What is Road Rage?


It was during the early 1980s that the term “road rage” first surfaced in the media.  Because of its catchy name, it stuck, and was used to describe any incident resulting from aggressive driving.  However, a clear distinction should be made between road rage and aggressive driving.  Aggressive driving does not necessarily lead to road rage but it is often the precursor to or trigger of a road rage incident.

Road rage can be defined as “an incident in which an angry or impatient motorist or passenger intentionally injures or kills another motorist, passenger or pedestrian, or attempts or threatens to injure or kill another motorist, passenger or pedestrian.”  In this context, a road rage incident can be differentiated from other traffic incidents by its wilful and criminal nature.

South Africa has a culture of road aggression, and it is this culture, together with factors such our modern high pressure lifestyle, stress, and lack of consideration for fellow human beings which not only leads to road rage, but also contributes in no small measure to our high road fatality rate.

While aggressive driving habits seem to be prevalent across our society, incidents of road rage appear to occur with more regularity within the confines of large metropolitan environments where more time is spent in vehicles, rather than in smaller communities with fewer vehicles.  And this phenomenon is worldwide.

Even though there are no statutes in South Africa which specifically describe or provide penalties for road rage, one of the measures available for combating aggressive driving behaviour, and by implication road rage, is strict law enforcement of moving offences.

International best practice models on curbing road rage have yet to be fully developed, and the absence of these models is partly due to the limited research that has been undertaken on the subject, as well as the generally vague definitions of what constitutes road rage.

Causal Effects of Aggression

Most psychologists and behaviourists would cite aggression, alongside depression, as one of the most common mental disorders suffered by modern man.  In a society such as South Africa’s where most citizens have become desensitised to violence, aggressive behaviour, especially on our roads, is becoming more and more common.  In addition, time urgency is one of the most important factors in producing high levels of stress in our society.

The psychological and sociological condition known as road rage – which has probably been with us for a long time in one form or another – seems to have taken on a new and disconcerting prominence over the last 20 years.  According to a study by the American Automobile Association, the past decade saw more than 200 people killed and almost 13 000 injured as a result of road rage in the United States.

Road rage is essentially an expression of anger, and often has nothing to do with traffic or driving.  Regardless of what may have caused it, road rage is a release of anger that may have built up during the day and is eventually expressed when you get in the car for the drive home.  When you wave your fist at someone who cuts you off, you may be angry with your boss.  Or when another driver cuts you off as you try to change lanes, you may be the client who refused him on a big order.

A driver’s retaliation to perceived aggression often leads to incidents of road rage, and can have fatal consequences.  Any gesture may be interpreted as a threat or challenge, and should be avoided.  Keeping your emotions in check when entering the road environment seems to be the only way to avoid confrontation.

There is also the danger of retaliation due to unproductive aggression.  If the driver’s aggression is ignored or not acknowledged, this may lead to increased levels of aggression and agitation.  Acknowledging your error in an obviously passive manner would usually defuse a conflict situation.

There is also a chain reaction within the traffic environment which can result in road rage.  Relative speeds, conflicting traffic (trucks and cars) combined with an aggressive driving culture increases the potential and risk for conflict.  The peak moment for aggressive driving comes not during impenetrable gridlock but just before, when traffic density is high but cars are still moving briskly.

Drivers will differ in how they classify aggressive driving.  For example, motorists who travel in heavy urban traffic with many on and off ramps may be more tolerant of certain types of behaviour than drivers who are used to open roads with fewer side accesses.  However, every driver should respond appropriately to each individual vehicle that enters the immediate surroundings or vicinity of his or her car.

While the degree may differ from person to person, most people have a fairly strong sense of personal space and their ownership of that space, be it in a queue at the bank or on the road.  And an invasion of the space is often considered a personal affront.  Reacting to personal space invasion may, in many cases, lead to conflict and even confrontation.

The anonymity of the occupants of vehicles is another vital factor in aggressive drivers venting their anger on other road users.  The confidence of being able to behave aggressively without being recognised or held accountable, may be the single most important factor in a road rage incident.

Studies would suggest that there is no specific age or gender profile that typifies either the perpetrator or the victim of road rage.  It suggests that any road user, including a pedestrian, can be a victim.  Ego manifestations in men aged between 20 and 35 years are more likely to cause the driver to react to a challenge or threat.  But this does not necessarily mean that women road users are any less likely to participate in a violent confrontation, especially when both protagonists are women.  More and more cases are being documented where both perpetrators and victims are women.

Drugs and Alcohol

As if mere aggression is not enough, drivers who drive drunk or drugged add significantly to the problem of road rage. 

In almost all reported cases of serious road rage, alcohol has been a factor in influencing the behaviour of at least one of the parties involved.

