The Psychological Link Between Overcrowding and Road Rage

What a 1960’s experiment on mice can teach us about the causes of road rage incidents

A stray bullet

According to a 2014 survey on road rage conducted by AutoVantage, a roadside assistance company, Boston is one of the five least courteous cities when it comes to motorists’ behavior and attitudes. The driver of a Columbia Gas of Massachusetts company pickup truck, whose windshield was hit by a stray bullet in what appears to be a road rage incident last month, would likely agree with that assessment.

As the victim and other witnesses report, on Wednesday, March 29, around 8:30 pm, two cars – a dark-colored SUV and a light-colored 4-door sedan – were seen “operating erratically” and “jockeying for position” near the intersection of Turnpike Street and Foundry Street. Shortly before, the Columbia Gas driver was heading west down Route 106. According to Easton Deputy Police Chief Keith Boone, when the driver turned onto Turnpike Street, “a stray bullet struck his windshield”. Fortunately, apart from an understandable shock, the unnamed victim was left unscathed by the incident. Although no other victims or damage were reported, the situation is being investigated as a  potential road rage incident.

The event described above is by no means an isolated occurrence; rather, it is yet another manifestation of a common problem that affects most American big cities. In fact, in a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 2014, 8 out of 10 US drivers reported engaging in an angry or aggressive behavior. For example, 25 percent of drivers admitted to trying to purposefully impede other drivers from changing lanes; 12 percent acknowledged they had cut off another driver. Why, then, are such behaviors so prevailing? What are the causes of road rage? How can drivers assure their safety and avoid situations that may give rise to road rage?

A legal viewpoint

In order to better understand the problem, a comprehensive definition of what constitutes behavior described as road rage seems to be necessary.  It is interesting to note that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, makes a distinction between aggressive driving and road rage. The former happens when “an individual commits a combination of moving traffic offenses so as to endanger other persons or property”; the latter is defined as “an assault with a motor vehicle or other dangerous weapon by the operator or passenger(s) of another motor vehicle or an assault precipitated by an incident that occurred on a roadway.” The distinction is crucial and consequential – while aggressive driving is merely a traffic offense, road rage is a criminal offense. Nevertheless, only about 20 states have enacted laws referring specifically to aggressive driving.

Psychological explanations

The psychological perspective on road rage reveals that this type of behavior can be a response to various complex emotional triggers and mechanisms. For example, one study explains that aggressive behavior on the road may be a reaction to a perceived invasion of one’s personal space. In this interpretation, a car is treated as an extension of such personal territory and those who proximally threaten it are viewed as aggressors. Thus, a threat will be met with a defensive act that aims at affirming personal space. The same study argues that one’s car is also viewed as a symbolic extension of one’s ego and a powerful “statement of self”. This would explain why situations of conflict on the road escalate so quickly and tend to provoke strong emotions.

Moreover, psychologists often explore the link between overcrowding and incidents of road rage. In this scenario, aggressive behavior on the roads would be a manifestation of a much bigger problem, that is, crowding is correlated with aggression and violence. Those who advocate this explanation often cite a study on overcrowding originally conducted on mice in the 1950s and 1960s by an American ethologist and behavioral researcher John B. Calhoun. In his experiments, Calhoun created an environment for mice in which all essential resources were abundant – except for space. When the population reached a critical point, mice started exhibiting a wide range of pathologies that included violent and aggressive behavior, even though needs of all of the individual specimens were still being satisfied. Some researchers think that the same problem is currently being manifested in big cities all over the world. Although conclusive evidence is still lacking, it has been noted that “very slow or stationary traffic situations” – that is to say, situations in which overcrowding is most perceived – “present typical conditions in which driver aggression can be allowed to reach detrimental levels”.

The remedies

Whatever the causes are, road rage seems to be a common phenomenon that every driver needs to be prepared for. What are, then, the safest way to act when confronted with a furious driver? Here are some useful tips:

  • avoid escalating the conflict – for example, if being tailgated, change lanes
  • do not retaliate – do not return gestures, or shout back insults
  • do not make eye contact as this may be interpreted as confrontational and aggravate the situation
  • if confrontation seems to be inevitable, pull off the road or take the nearest exit

The drivers who themselves are prone to overreact when faced with stressful situations on the road should find ways to reduce their anxiety levels and control their emotions.