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Blame your lizard brain for road rage

Wednesday, January 31, 2018by  Jon Osterberg

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Man with road rage gestures behind the wheekYou're driving down the road when a car cuts you off, then slows enough to box you in. Your blood boils. You honk and tailgate the driver, despite knowing it's dangerous.

You've just succumbed to road rage. And it happened in an instant, without forethought.

Have you ever pondered the psychology behind road rage?  A former police officer wrote about it in a widely circulated Psychology Today article. It's worth our attention because road rage continues to afflict – even kill – motorists. From a 2016 AAA report:

  • 78% of U.S. drivers have engaged in at least one aggressive driving behavior in the past year – "purposefully tailgating," "yelling at another driver," or "honking their horn to show annoyance or anger."

  • One in four said they had "purposely tried to block another driver from changing lanes."

  • 12% said they had "cut off another vehicle on purpose."

PEMCO's own Northwest poll revealed in 2016 that 63% of drivers committed aggressive acts each month, with drivers under age 35 saying they did it nearly three times per month.

So, what's the thinking that spawns road rage? Some examples noted by the Psychology Today author:

  • a driver's ability to be anonymously aggressive

  • "lizard-brain thinking," where the primal, reactive amygdala area of the brain takes over

  • the desire to control and defend what drivers perceive as "their territory" on the road or highway.

PEMCO has seen its share of road-rage claims, and years ago our CEO, Stan McNaughton, bemoaned it in PEMCO radio ads.

Woman driving with road rage hangs out window and gestures"Most of us are very polite with people face to face," Stan said in the ads. "But why do we lose that courtesy at the curb when we climb into our cars? Our roads are filled with drivers competing for space, racing to claim their position or refusing to let another driver merge. I'm sad to see some of us take on a new personality and behave rudely when we climb into our cars.

"If we just took those values and manners taught to us by our parents and brought them into our cars, we'd reduce accidents substantially," he said.

Once lizard-brain road rage fades, drivers often regret their behavior that snowballed in the moment.

If you're the target of an angry driver, experts say the best response is to not engage. No finger-flipping, tailgating, swerving, not even eye contact. Just calmly drive on your way, under control.

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