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Anger and Your Driving: How to Cope with Dangerous Emotions

Are you driving under the influence of impaired emotions?

Dateline: December 4, 2002. Orange County,California. A 29 year old man was shot to death, an apparent victim of road rage. According to newspaper accounts, he had a reputation for never backing down from a fight.

The man and his half brother were heading home from a plumbing job when the trouble began. Apparently, three men in another car zoomed in front of their car. These men started hurling profanities and flashing obscene gestures at the brothers, who returned the insults.

Things escalated until a gun was pulled. Rather than backing down, the man got out of his car and began walking toward the gunman. Two shots rang out, missing the man who then continued to walk toward the gunman until he was shot and killed.

While this tragic incidence is illustrative of an extreme case of aggressive driving, there are thousands of lesser cases in the United States yearly. According to he AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, incidents of aggressive driving have increased by 7% every year since 1990; however, few courts mandate anger management treatment for traffic offenders.


Research by Dr. Leon James at the University of Hawaii reveals five categories of aggressive driving. Which zone do you or a loved one fall in?

THE UNFRIENDLY ZONE 'Example: closing ranks to deny someone entering your lane because you're frustrated or upset.

HOSTILE ZONE 'Example: Tailgating to pressure another driver to go faster or get out of the way.

VIOLENT ZONE- Example: Making visible obscene gestures at another driver.

LESS MAYHEM ZONE- Example: Pursuing other cars in a chase because of provocation or insult.

MAJOR MAYHEM ZONE 'Example: Getting out of the car and beating or battering someone as a result of a road exchange.


According to Dr. James and his research team, drivers who consider themselves as almost perfect in excellence (with no room to improve) also confessed to significantly more aggressiveness than drivers who see themselves as still improving.

What this means is that despite their self-confessed aggressiveness, 2 out of 3 drivers still insist on seeing themselves as near perfect drivers with almost no room to improve. These drivers see 'the other guy' as the problem and thus do not look at their own aggressive driving behavior.


While there is no one standard definition for aggressive driving, many psychologists see anger as the root cause of the problem. Regardless of the provocation or the circumstances related to problems on the road, it is ultimately our emotional state, our stress levels and our thinking patterns that either cause us to drive aggressively or lead us to be the victims of others.

In short, many of get us get in trouble because we are driving under the influence of impaired emotions, especially anger.

Like drunk driving, aggressive driving is more than a simple action or carelessness; it is a behavioral choice that drivers make.

It is normal and natural to feel angry when certain events frustrate us on the road. But, how do you deal with these angry feelings to cope with the situation more effectively?


Research clearly shows that reducing stress and changing your self-talk can help you cope.

1.REDUCE YLUR STRESS. Driving is emotionally challenging because unexpected things happen constantly with which we must cope. We often drive under the pressure of time, or the pressure of congestion and delays which add to our general stress level.

Suggestions include listening to relaxing music or educational tapes on the road, leaving 15 minutes sooner, and getting up earlier so you are less rushed.

2. CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE with different self-talk. As a result of earlier life experiences, we all have 'automatic' thoughts that are generated by our mind when certain 'triggers' occur when driving. We can change our perspective and thus our angry feelings by consciously changing this 'self-talk.' For instance, if cut off in traffic think something like 'that 'jerk' may actually be a single mother who worked nine hours that day and is rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the laundry and spend a few precious moments with her children.'

CONCLUSIONS: If driving under the influence of impaired emotions, you can make a personal decision to cope with your angry feelings in a more effective way. This will help you avoid aggressive driving or becoming the victim of another aggressive driver. Reducing your stress level and learning to change your self-talk are effective and powerful tools to cope with the challenges of driving in our fast-paced society.

2005 'Dr. Tony Fiore All rights reserved. Dr. Tony Fiore ( is a So. California licensed psychologist, and anger management trainer. His company, The Anger Coach, provides anger and stress management programs, training and products to individuals, couples, and the workplace. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter "Taming The Anger Bee" at


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