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Road rage: media hype or serious road safety issue?

By: Barry J. Elliott

Date: Monday, 06. November 2006

Dr. Elliott is a Research & Communication Psychologist based in New South Wales, Australia and a member of the Australian Advisory Committee on Road Trauma (AACRT). The document published below was an invited paper presented to the Third National Conference on Injury Prevention & Control , May 9-12, 1999. Brisbane, Australia.

He can be reached at: PO Box 128 Salamander Bay NSW 2317 AUSTRALIA
Tel. 0249 820295 Fax 0249 820403 Mobile 0419738873

Abstract: The paper examines the nature and extent of the behaviours labeled "road rage" in the media. It argues that the terminology "road rage" should not be used and that major serious forms of "road rage" should be regarded as violence and assault. Aggressive behaviours labeled as "road rage" are often a result of bad driving habits on the part of at least one of the parties involved. Behaviours subsumed under the heading of "road rage" only rarely lead to injury. "Road violence," on the other hand, is a criminal matter and does not justify any diversion of road safety resources to the problem.

Note: Numbers in brackets refer to the numbered references at the bottom of the paper.


In 1977, VicRoads commissioned Elliott & Shanahan Research to prepare a Discussion paper on "road rage" (1) as a response to a barrage of media reports in Melbourne early in 1997. Between March 19 and January 1, 34 articles appeared in Age and another 6 in the Herald Sun. Another report on road rage (2) estimated that in Victoria, in 1997, there were 169 newspaper articles and 68 incidents, i.e. an average of 3 articles per week for a whole year.

What is road rage? A good question. It has no scientific definition. "Road rage" can be defined as a term coined by the media to describe a range of anti-social behaviours and/or acts of aggression which occur on the road. The range of behaviours includes minor instances such as gestures and use of the car horn, through to more serious violent acts such as assault or even murder.

Road rage not a road safety concern

In general, the consensus view from amongst road safety experts around the world is that the term "road rage" ought to be limited to intentional acts of violence and assault, and that the issue is a criminal matter, not a road safety concern.

The NRMA in their submission (3) to the Staysafe enquiry on Aggressive, Intimidating, Menacing and Abusive Driving (4) argued:

"The NRMA is not encouraging the use of the term 'road rage' to describe these incidents, particularly those of the less serious kind. Indeed, NRMA believes the use of the term should not be encouraged." (3)

"Many of the more minor incidents such as use of the car horn, come more from driver frustration than anything that comes close to a 'rage' and it would be unimaginable for most of these drivers to take this frustration further and engage in more violent or intimidatory acts. Linking these two very different behaviours under one umbrella only promotes the idea that the frustration that many drivers feel could easily become more violent."

Actions associated with road rage

A wide range of activities have become to be subsumed under the catch-all phrase of Road rage. Many of the actions are minor and related to low levels of frustration whereas some are major and relate more to assault or criminal action. Activities associated with road rage include:

Beeping the horn
Pursuing a vehicle
Flashing head lights
Forcing a car off the road
Forcing a car to pull over
Verbal abuse
Bumping into another car
Threatening another driver
Braking or slowing suddenly
Damaging another vehicle intentionally
Deliberate obstruction
Physically assaulting another driver
Cutting off or swerving in front

From a road safety perspective the community would be better served if we abandoned the term "road rage". It has become an umbrella term encapsulating criminal assault on the roads as well as mild levels of frustration. The latter may well be entirely justified on some occasions.

If we are to retain the term, it should refer to criminal actions of assault and be dealt with like any other assault whether it occurs in a home, a school, a workplace or in a pub.

How widespread is "road rage"?

If by "road rage" we mean all of the activities listed earlier, then it is endemic. There is ample evidence that actions defined as "road rage" occur every day on our road networks. All the surveys in the U,K,,(1, 5) USA, (1, 6,7,8) and Australia (1,2) indicate that a majority of motorists will experience one more of the above road behaviours over a normal year or two.