A 1992 federal study revealed that 18 percent of fatally injured drivers have other drugs in their systems but that these drugs are most often combined with alcohol. Alcohol was found in 52 percent of 1,882 fatally injured drivers. Forty-three percent had blood alcohol concentrations of 0.10 percent or more. Only 6 percent had drugs without alcohol, and researchers found no evidence that drivers with drugs but no alcohol are more likely to be responsible for their crashes, compared with drug-free drivers. The researchers did find drugs related to crash responsibility when combined with alcohol or when two or more drugs were found.

A 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine focuses on drivers without alcohol in their systems who were stopped by police for reckless driving. Urine tests revealed 45 percent had marijuana and 25 percent had cocaine in their systems. Although the authors suggest these findings show drugs to be a bigger problem than alcohol, the data did not allow this conclusion. All studies that have appropriately addressed the issue have found alcohol to be by far the greater problem.

The extent of driver impairment attributable to drugs other than alcohol is uncertain because of the complex relationship between performance and drug concentrations. The effects of marijuana on driver behaviour and crash risk at the concentrations detected are not known because the psychological and behavioural effects of marijuana often occur after the blood concentrations of its principal psychoactive constituent have peaked and returned to very low levels.

Estimating the effect of stimulants is also complicated. It is possible that occasional use of such substances may in the short term enhance the performance of some tasks by increasing alertness, but some tractor-trailer drivers may use these drugs to continue on the road for prolonged periods. Use of stimulants for this purpose is probably frequent and sustained, not occasional, and thus is potentially dangerous.
Added to the South African scenario is the ease with which non-prescription drugs are obtained many of which are used together with other drugs in a cocktail.

The most important issue surrounding drugs, irrespective of type, is that the drug/s taken generally intensify the mood of the person and, when already aggressive, compounds the behaviour of that person.

Communication and Training

Some people would argue that road rage does not exist.

Technically this may be true, particularly when viewed from a legal perspective.  Present legislation does not describe road rage as an offence, and because of this no accurate data or statistics are being kept, or incidents monitored.  We are forced to rely on media reports of road rage, and obviously not all cases are reported.

If we were to rely solely on news stories in the media to establish the extent of road rage in South Africa, it would appear that we don’t have a problem.  However, research based on anecdotal evidence suggests that people perceive road rage to be on the increase, particularly in metropolitan areas.

Possible solutions to the problem could include extensively focused media, educational and law enforcement campaigns aimed specifically at changing the mind-set of drivers. A clearly defined education policy aimed at defensive and courteous driving would also help to reduce road rage, as would enforcement of traffic rules in the context of aggressive and/or dangerous driving.

Any media campaign would need to be continuous and reinforced by positive messaging on an ongoing basis.  Ideally it would form part of not only government initiatives, but private enterprise as well.

The re-introduction of a road user/driver education syllabus in the school system would go a long way to decreasing accidents on our roads.  Teaching tolerance, courtesy and patience to our young drivers would be of great value in reducing the incidence of aggressive driving, and by implication, road rage. If one takes it as given that the present generation of drivers would not be amenable to changing their driving habits, one would have to focus on the next generation of drivers.

A concerted effort on the part of parents and role models is paramount in setting an example of courtesy to other road users.  According to the Minister of Transport’s Road to Safety - 2001 to 2005 strategy, road safety education in our schools is vital for producing safety conscious road users.  The strategy also allows for “issue-related” communication campaigns.

In America, driver education courses in most states are being adapted to take into account growing concerns about aggressive driving and road rage. By including material on the phenomenon, its causes and how to defuse conflict situations, educators hope to help tomorrow's drivers stay calm. In Virginia in 1998, the state legislature made it mandatory for driver education classes to include a module on preventing aggressive driving. Students learn how aggressive driving starts – often when one driver wants to teach another a lesson. Students also learn how to manage their own anger and how to avoid confrontations.

Besides putting additional police on the road to show that somebody really is watching, what can be done to protect us from drivers who are aggressive?  Voluntary compliance with traffic laws and conditions must be the goal of any anti-aggressive driver campaign.

The individual driver needs to be aware of his or her own driving practices; especially during those times when stress levels are high.  Aggressive driving is behind a large number of accidents on our road network. Motorists pull in front of others, follow too closely, shout obscenities, make rude gestures, and are provocative and dangerous. They usually feel justified in the way they are driving or intimidating others, even if just for the moment.
Under some conditions, other drivers consciously or unconsciously join in as they try to protect their own driving space or edge in on somebody else's.  They also try to move ahead or laterally a little quicker than the other drivers.
It is my contention that traffic law enforcement has a significant role to play in curbing the incidence of aggressive driving.  While it is acknowledged that there are too few traffic officers within the law enforcement community, and with limited resources, cognisance should be taken of the public perception that traffic law enforcement is limited largely to manning speed traps or issuing parking tickets.  I believe that visible policing would have an immediate impact on traffic criminality, including aggressive and dangerous driving practices, provided that moving offences be strictly targeted.

