Britain is a country of angry drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Nationally, we hold the dubious distinction of ‘road rage capital of the world’ and, although London ranks just 13th out of all UK cities, a huge 41 per cent of Londoners has experienced a road rage event, either as a victim or perpetrator.
Just where does all this anger come from? According to psychotherapist Hilda Burke, road rage is not really about whatever’s happened on the road, but is invariably triggered by some other issue that hasn’t been properly dealt with earlier in the day or week. “Ultimately there will be something bubbling under the surface – some issue you’ve not been airing in your relationship, or a grievance at work, or some feeling of being slighted,” she explains. “What happens is you’re successfully suppressing the issue, but then someone cuts you off, or does something rude on the road, and you just erupt.”
This was very much the case for reformed road-rager Emma.
“I used to be a banshee in the car. It was all tied in with everything else that was going on in my life – I was not in a good place mentally anyway, and when it was at its worst I was very stressed all the time. I would be up late at night, so I would always be running late for work in the morning, and then I’d get stuck in traffic – and God help the person in front of me; it was all their fault!”
She adds: “If somebody dared to do something I judged as stupid, I would launch into a tirade of abuse at them. I was always so horribly on edge, and I took everything that happened incredibly personally. I was a terrible driver! I was just so wired constantly that anything could trigger me off, but being in a car particularly.”
“I think because you’re in this tiny box there’s nowhere for the anger to go. But also there’s that feeling that you can shout and scream as much as you like and nobody can hear you when you’re in your car. You feel a bit immune to it all.”
For Hilda, this feeling of immunity provides a key insight into why road rage is such a common way for us Brits to vent our frustration. “I think what makes it ‘safe’ to express violence or extreme emotion in a car, to a stranger, is the feeling that you’ve got nothing to lose. Often people fear expressing their feelings in personal relationships – it could be they’ve learnt in childhood that it’s better to keep your feelings suppressed – so people who have a problem expressing their emotions feel that it’s easier to do so from inside their vehicle, we feel protected, detached and less vulnerable than in everyday life and that the consequences from revealing our angry side are far less likely.
In more extreme cases, says the British Association of Anger Management’s Mike Fisher, the sense that your life has been put in danger on the road can seem to justify completely disproportionate aggression, “so the situation gets exaggerated, and the aggression versus the situation itself is so extreme,” he explains. “That’s when you have people getting out of their cars with baseball bats and smashing someone else’s car, or punching someone in the face. It’s not just something we see in drivers of motor vehicles; we also see it in motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists.”
West Londoner Annabelle was a victim of road rage at the hands of a cyclist three years ago, while driving in Putney, and says it still affects her when she gets behind the wheel. “I was coming out of a petrol station, and I think the cyclist thought he was quick enough to keep going but he wasn’t, so he slightly hit the bonnet of my car,” she explains. “He started screaming every disgusting word you can imagine. I didn’t do anything because
I was quite scared, but he just got more and more angry, and then put his fist through the passenger window, where my partner was sitting.
We had this awkward situation where we all had to wait together for the police, and my partner and this cyclist were screaming at each other the whole time, while it felt like the whole of Putney was watching.”
She adds: “It was certainly a scary experience, and it has really affected me and left me even more wary of driving in the capital. Although she’s since left London, Annabelle says she visits the capital regularly for work but always leaves the car at home. “I drove loads when I was living there and I hated it. Every time you get in your car in a city, it’s a stressful experience, and a bit of glass gives people this strange confidence because they can shout at you and then drive off quickly. The cyclist who put his fist through my window wasn’t somebody you would expect to do that – he was a skinny, Lycra-clad, posh Putney boy. I think the city vibe on the roads can make you really hard and aggressive as a person.”
L-SL asked Mike Fisher from the British Association of Anger Management for five-simple tips for staying calm behind the wheel.
Look at the big picture and allow yourself plenty of time – “Driving in London is difficult anyway; you’ve got to remind yourself that it’s going to be slow, challenging, arduous and extremely difficult. Give yourself enough time to get wherever you’re going, taking into consideration all sorts of unexpected events that might delay your journey,” says Mike.
- Listen to relaxing music – “If you recognise that you have a tendency toward frustration don’t listen to heavy rock or aggressive music; have music that’s going to keep you calm and also help you to de-stress.”
- Keep your vehicle in good condition – “People laugh at me when I tell them this, but actually I think it’s a really important component,” Mike says. “Make sure your car’s not going to break down, and that the interior is comfortable, clean, tidy and smells nice. You want to be in a vehicle that you actually enjoy driving.”
- Don’t take it personally – “Driving on the streets of London is dog-eat-dog. Don’t take it personally when somebody cuts you off, is driving slowly, or steals your parking place.”
- Deal with your anger at its source, rather than letting it accumulate – “As Aristotle observed more than 2,000 years ago, it’s about being angry at the right time, at the right person, for the right reason, at the right degree,” Mike explains. “As a culture of imploders, what we [Brits] do is suck it in until we can no longer contain it, and then we burst. Instead, when you feel your anger coming up, that’s the point you’ve got to express it. I’m not suggesting that you should be aggressive; it’s about being assertive.”