorder. I was swearing a lot, and I don't swear, I'm against it for religious reasons. I got angry and really hostile. I was yelling at people and behaving very negatively," James says.

Along with taking personal responsibility, James also proposes a policy of lifetime driver education to combat the enormous negative education that drivers have received from the first moment they were placed in a car. He says learning how to behave on the roads starts with examples set by mom and dad and from watching those edge-of-your-seat car chases in the movies and on T.V.

Ultimately the way to combat the highway mania that has taken hold of many drivers is just to be nice and courteous. And though the likes of Madonna and others have encouraged students to express themselves, James doesn't always think this is the best idea when on the road.

He says, "Most students believe it's better to express anger than to hold it in. That's a big mistake. When you express your anger you basically multiply it. Expressing it is like putting your anger in an amplifier. It's not that holding it in is what matters, but it's better to transform it and turn it into something positive."

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