However, if we define "road rage" as assault then it is a rare phenomenon (1,2,9)

There is considerable evidence that "aggressive" driving is commonplace (7,8,10) and potentially could lead to road crashes. However, there is little or no evidence that road rage is resulting in widespread injury or death to motorists (1,9,11)

In their paper on Driver Aggression , the Road Safety Unit of The Automobile Association (9) points out that:

"On the assumption that six cases of death resulting from road rage conflicts occurred in 1996, it can be postulated that, as members of the U.K. population, whilst we typically face a 1 in 15,686 chance of being killed in a road accident, the probability of dying as a result of road rage is closer to one in 9.5 million." It appears that violence is on the increase in society in general, in the home, in the school, in the workplace, and on our roads. Whilst there may be very good reasons to reduce the level of violence ("road rage") on our roads, doing so is unlikely to have any noticeable effect on our road crash statistics. In essence, road rage is not a road safety priority issue. It is an issue for those dealing with violence in our community. Further for these latter people violence is far more widespread in other settings such as the workplace or schools.

What causes road rage?

The evidence from surveys of motorists in Australia, (1,2) and elsewhere (1); is that bad driving habits are by far the most frequently cited antecedent to road rage, either in its minor or major forms.

When major road rage incidents (i.e. assaults) occur in traffic, there is considerable evidence that victims are often not innocent of contributing to the total outcome. Indeed victims frequently precipitate the initial event which causes anger in the perpetrator, and retaliation by the victim leads to escalation of the conflict and eventually to assault.

The consensus amongst experts in this area is that road rage, even broadly defined, originates because of poor, careless or risky driving of which the most anger provoking behaviours are:

Sometimes, perhaps mostly, the victim unintentionally or unwittingly raises the ire of the offender with no malice intended. But the recipient of the poor driving (the offender) usually takes the incident as a personal affront which involves an emotional reaction - usually anger - or else the victim is angered by the behaviour of the offender and seeks revenge or retaliation.

The critical contributing factor in road rage in general is the behaviour of the victim which leads to aggression by the offender and so long as the victim retaliates the conflict increases. Accordingly, it is possible to reduce general road rage by improving driving standards, and creating an awareness of mood (12) anger (13,14) and driving, including what precipitates anger and how to reduce it.

Frustrations can occur as a result of overcrowding or being late (and congestion) or because of unclear road priorities where drivers disagree as to right of way. But it is much more likely that antisocial behaviour emerges because of the failure of the victim to adhere to the rules of the road or ignore signs (like keep to the left unless overtaking) or doing "stupid" things.

A report by New Zealand police psychologists (15) suggests there are four categories of factors, all operating in concert:

(i) Precipitating factors include:

It is likely offenders attribute negative intentions towards them by the action of victims and respond aggressively even if the intention is innocent.

(ii) Offender factors include:

(iii) Victim factors may or may not be deliberate or calculated to cause anger and include:

(iv) Environmental factors can compound the interactions above and include:

Who are the offenders and who are the victims?

In part the answer depends on our definition of road rage. If we define it as assault associated with motor vehicle use between people who do not know each other, then, we can clearly show on the basis of a number of studies that the perpetrators of road violence generally, on the whole, fall into fairly predictable categories. They tend to share the same characteristics as perpetrators of other forms of violence (1,2,11,15).

The evidence suggests that it is males under 30 years of age who are disproportionately likely to be both offenders and victims.

Victims and perpetrators are likely to be relatively inexperienced drivers. In one study the risk of being a victim peaked at age 18-34 years and the risk was 3 times greater for males (2).

Perpetrators are quite likely to be men, and especially younger males, who accept violence as a problem-solving technique and who have previously used violence (12,15). This finding can also be generalised to other forms of assault not just assault on the roads (11,15,16).

It is not true as some would suggest (16) that we behave differently when we get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle so that some primal urge arises to make an otherwise meek and mild person an aggressive "road rager"? The evidence suggests that road rage is no different to "bar rage" or "party rage" or "footpath rage" (11, 15).

Whilst surveys in U.K. (1,5,9,10), USA (6,7), and Australia (1,2) reveal that many motorists admit to and adopt aggressive behaviours, they frequently do so with little or no menacing intent but rather out of frustration at the inappropriate actions of others. Rarely does the aggressive behaviour lead any further.

Some motorists however are more prone than others to anger. The New Zealand study (15) found that for victims, but more especially aggressors, a high proportion had offended previously including disorderly behaviour, drink driving, disqualified driving, fighting, theft, burglary, assault with a weapon, assault, drug and firearm offences. However aggressive drivers and their victims came from all walks of life.

One study by the U.K. AA Foundation for Road Safety Research (12) explored the lifestyle factors associated with drivers previously identified as "safe" or "unsafe" (focusing on young males). One of the main factors influencing driver behaviour was mood and a greater number of unsafe drivers were affected by mood to a much larger extent than the safe drivers.

