Just last week, a Wisconsin woman teaching her teenage son to drive was shot to death in a road rage incident after a minor car crash. In late August, an Atlanta man allegedly ran over another man he thought was throwing golf balls at his car. In July, a road-raging Alabama woman tried to shoot another vehicle but shot her husband instead. And that same month in Houston, two young children and their parents were injured in an apparent road rage incident when a driver fired a gun at their car, igniting the fireworks inside.
An unusually hot-blooded summer? No, not really. Road rage has been on the rise for years.
Fatal car crashes linked to aggressive driving climbed nearly 500% in 10 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from 80 in 2006 to 467 in 2015.
The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that tracks gun violence, found incidents of drivers brandished a gun in a threatening manner or fired a gun at another driver or passenger rose from 247 in 2014 to 620 in 2016. In the first six months of 2017, they tracked 325 incidents -- nearly two a day. The Trace is nonpartisan and started with funding from the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
According to 2016 statistics from the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety, nearly 80% of polled drivers expressed serious aggression, anger or road rage while driving at least once in a year. It also reported:
- 51% of respondents tailgate on purpose. That's 104 million American drivers who ride another car's bumper.
- 47% of those polled yell at other drivers. That's 95 million hollering hot heads spewing defamatory drivel.
- 45% of drivers honk in anger or annoyance, which means 91 million of us lay on our horns. Yeah, we've all heard that.
- 33% or 67 million drivers gesture obscenely. Yup, we've all certainly seen that (and probably our kids too).
If you thought those were startling behaviors, consider these:
- 49 million of us -- that's 24% -- try to block another vehicle from changing lanes.
- Half of those people, or 12% of all drivers, actually cut off another driver on purpose.
- 8 million drivers, or 4% of us, will get out of our cars to confront the other driver.
- And, finally, some 6 million of us (3%) are guilty of ramming another car on purpose.
Why are we so ill-tempered?
One study analyzed the characteristics of angry drivers and found they were more likely to react impulsively, get angry more often and express their feelings more aggressively. For example, they were more likely to get into a car angry, possibly from work or home stress, and tended to speed, tailgate, switch lanes quickly and have more accidents. They were also more judgmental of other driver's behaviors.
Andy Pilgrim of the Traffic Safety Education Foundation estimates "there is a small percent of people who are very close to the edge of losing control at any second."
"There are a hundred life reasons why this may be the case," Pilgrim adds, including "loss of job, relationship issues, money problems, general anger management issues, drug use causing poor decision making, etc."
Much has to do with the busy pace of today's lifestyle, said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for the AAA.
Drivers are feeling "the pressures of balancing work and family, not enough hours in the day to do all the things that you have to do," Nelson said. "So, folks are sacrificing sleep in order to get things done, which only exacerbates the likelihood that somebody will experience a road rage incident."
Sleep deprivation has become an American epidemic. Statistics show one in three Americans don't get enough shut-eye, and when it comes to driving, the results can be disastrous.
"If you miss just one or two hours of your normal sleep within a 24 hour period, your performance as a driver has the same level of risk as driving with a blood alcohol concentration above 0.08, the legal limit, " Nelson said. AAA research shows that can double your risk for a crash.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety used an unusual technique to estimate drowsiness and its role in accidents. By looking at video of drivers' faces in the three minutes leading up to a crash, they were able to link the percentage of time a person's eyes are closed to their level of drowsiness.
"The research found that the percentage of crashes involving drowsiness is nearly eight times higher than federal estimates indicate," said Tamera Johnson, public relations manager for the Foundation.
"I cannot emphasize enough the importance of sleep for traffic safety generally," Nelson said. "And to help prevent aggressive driving specifically."
Preventing road rage
The best way to survive road rage is to keep it from happening in the first place. That starts with you, experts say.
Reduce your own stress
In addition to getting adequate sleep, taking measures to control your own stress is key to preventing both the driving mistakes that might trigger road rage and your own response to someone else's mistakes.
For those of us who are consistently pressed for time in the morning, Nelson suggests investing the time in preparing the night before.
"That means picking out your clothes, getting meals and lunches ready," Nelson said. "It's going to save you time, reduce your level of stress, and counter the need to speed to get to work quickly."
Be a courteous driver
While driving, people will often behave in ways they would never consider in person. For example, many people assume they have the right-of-way while driving and cut people off, Nelson said, a mistake that can quickly lead to anger issues between drivers. It's best, he said, to always assume that you do not have the right-of-way.
"Don't attempt to take the right of way from another driver. Instead, let it be given to you by other drivers," he said. "We would never just cut somebody off while in line at a grocery store because now you have to face them. So, don't do it in a car."
Don't drive distracted even when you're in the bumper-to-bumper traffic that characterizes today's modern commute.
"It's tempting to eat, put on makeup or interact with your phone when you're not moving," Nelson said. "While those kinds of behaviors in and of themselves may not cause serious accidents, they do cause fender benders and now everyone's angry and late to work."
Never drive at night behind another vehicle with your high-beam headlights on, and be sure to always return to low-beam headlights as soon as you detect an oncoming vehicle.
"Assume the behaviors of others are not intentional," said Nelson. "They may have been distracted and that's why they cut you off. Assume the best in people and don't take it so personally."
Even if the driving mistake put you and your family in a moment of danger, it's best to just let it go, Pilgrim said.
"The argument that 'you almost killed my family' is ridiculous in this case because there was no crash," he said. "Never escalate, especially in your own mind. All you are doing if you react with your children in the vehicle is training them in road rage; not great parenting."
Are you the road rager? Then it's time to take stock of your actions and look for some help in overcoming anger issues. Studies have shown that cognitive behavior retraining -- such as reframing negative events -- combined with relaxation tools hold promise for reducing road rage among high-anger drivers.
Responding to an aggressive driver
There will still be times when you've done all you can to prevent an incident but the other person isn't buying it. If you find yourself the victim of a road rage incident, here are some key steps to take:
Avoid any escalation of the conflict. Don't gesture or yell, and avoid eye contact with both the aggressive driver and any passengers.
"Things will escalate if someone reacts," Pilgrim warned. "It may not be fair, but let it go. If you made a mistake and cut someone off, make sure the other person sees that you are trying to apologize. Give them a polite wave ... make it perfectly obvious you do not want to meet them or talk to them. Just concentrate on driving as safely as you can."
The woman in Wisconsin who was shot to death while teaching her son to drive made that terrible mistake. According to the police complaint, Tracey Smith got out of the car to check the damage and began yelling at the man which she believed caused the accident. He then yelled a threat to kill her, pointed a gun at her and fired.
If the aggressive driver is following you, try to keep driving at normal speed, and don't stop unless you have to, Pilgrim said.
"Just pay attention to your driving and then figure out if you need to call the authorities," he said, adding that it's best if you already have your cell phone pre-set for an emergency call so you can respond quickly if needed.
"If you have to stop for traffic then don't pull right behind the vehicle in front of you, try to leave yourself an out in front, at all times," Pilgrim adds.
Don't get out of your car or lower the window either. If you continue to feel threatened, drive to a busy public place such as a hospital or fire station and blow your horn.
"You want to take yourself out of that situation," Nelson said. "Move over to the slow lane, slow down, separate yourself from the aggressive driver and find a safe place with lots of people around. Call 911 and drive to a police station."