led by Dr. Lyle Becourtney, licensed psychologist: (917) 968-0965

History of Road Rage

History of Road Rage
While the term “road rage” is a relatively new one, the phenomenon of road rage is actually decades old. With media coverage, road rage incidents have become better known, but for years, law enforcement has been dealing with this problem.

Driving is the most dangerous activity for the majority of people in an industrialized society. Driving accidents have killed millions of people since 1900 and the number of deaths and injuries increase in proportion to the number of drivers and the total number of miles driven in an area or region.

Deaths and serious accidents were reduced over the years due to better roads, safer vehicles, more advanced medical technologies, upgraded law enforcement, and economic incentives for people who are safe drivers. However, despite these factors, when viewed over a long term perspective, traffic deaths have still remained relatively constant.

Driving can be a dangerous activity. For instance, in the 1950s, the annual fatality rate due to driving accidents was around 50,000 while in the 1990s it was around 40,000. Yes, there was a reduction, but the curve has quickly leveled off and remains above 40,000 deaths and over 5 million injuries annually in the U.S.

Scientists and safety officials attribute this resistance to accident reduction to the attitude and behavior of drivers who tend to respond to safety improvements by driving more dangerously. It has been noted that a critical aspect of driving is the driver’s competence in balancing risk with safety.  

The risk in driving is largely under the control of the driver. The driver decides at every moment what risks to take and what to inhibit or avoid. Risk taking is a tendency that varies greatly between drivers as well as for the same driver at different times. Thus, if a road is made safer by straightening it, or by moving objects that interfere with visibility, drivers will compensate for the greater safety by driving faster on it—the so-called "risk homeostasis" phenomenon.  

The result is the maintenance of a constant subjective feeling of risk that is the normal habitual threshold for a particular driver. In such a driving environment, the rate of deaths or injuries tends to remain high, despite the safety improvements that are introduced.

The institutional or societal response to this stalemate between safety and risk tolerance has been to increase enforcement activities by monitoring, ticketing, and jailing hundreds of thousands of drivers.  

Nevertheless, the number of deaths and injuries has remained nearly steady, year after year. Besides law enforcement, there has been an increase in litigation due to aggressive driving disputes between drivers, as well as more psychotherapy and counseling services, including anger management clinics and workshops, and community initiatives.

Still, these remain scattered attempts, and have been unable to alter basic driving patterns. Sociocultural methods need to be used to change the driving norms of an entire generation.

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