Equally importantly, the same study (12) found that unsafe drivers were more likely to be affected by the actions of other road users. Unsafe drivers were more likely to get wound up if they perceived "stupid" actions by others and thus their bad moods become even more exacerbated.

Is road rage on the rise?

If you believed the media reports in Victoria in 1997 you would have to say "yes". A recent study showed a strong correlation between exposure to "road rage" media reports and beliefs that "road rage" is on the increase.

A number of studies indicate that "road rage", defined as assault, has been around for a long time and appears not to be on the increase (1,4,9).

As part of our search we asked NISU to interrogate their database (persons presenting to A & E departments at 50 participating hospitals around Australia) for the years 1986 to 1994. They found just over 300 cases complying with the following search criteria:

Location: Public Road
Road User: Cyclist, Motorcycle, Car driver/passenger
Event: Aggression, fight, quarrel.

Whilst a number of these are not road rage related it is clear that the numbers are low and that it is not a recent phenomenon.

An examination was undertaken of the Victorian Police LEAP data base between March 1993 and March 1997 looking at all instances of assault that occurred in or around a private car.

A total of 518 incidents were located, of which 73 incidents arose out of an altercation between motorists in traffic. Most of the remainder were drinking driver or speeding or missiles thrown.

There were 73 recorded assaults in or around a private car arising out of an altercation between motorists in traffic.


Recorded Offences


22 (10 months)








3 (2.5 months)

It is instructive to compare the total reported assaults in Victoria of 20,000 per annum, i.e., 400 a week or 70 a day versus 70 "road rage" reported assaults over 4 years.

The RACWA study in Western Australia (11) revealed that violent road incidents reported to police in WA increased between 1991 and 1995, but remained relatively stable as a proportion of all street assaults by strangers during this period.


Recorded Offences


22 (10 months)








3 (2.5 months)

Violent road incidents by year WA


Number of Incidents

Incidents as a % of all street assaults by strangers



















According to an article in Age (21/3/97), "Workplace violence on the rise" the State Government-funded employment watchdog "Job Watch" found that the number of reports of violence rose from 61 in 1994 to 729 in 1996. Perhaps "Job Rage" might steal the limelight from "road rage" in the media? The numbers are infinitely larger. One review of work-related assault injuries (17) argues that "with few exceptions, the focus of media reports has been on events notable precisely because they are relatively rare." Road rage all over again!

To put road rage into another context or perspective, in NSW, between the three years 1990 and 1992 a total of 877 recorded incidents of aggravated and non-aggravated assault occurred on school premises. In only 406 were the victims and offenders both school students. The average annual increase was about 17%. A similar picture could no doubt be presented for domestic violence where data is especially unreliable. In essence, road rage, in the scheme of issues to be managed, ought to be extremely low priority.

What should be our response?

There is little evidence that road rage, defined as assault, has a major impact on injury in our road system. In one sense, violence and assault is not a significant road safety issue. It is however a serious criminal issue.

The big unknown which clearly is in need of much more serious research is the extent to which aggressive driving leads to crashes and to injury.

Dr. Leon James a psychologist from the University of Hawaii who refers to himself as "Dr Driving", argued in testimony to a U.S. House Sub-Committee:

"Everyone is Capable of Road Rage

"My research has confirmed that, to some degree, nearly every driver has feelings of rage and thought of retaliation. In the past year, the media have increased coverage of road rage incidents. "What's on the increase is the sheer amount of habitual road rage we see today. I define habitual road rage as a persistent state of hostility behind the wheel, demonstrated by acts of aggression on a continuum of violence, and justified by righteous indignation. Driving and habitual road rage have become virtually inseparable. "Born into Road Rage

Road rage is a habit acquired in childhood. Children are reared in a car culture that condones irate expressions as part of the normal wear and tear of driving. Once they enter a car, children notice that all of a sudden the rules have changed: It's OK to be mad, very upset, out of control, and use bad language that's ordinarily not allowed. By the time they get their driver's license, adolescents have assimilated years of road rage. The road rage habit can be unlearned, but it takes more than conventional Driver's Ed.

"Children Against Road Rage (CARR)

"I have proposed a national organization called Children Against Road Rage, because children need support in helping each other to avoid acquiring this insidious generational imprinting.

"Since aggressive driving is a culturally transmitted and sanctioned habit, we need to start with children to avoid breeding another generation of aggressive and violent drivers and pedestrians. I have evidence that children also have road rage against drivers and can behave very aggressively as pedestrians. Later they get a driver's license and drive aggressively."