The Challenge

Is the traffic law enforcement community responsible for safety on our roads?  I believe so.

Very often it is left to the law enforcers to implement road safety programmes within the communities they serve, and this serves to dilute the already limited manpower resources at their disposal.  Benefits, in the form of equipment and financing from government driven campaigns such as Arrive Alive, have in part been responsible for compelling law enforcement departments to shift their enforcement focus.  This should be revisited so that the issue of aggressive driving is addressed in all future campaigns.

Without increasing the manpower base of traffic law enforcers, limited success, if any, in curbing aggressive and dangerous driving in South Africa, can be predicted.  Even if the problem was approached single-mindedly, I believe law enforcement alone would not be able to have any significant impact on the problem.  Public perception needs to be modified so as to reassure the public that law enforcement is on top of the problem and that offenders are being apprehended.  Obviously the awareness needs to be carried through to the Department of Justice and a firm stand taken by them.

The challenge facing us as road users in this country is not only to recognise the impact aggression, stress and frustration have in our daily lives, but to react to these in a manner that will not impinge on the safety of fellow road users in the shared environment.

The development of a national code of ethics aimed at the road user, pedestrians and cyclists included, should be considered. It should be specifically designed to improve inter-road user relationships, and adopted as a parallel to an ongoing education campaign.  Recognising potential conflict situations and being able to resolve them without the other driver even being aware of it, is the optimum situation to strive for in the traffic environment.

Survey Results

The results of a road rage survey conducted by the AA in Johannesburg found that respondents were generally willing to share their experiences of aggressive driving practices, and many had quite vocal opinions on the subject of road rage.

The perception of road rage amongst respondents pointed more in the direction of aggressive road use rather than definitive road rage itself.  Nearly all had experienced aggressive driving – both as victims and perpetrators.  A total of 88 (n=88) respondents were surveyed and the main findings were as follows:

  • Most respondents rated themselves as either good or excellent drivers.  The average number of years they had been driving was 16 years.
  • Of these respondents, 63.6% had experienced anger being directed at them.  Considering that 96% drive on a daily basis, this suggests there is a high degree of intolerance among drivers in the Johannesburg metropolitan area.
  • 47.7% of respondents, both perpetrators and victims, were accompanied by children during reported episodes of verbal or physical abuse.  This behaviour would reinforce aggressive habit formation in the children.
  • Of the 88 respondents, 39% were male and 61% female.
  • The gender of those who perpetrated aggression towards the respondents was 55% male and 3% female. 40% of respondents said they were unsure of the gender of the perpetrator.  Some respondents reported aggression from both genders, and this has been factored into the sample results.
  • The most common age groups from which abuse/aggression was generated were the under-20s (30%) and those aged between 20 and 25 (17%).  23% of respondents were unsure of the perpetrator’s age group.
  • One respondent admitted to assaulting another driver (1.1%) while three reported having been assaulted (3.4%).


Despite the best intentions of government, its agencies and other organisations, aggressive driving and road rage remain a problem in our society.  Our aggressive road culture, combined with various other factors such as stress, aggression, depression and frustration continue to make venturing onto our road network a nightmare.

Irresponsible road usage, which we know adds immeasurably to our dismal road safety record, must be recognised and made a national priority, much as is the fight against HIV/AIDS.  The road user must in effect be coerced into complying with traffic laws and correct traffic etiquette must be vigorously promoted.

If one acknowledges the sample views of the survey as an indication of how motorists in a metropolitan area generally behave, then one is confronted with the stark picture of intrusive, aggressive and abusive road usage being perpetuated through our road system. Plainly stated, there is no need for violence in our society, let alone on our roads where the risk of injury or death is already disproportionate to most other activities.

Unless mechanisms are put in place to detect and, if necessary remove, aggressive road users from the road environment, I fear that South Africa will in future be faced with a situation where road rage incidents are all too common.

Comprehensive research needs to be undertaken on road aggression and its impact on road related injuries and fatalities. Best practice models need to be established as a framework within which we can facilitate a safer environment for all our road users.

Recognising our seemingly inherent aggression as a nation, and certainly the behaviour on our country’s roads would suggest this, urgent action needs to be taken.  Educating our children in proper road use, fostering a culture of road tolerance, and strengthening the perception among road users that law enforcers are able to identify and prosecute offenders with vigour, will impact positively on our road safety record.

Thank you.
Gary Ronald
Automobile Association of South Africa

Also View:

Defining Road Rage

Avoiding Aggressive Driving

Aggressive Driving

Road Rage: 10 Point Plan

Road Rage in South Africa

Road Rage Research

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