Carissa Williams used a stun gun to shoot a pregnant woman in the thigh. Why? It was a classic case of road rage: Williams, 24, yelled at Corinne Leclair-Holler, 29, to get off the phone while driving. Eight miles later, when the two cars reached a New Hampshire interstate exit ramp, an armed Williams opened Leclair-Holler's door and fired. Earlier this month, she was sentenced to up to seven years in prison for assault, endangering the welfare of a child, and criminal trespass.
It's one anecdote, but it's reflective of countless others. Road rage is strikingly common: In a survey of more than 500 people, 90 percent reported that they had either witnessed road rage or were a victim of it during the past year. And in the '90s, it led to 218 murders and 12,000 injuries over the course of seven years. Firearms and the vehicles themselves were the most commonly used weapons, and the reasons angry drivers used to explain their actions tended to be trivial—arguments over parking spaces, irritation at horn-blowing, and annoyance at slow drivers.
Road rage is at the extreme end of the aggressive-driving spectrum. Any type of deliberate, unsafe behavior counts—tailgating, changing lanes erratically, illegally passing other drivers, and even gesturing and shouting. That can quickly spiral downward into physically assaulting another driver and other types of violence. "Road rage is driving under the influence of impaired emotions," says Leon James, who teaches traffic psychology at the University of Hawaii. "It's triggered by mental assumptions we're making about other drivers—like assuming someone is doing something on purpose to bother you, because they're inconsiderate."
Anyone is susceptible to road rage—men, women, the young and the old, the angry or seemingly laid-back. For some, it happens almost every time they drive; for others, it's more infrequent. It's dangerous for obvious reasons, like car crashes and drivers who whip out weapons. But even if you make it home safely, road rage is just flat-out unhealthy, experts say. When you fly into that fit of rage, your body produces stress hormones that increase heart rate and blood pressure. If you're raging every day, you're likely suffering from chronic stress, which can dampen your immune system's ability to function, and contribute to lower-back pain, tension headaches, a rapid heartbeat, menstrual problems, and even infertility.
If you're prone to road rage, try these strategies to temper your emotions:
• Take care of yourself. In general, get enough sleep—if you're tired, you're more likely to snap. And carry some snacks in your car, since hunger also ups irritability.
• Leave earlier. Running late? Every driver is going to seem like he's moving at a snail's pace. Typical congestion will have you seeing red. Try hopping in the car and leaving earlier than you need to, so hold-ups don't feel quite so dire.
• Take a moment to calm down. "Sometimes, your temper may flare because another driver did something dangerous to put you and your passengers at risk," says Bruce Hamilton, coordinator of research and education with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "In those cases, it's natural to feel angry and shaken." He suggests pulling over to collect your thoughts, and if necessary, calling the police to report the offending motorist.
• Take your mind off it. "Start thinking positive and funny things," James says. "Start singing—anything to defuse your negative emotions and the feeling that you're a wimp if you don't retaliate against a bad driver."
• Adopt a team outlook. When we're on the road, we're all teammates who need to coordinate to reach our destinations safely. "If someone wants to cut into your lane, instead of being angry, think, 'Ok, you can do it, because everybody has to get through,'" James says. "Traffic is social. It's a community."
• Remember: There are no winners. "Driving isn't a contest you can win," Hamilton says. "But you have plenty to lose if you let your emotions take the wheel and cause a wreck."
If it's the other way around, and someone is gesturing at you, laying on the horn, or verbally taunting you, stay calm and take control of the situation. If your actions may have agitated another driver, try to defuse it with a polite wave. Otherwise, Hamilton says, avoid eye contact to keep things from feeling too personal. If you're being tailgated, change lanes. If someone wants to pass, slow down and let him—and if that guy flying by sticks up his middle finger, don't return the gesture. If someone is showing signs of rage, stay behind them at all costs. If necessary, pull off the road or take a different exit to create some distance.
"De-escalation is key," Hamilton says. "Even if you're 'in the right' in a confrontation, the stakes are too high to justify engagement. You or anyone else nearby could be killed in an instant if the situation isn't brought under control quickly. Whatever you do, don't get out of the car, and don't try to settle things 'man to man.'"