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In the 1950 Walt Disney Productions cartoon “Motor Mania”, the character Goofy transforms from kind, gentle Mr. Walker to raging monster Mr. Wheeler the minute he gets behind the wheel of a car.

While we can laugh at Goofy, the real-life consequences of road rage and aggressive driving are often traumatic and sometimes tragic.

Most of us have at least one road rage story to tell. I remember accidentally cutting off a driver on a busy city street as I moved into the left turn lane.  I smiled and waved to him apologetically.

Unfortunately, this driver thought I had done something rude with my middle finger.  The light turned red, and I was stuck in between other cars with this driver behind me. As we waited for the light, this large angry man got out of his car and came towards me as I sat in my car.

This was a long light, and driving my car away was simply not possible because of the other cars. As this man stomped towards me in a menacing way, I made sure my door was locked and rolled down my window a little.

Then I called out to him, “I am so sorry! I really should have been more careful.” I smiled and waved my hand apologetically again so he could see what I was doing.

The man was so startled by my response that he stopped as if he had hit a brick wall.

“WHAT?” he growled disbelievingly.

Very warmly and sincerely, I repeated, “I said that I’m really sorry. I cut you off, and I can imagine that this was upsetting for you.”

“Oh well then,” the man muttered and stalked back to his car. Thankfully, the light turned green so we could both drive away. Whew!

During this whole interaction, I kept thinking about other options. If the man had tried to get me to come out of the car, I would not have gone.  If he had yelled at me, I would have kept apologizing until the light turned green. If I thought he was going to physically attack me, I would have started honking my horn to get the attention of the other drivers and called the police.

Road rage happens when a driver becomes out-of-control with fury because of the perception that another driver:

  • Got in her or his way
  • Did something unsafe
  • Stole a parking spot
  • Behaved rudely or disrespectfully.

This out-of-control fury can take the form of:

  • irrational accusations
  • threats
  • verbal abuse
  • unreasonable demands,
  • physical assaults including using the car or some other weapon

Here are five tips that can help to keep you safe from road rage:

1) Drive mindfully, respectfully, and defensively. Remember that you can feel one way and act another. Avoid being impatient, aggressive, or distracted when you are behind the wheel. This is safer for everyone in your car and everyone sharing the road with you.  Avoid tailgating, and allow plenty of room before turning in front of another car. Try to drive the speed of the road when it is safe to do so rather than going much slower than the other traffic. Don’t argue over a parking spot. When drivers prone to road rage feel crowded, trapped behind a slower car, deprived of a turn or space, or cut off, they are more likely to be triggered into becoming out-of-control.

2) Stay calm and respectful no matter how terrible someone else’s driving is.  Ignore rude behavior, and simply try to avoid anyone who is driving unsafely. Even if you feel frustrated, remember that it is not your job to educate this terrible driver and that showing your frustration in any way could provoke a confrontation.  Use this problem as an opportunity to practice getting centered in challenging circumstances. Try to be compassionate towards slower drivers or people who cut you off rather than mad at them.

3) Leave or apologize rather than getting into an argument. If someone is driving erratically, try to drive a different way or wait in a place where people are until this driver has gone by. If it’s possible to leave, try to drive away from any person who is trying to confront or threaten you. If you are in a parking lot, give up your parking spot and drive off or go to where more people are.

If you cannot leave right away because of an accident or traffic, stay in your car with the door locked if possible. Apologize even if you think the other driver is wrong. Consider it a self-defense lie. Trying to explain or justify will just make this person angrier. A sincere-sounding apology can help to calm things down. Perhaps we should have a big “I AM SORRY!” signs in our cars that we can hold up when need be.

4) Be prepared to change your plan. Nothing works all the time. If someone who has threatened you starts following you, do NOT drive to your home. Drive to the nearest police station or crowded public area.  If you have had an accident and you are afraid of the other person, drive to a public place if you can – or stay in your car and call 9-1-1.  Report any threats of violence to the nearest law enforcement agency, asking that your personal information not be made public because you are afraid that this person might come after you.

5) Get help and protect yourself.  If a confrontation is escalating towards violence and you cannot leave, try get help from the people nearby.  Honk your horn to get the attention of other drivers. Shout to bystanders to call the police. Call 9-1-1 as soon as you can and tell the angry driver, “The police are on their way to help us sort this out. ”  As a last resort, know how to use physical self-defense skills to protect yourself from someone who is trying to hurt you. Even after you get away, remember that this kind of experience can be traumatic. Get emotional support and, if you continue to feel anxious, seek professional help.

Road rage is an unfortunate reality in our car-driven society. When someone’s anger becomes this intense, it is not your fault. Your goal is to make the safest choices you can in the face of unexpected and unpleasant encounters.  Most of the time, though, you can avoid road rage confrontations by staying mindful, not reacting rudely to the rudeness of others, leaving, and apologizing.

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Published: January 30, 2013   |   Last Updated: June 2, 2016

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.