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Interview with Leon James

Wisconsin State Journal  Kerry G. Hill, National/Foreign Editor  February 1999

Why are American drivers so susceptible to aggressive driving and acts of road rage? What is road rage reasoning? How serious is this problem? What public institutions should be addressing this problem and how?

Road rage is "culture tantrum." In other words, we get furious when someone in public puts us in danger due to their carelessness or pushiness. Getting angry behind the wheel is a cultural norm in our society, as shown by these types of slogans that get triggered in our mind when we feel competitive as drivers:

--don't be a wimp
--don't let yourself be pushed around
--assert yourself
--don't let them get away with it
--how dare you treat me this way
--first come first served
--I've got my rights
--it's me against them
--I'm gonna get you now
--now they've gone too far
--too bad for you
--next time don't mess with me

These are fighting words in our mind placed there by our culture. We hear these words for years as children, expressed with great vehemence behind the wheel by our parents. We see this attitude on a daily basis on TV, in commercials that emphasize speed, power, and independence; in cartoons that portray road warriors on the offensive, and in movies that celebrate drivers behaving badly. By the time we start driving as an adolescent, we have had many years of learning opportunities for aggressive driving and hostile attitudes.

Driving stress or fear has become the number 1 problem people mention on their list of daily hassles. Surveys indicate that 82% of drivers get angry when someone "cuts them off." Similarly for being tailgated. About 70% of drivers get angry at "slow drivers." Violent incidents recorded by police have increased 51% over five years. The annual cost to society of 6.5 million crashes and 40,000 deaths is about 200 billion dollars, not counting pain and suffering. The 177 million drivers in the U.S. are driving more miles, are driving closer to each other, are attacking each other more and more violently, have mutual disrespect for each other, and generally disapprove of law enforcement, road signs, electronic surveillance, and traffic safety programs. As we enter our second century of car society, we have weakened driver's ed programs throughout the nation even though driving has become more complex than before and will continue to become more complex with cellular phones, GPS computers, voice email, and other gadgets that drivers have to operate and compete for their attention and alertness.

The fight against highway terrorism and hostility is taking place in several quarters in our society. A longstanding traditional approach has been public education and warnings in the media. A second approach has been law enforcement initiatives that target certain areas, trying to reduce illegal driving behaviors by extra surveillance measures. A third approach has been the spread of private traffic schools that are targeted to specific groups such as new drivers, older drivers, physically impaired drivers, and drivers who get into trouble with the court system. A fourth approach has been legislative, with the intent of passing new laws that make it easier for police to identify dangerous driving behaviors and get a court conviction. A fifth approach has been citizen activism such as CASAD--Citizens Against Speeding and Aggressive Driving.

In my view, all of these efforts are good and ought to be continued and strengthened. However, by themselves they are stop gap measures. They do not tackle the root of the problem, which is that road rage is culture tantrum! In other words, aggressive drivers are not sick or pathological people needing therapy; they are not criminal minds that need to be punished or incarcerated. Instead, they need training in emotional intelligence. That's all there is to it. Driver's ed, even if you have it, or defensive driving traffic schools, if you attend one, are insufficient. We need lifelong driver's ed: first, from K-12, then after getting the license, being enrolled in a Quality Driving Circle (QDC) for the entire five or six decades of our career as drivers.

Quality Driving Circles are small groups of drivers meeting regularly in their neighborhoods to encourage each other as drivers and to supervise each other in driving improvement exercises and activities. I have long pioneered in this area and have developed various exercises I call "inner power tools" which are mental training skills behind the wheel to improve one's emotional intelligence. This is defined as the skill of awareness and alertness--that is, understanding how you affect other drivers by your own actions, and caring about it.

What can drivers do to make themselves less likely to commit acts of vehicular aggression? Can you offer some tips for dealing with aggressive drivers?

DrDriving has developed a Threestep Program known for its initials AWM. "A" is for acknowledge. "W" is for witness yourself. "M" is for modify your habits one step at a time. In other words, drivers need to acknowledge that we are all aggressive as a cultural norm and that we are all contributing to the overall highway hostility culture. This first step is often the hardest because most drivers have a good reputation with themselves no matter how they drive. This self-blindness needs to be overcome. Once you confess your own aggressiveness, the second step is to witness yourself behind the wheel. I have found after years of study and research that "verbalizing" leads to greater awareness and self-objectivity. You can practice this "self-witnessing technique" next time you're behind the wheel. Just speak your thoughts out loud, whatever they may be, as if you are giving a blow-by-blow description of what's going on around you and inside of you.

The more you verbalize behind the wheel, the more you become aware of what ticks you off, how you react to others, what character you have, what personality as a driver, how you treat passengers, what errors you commit, and so on. Then, the third step is to try to modify your habits one at a time. For example, witness yourself driving in convoys: are you automatically following too close? Try doubling the distance. Are you automatically closing the gap in front of you when you see someone wanting to come in? Don't; make more room instead. In general you have to act in exactly the opposite fashion that you feel: fell impatient? act patient. Fell hostile? act friendly. Feel like speeding? Stay in the right lane and talk to yourself to calm down. Feel like retaliating someone's rudeness? Think of the potential disastrous consequences--find an excuse for their behavior so you can feel better about it. Lost your cool and are flaring at the bits? Start making funny animal noises till you calm down.

Where can people go (e.g., web sites, organizations, addresses, books) for more information on dealing with aggressive driving?

DrDriving's Web site connects to dozens of other sites and organizations for drivers and traffic safety. The short address that's easy to remember is:

You'll find details on the Threestep Program and learning inner power tools; how to set up Quality Driving Circles; how to test yourself for road rage and aggressiveness; how to map out your driving personality makeover; and what drivers around the world complain about in electronic discussion groups. When you visit, you can also leave a letter or read others' letters to DrDriving and his solutions.

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