Road rage Featured

10:02am EDT July 22, 2002

A recent study by the American Automobile Association showed that 45 million people engage in some form of aggressive driving. How many of them work for you?

With the ever-growing risk of legal liability for the actions of your employees, can you afford to have reckless drivers weaving and speeding through traffic in a vehicle that has the name of your business on it?

"Our 21st century technology has outpaced our biological evolution," says John Garrison, director of stress management programs at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. "We are equipped as a caveman, with a fight or flight response, and there's no place for that at the end of the century. Our body is a poor fit for high-stress driving. Someone will be driving on a major highway at rush hour and have to be at work in 20 minutes. There will be a fairly smooth flow of traffic, then they'll suddenly come across an accident that has traffic blocked."

The stress builds as the person perceives the situation as threatening; it's keeping them from doing something they feel is important.

"Their physiology has no outlet," says Garrison. "An age-old response can be stimulated just by how they perceive the situation. When they experience a stress response with no outlet, they are tempted to do something less than rationale."

Everyone has seen or read about some of the more irrational responses-excessive speeds, weaving through traffic, cutting off other drivers and even physical attacks.

"People need to learn they can't change events; you can't get out of the traffic jam," notes Garrison. "They can change their perception. They need to practice a relaxation technique to reduce their fight-or-flight response."

Simply taking a deep breath, holding it, then exhaling slowly will help.

"You can't be relaxed and angry at the same time," says Garrison. "Your body is reacting to high-stress events in a way that prepares to kill somebody, and that's where road rage comes in. A deep sigh is a very powerful technique because most people when they are angry are taking short breaths and their muscles are braced for combat."

Studies have shown that the levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream of people driving in heavy traffic can reach similar levels to those who have just come out of combat. To the body, there is little difference.

"People see the body of their auto as an extension of their own body," says Garrison. "When someone cuts them off, the person is performing a combat maneuver. The deeper part of you interprets that as an attack, and your response is to retaliate."

By providing drivers some stress management techniques, a business can not only reduce its potential for accidents and lawsuits, but can also reduce the amount of medical plan utilization and turnover.

"There are some simple things you can do: Make sure the driver is comfortable in the vehicle, have music or a book on tape to listen to, practice a relaxation strategy and think realistically," notes Garrison. "Is driving somewhere worth dying for? What's the worse thing that can possibly happen if you're late? Don't personalize someone cutting you off."

After all, the person is exhibiting irrational behavior. If you saw someone in a store acting irrationally, you would probably keep a wary eye on them and avoid them if possible. Do the same thing on the highway. Don't challenge them, give them space and let them go.

The AAA report on aggressive driving shows the number of reported incidents rising more than 8 percent per year, so stress management behind the wheel will most likely grow in importance. Many of the more violent incidents were the result of trivial matters: arguments over parking spaces, cutting another motorist off or refusing to allow passing, obscene gestures, tailgating, failure to use a turn signal and slow driving.

AAA recommends the following:

  • Never underestimate the other driver's capacity for mayhem.

  • Do not make obscene gestures.

  • Use your horn sparingly.

  • Don't switch lanes without signaling.

  • Avoid blocking the right-hand turn lane.

  • Do not allow your door to hit the car parked next to you.

  • Do not tailgate

  • Don't let the car phone distract you.

  • Assume other drivers' mistakes are not personal.

  • Be polite and courteous, even if the other driver isn't.

  • Avoid all conflict if possible. If another driver challenges you, take a deep breath and get out of the way.

Many otherwise peaceful motorists become enraged road warriors when they get behind the wheel. If you're one of them, be advised that: (a) cars are not bulletproof; (b) a truly aggressive driver will follow you home; (c) you've got to get out of the car eventually.

If you are tempted to participate in a driving duel, ask yourself: "Is it worth being paralyzed or killed? Is it worth a jail sentence?" An impulsive action could ruin the rest of your life.