New Colorado State Study on Road Rage Suggests High-Anger Drivers Become Angrier Behind the Wheel, but Can Benefit from Therapy

Something as simple as deep breaths, a soothing mental image or thinking about things differently can calm angry drivers, but they have to see their anger as a problem and want help with it, according to a new study by Colorado State University researchers.

Jerry Deffenbacher, a Colorado State psychology professor, said the study, forthcoming in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, identified characteristics of high-anger drivers and compared two kinds of short-term therapy that were both effective.

"We can say that high-anger drivers are three to four times more angry than a low-anger person, and they engage in two-and-a-half times more risky behaviors," he said.

Deffenbacher identified the relative anger of student volunteers who drove by administering a short test of driving anger. He and associates then compared those at the top quarter of driving anger, or high-anger drivers, with low-anger drivers who scored in the bottom quarter.

Participants reported more frequent and intense anger when driving, engaged in more aggressive and risky behavior, and reported more accidents in general, minor accidents and close calls than did low-anger drivers.

In fact, assuming 300 driving days a year, Deffenbacher estimated that a low-anger driver generally experiences about 210 episodes of anger, 140 aggressive behaviors (tailgating, shouting, gesturing, etc.) and 492 acts identified as risky behaviors (crashing a red light or stop sign, driving without a seat belt, etc.). Meanwhile, a high-anger driver experiences some 678 episodes of anger and commits 604 aggressive behaviors and 1,164 risky behaviors.

With a few exceptions, there are minimal differences between men and women.

"When we’re comparing high-anger male and female drivers, the one item that stands out is that men are more likely to want to get out of their cars and yell and scream and perhaps want to hit someone. Other than that, high-anger men and women look pretty much alike," Deffenbacher said.

To those high-anger drivers who were interested in trying to calm down behind the wheel, Deffenbacher offered two types of counseling one hour a week for eight weeks.

"One style is teaching you to relax and then, after encouraging participants to think of driving behavior that really made them angry, apply the relaxation techniques again," he said. "As sessions progressed, we directed the therapist to intervene less and instead call for recollections of progressively more anger-inducing events. This system taught drivers to lower their own levels of anger."

A second style added cognitive therapy to relaxation procedures, teaching ways to think about another driver’s actions to make them less provocative. Both forms of therapy worked equally well, Deffenbacher said. The catch, he noted, is that a driver has to recognize and want to deal with the problem.

"What we have here is high-anger people who said they had a problem," Deffenbacher said. "Now, what about those people who don’t think they have a problem?

"In another study, we found people just as angry who did not think they had a problem and found that they were at least as prone to risky behavior. Psychologically, they looked pretty much like the high-anger folks, perhaps a little less angry but up there on aggression, risky behavior and accident-related behavior, but they didn’t see counseling as relevant. That is, they are at risk, but don’t see it."

He suggests a possible answer in public awareness campaigns that help "hotheads" see themselves as being at great risk and putting others at risk, too.

"The base rate of serious accidents, even among high-anger drivers, is relatively low, but the more a driver indulges in angry behavior, the more the odds increase that the results of road rage will catch up with you over time," Deffenbacher said.