Aggressive Driving and Road Rage
Guns in vehicles make driving much more dangerous.
Posted March 21, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Driving a motor vehicle is the most dangerous behavior people engage in daily.
- Aggressive driving is the leading cause of motor vehicle accidents.
- Road rage is a violent criminal offense.
- The number of people killed or injured in road rage shootings has more than doubled from 2018 to 2022.
Driving a motor vehicle is the most dangerous behavior most people engage in daily. About 1.25 million people die each year in motor vehicle crashes. Worldwide, such crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. In the United States alone, about 40,000 people die each year on the road. And although there are several causes of traffic fatalities (e.g., texting, alcohol consumption, inclement weather), the leading cause of death, comprising most total fatalities, is aggressive driving.
Definitions of Aggressive Driving and Road Rage
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) differentiates “aggressive driving” from “road rage.”
The NHTSA definition of aggressive driving is “the operation of a motor vehicle in a manner which endangers or is likely to endanger persons or property.” Examples of aggressive driving include speeding, weaving in and out of traffic, changing lanes without signaling, tailgating, blocking another driver, chasing another driver, cutting in front of another driver and then slowing down, illegal passing, “brake checking” or using your brakes to “punish” other drivers, running a red light or stop sign, failing to yield, horn honking, flashing bright headlights, cursing or shouting angrily at another driver, getting out of the vehicle to confront another driver, and shaking a fist at another driver or making obscene gestures.
In common vernacular, we may use the term “road rage” to describe aggressive driving. However, the NHTSA defines road rage as "an assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by the operator or passenger(s) of one motor vehicle on the operator or passengers(s) of another motor vehicle or vehicles precipitated by an incident which occurred on a roadway." Examples of road rage include forcing other drivers off the road, bumping or ramming other vehicles, cyclists, or pedestrians, or shooting a gun from a vehicle at other drivers or pedestrians. While aggressive driving can make driving a stressful and even unsafe experience, road rage is a violent criminal offense.
Risk Factors for Aggressive Driving and Road Rage
There are several risk factors for aggressive driving and road rage: anger, sensation seeking, narcissism, being a young male driver, exposure to risk-glorifying media (e.g., car racing movies or video games), traffic congestion, anonymity (e.g., driving alone, having a vehicle with tinted windows, closed-top convertibles), and having a gun in the vehicle. This piece zeroes in on the last risk factor–having a gun in the vehicle.
The U.S. is an outlier regarding both gun ownership and gun-related deaths.
The U.S. is the only country on earth with more guns than people–120.5 guns per 100 people. The U.S. leads with a wide margin; Yemen ranks second highest in personal gun ownership, with 52.8 guns per 100 people. Moreover, U.S. gun ownership increased during the pandemic. An estimated 2.9% of U.S. adults (7.5 million) became new gun owners between January 1, 2019, and April 26th, 2021.
The U.S. is also an outlier when it comes to gun-related deaths. The U.S. has by far the highest rate of gun fatalities among high-income countries — about 20 times the average for other high-income countries.
How Guns and Anger Exacerbate Each Other
Research shows that “guns are disproportionately owned by people prone to angry, impulsive behavior and have a potentially dangerous habit of keeping their guns close at hand.” One survey found that “nearly 9 percent of Americans have outbursts of anger, break or smash things, or get into physical fights–and have access to a firearm. What’s more, 1.5 percent of people who have these anger issues carry their guns outside the home.” Keeping a gun in your motor vehicle counts as “outside the home.”
Road Rage on the Rise
In 2022 in the U.S., 141 people were killed, and 413 more were injured in road rage shootings.. “That means someone was fatally shot or injured in a road rage incident every 16 hours, on average.” The numbers from 2022 are more than twice as high compared to 2018 when 70 people were killed and 176 more were injured in road rage shootings in the U.S.
Studying Gun-Related Road Rage
Research has shown that the mere presence of a gun can increase aggressive behavior–called the “weapons effect.” Research also shows that drivers with guns in their cars are more likely to drive aggressively. A nationally representative sample of over 2,000 American drivers found that those who had a gun in the car were significantly more likely to make obscene gestures at other motorists (23 percent vs. 16 percent), aggressively follow another vehicle too closely (14 percent vs. 8 percent), or both (6.3 percent vs. 2.8 percent), even after controlling for many other factors related to aggressive driving (e.g., gender, age, census region, driving frequency).
Of course, one cannot draw causal inferences based on this survey because people who drive with and without guns might differ in many other ways (e.g., they might be more aggressive, to begin with). Thus, we used an experimental design to test whether the mere presence of a gun increases aggressive driving by producing a “weapons effect.” Because it is unethical to conduct experimental studies of aggressive driving using real vehicles on the road, we used a driving simulator with a real car. Previous research has shown that driving behavior in simulators closely mirrors driving behavior in actual vehicles.
By the flip of a coin, the researcher put a tennis racket or a handgun on the passenger seat. Participants were told that the object was part of a different experiment and that they should ignore it. Our results indicate this was easier said than done: participants were more aggressive drivers when there was a handgun on the passenger seat than when there was a tennis racket on the passenger seat. In a controlled setting to isolate certain variables, just the act of having a gun in the car led study participants to drive more aggressively.
Driving Can Be Frustrating
One of the earliest theories of aggression, proposed in 1939, argued that frustration increases aggression. Frustration can be defined simply as blocking goal-directed behavior. Although some people enjoy just going for a leisurely drive, when most people get in their car, they aim to arrive at a particular destination as quickly as possible. Any obstacle that blocks them from achieving that goal can be frustrating, which may, in turn, increase aggressive tendencies. Some frustrations can be mitigated, but driving involves the chance of running up against many common obstacles, such as slow drivers, traffic jams, and road construction. Many of these sources of frustration are unpredictable and out of our control.
In summary, leave any guns you own at home when you go for a drive. Think before provoking other drivers because they might have a gun in their vehicle. Try to create conditions that make driving less frustrating. Listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts to pass the time. You may also try leaving 10 minutes earlier or taking a different route if you find yourself or other drivers acting especially aggressively at certain intersections or times of the day. Small preparations can make driving a less frustrating experience, if not for everyone on the road, but at least for you.
Huge swaths of the United States require people to drive to most places they want to go, so these research-backed considerations can promote safety in everyday scenarios. Although guns do not directly cause violence, they dramatically increase the likelihood that any situation involving conflict will become lethal. This applies both on and off the road.
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Author Notes: I would like to thank Becca Bushman for her feedback on this post.