Road Rage: When Stress Hits the Highway

In Truckee, California, 25-year-old Timothy Brooks flew into a rage after another car cut him off on the highway. He followed the offending car to a bagel shop where the driver, 47-year-old Robert Ash, had stopped to eat. After yelling at the older man, Brooks attacked him, stabbing him to death with a knife. Brooks was convicted of second-degree murder.

In Little Falls, New Jersey, May Lee and her two children were run off the road by Milton Aganon, 25, who’d been tailgating her at 80 miles an hour and gesticulating at Lee to get out of the way. When Aganon finally passed Lee, he cut her off so suddenly that she was forced to swerve to the shoulder lane, flipped over a median and landed in a ditch. Both of Lee’s legs were broken, and the children suffered minor injuries. Aganon served nine months in jail.

These may sound like unusually violent or rare incidents. However, studies from the AAA research arm show that at least 1,700 people are injured or killed in road rage incidents each year.

So who are these lunatics on the road? Are they normal people in their daily lives who convert to maniacs behind the wheel? Or is there a certain type of person who is more prone to go ballistic on the beltway?

Psychiatrists have an actual name for the kind of seething rage that goes beyond the speeding, tailgating, honking, or passing on the right that many aggressive drivers regularly do when they drive. People who experience road rage so violent that it leads to an assault against another driver, passenger, or car may be suffering from “intermittent explosive disorder” (IED), according to a report in the Archives of General Psychiatry. This disorder could affect up to 7 percent of the population, or about 16 million Americans over their lifetimes, according to the authors. This disease — the psychiatric disorder most closely linked to impulsive violence — usually begins in childhood or adolescence and includes repeated aggressive outbursts involving property destruction and/or injury over many years.

That’s not great news for those of us on the road. Although no agency keeps official statistics on road rage events across the country, reports of so-called “aggressive driving” incidents have increased by about 30 percent since 2010, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The “reasons” given for violent disputes that ended in injury or death include:

  • “He cut me off …”
  • “She wouldn’t let me pass …”
  • “It was an argument over a parking space …”
  • “Nobody gives me the finger …”

“The so-called ‘reasons’ for disputes are actually triggers,” an AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report observes. “While the event that sparks the incident may be trivial, in every case there exists some reservoir of anger, hostility, or frustration.”

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