As suggested by the WA study (11) and the most recent Victorian study (2), the relatively small number of violent incidents reported to police may represent a "tip of the iceberg" view or, alternatively, may be an indicator that the vast bulk of drivers show tolerance and self-control on most vehicle trips. It is clear that the types of driving behaviour that initially provoke incidents of road violence occur frequently and easily on the road. A large measure of tolerance for the mistakes of other drivers is a necessary ingredient for road safety.

In my opinion, the road safety fraternity should not be swayed to devote too much resources to combating road rage, whether at the serious (assault) level or minor levels like frustration and intolerance. However, in keeping with our successes to date we should focus on those most at risk as perpetrators and victims. They are primarily inexperienced male motorists. Accordingly, some attention should be given to this issue in pre-driver education and pre-licence education. Despite what Dr Leon James believes, we can try to attempt to influence tomorrow's drivers today without having to resort to a program commencing at pre-school.

If only we could change the tolerance levels of drivers and/or their driving abilities (i.e. remove all bad driving habits which annoy other road users) we could eliminate road rage. More likely we would limit the minor end of the road rage continuum. Belgium has specifically attacked the problem of road violence by the introduction of an educational program for aggressive drivers (17,18) and introduced a bill into parliament regarding aggressive drivers. About a year after the introduction in September 1996, 52 participants had been referred by the courses, of which 50 were men and 85% involved assault and battery.

Apart from recommending a focus on today's and tomorrow's novice drivers, my other recommendation is to avoid using the term "road rage" whenever we can and talk about road violence or assault and aggressive driving.

The popularity of the catchy label "road rage" gives violence credence it does not deserve. If one citizen attacks another it is assault - it is a criminal action.

The RACWA Report (11) expresses my concern most clearly when it says:

"Part of the damage that labels such as "road rage" may cause is that they blur the boundaries between aggression and violence and allow violence in the context of driving to be seen as spontaneous and justifiable aggression rather than as criminal behaviour. For this reason, the focus of this report is on driving related violence. Anger (rage) and aggression, will be treated as correlates or precursors of violence rather than as objects of primary interest.

"Impulsive aggression and violence on roadways are as old as the motor vehicle itself. Some media coverage may contribute to the problem by feeding ideas about the possibilities and the justifications for road rage."

It is most notable that Road Safety Authorities in Canada (19), the U.S., U.K., and Australia (e.g. VicRoads Keep your cool in the car: How to deal with aggressive driver behaviour ), wherever possible in their communication and advice to motorists, avoid the use of the term "road rage". The best book available never mentions the term. I refer to Dr. John Larsen's Steering Clear of Highway Madness: A Driver's Guide to Curbing Stress and Strain (13).

In contrast, there are others who happily use media susceptibility to the term "road rage" as a golden opportunity to market their services, e.g. Dr Leon James ( Dr Driving ) and Dr Arnold Nerenberg ( Dr. Road Rage ). Fortunately, the road safety fraternity presents a more rational perspective as evidenced in a quote from Connell & Joint in the U.K. (9):

"Part of the "cure" for road rage is that the public's perspective of the problem is restored to realistic proportions. Correspondingly, those areas of road safety that have been proven to be a significant factor in a much greater percentage of road accidents, fatigue for example, should be given greater weight.

"A more simple practical suggestion could be to develop a hand signal which comes to be recognised as a gesture for "It's my fault and I'm sorry".

Road rage myths

Let me conclude by leaving you with a summary of my findings on "road rage" in terms of myths. - Road rage is a new phenomenon


(1) Elliott & Shanahan Research (1997) Examination of the Nature and Extent of Road Rage: A Discussion Paper B. Elliott for VicRoads.

(2) Victorian Community Council Against Violence (VCCAV) (1999) Violence and/or Aggression Associated with Motor Vehicle Use.

(3) NRMA (1997) Aggressive, Intimidating, Menacing and Abusive Driving. Submission to NSW Parliamentary Staysafe Committee.

(4) Staysafe (1997) Aggressive, Intimidatory, Menacing and Abusive Driving

(5) Joint, Matthew, (1995) Road Rage, The AA, Group Public Policy Road Safety Unit. U.K., March.

(6) AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (1996) Report on Aggressive Driving, Washington.

(7) Mizell, Louis, (1997) Aggressive Driving, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

(8) NHTSA U.S. DOT (1998) National Survey of Speeding and Other Unsafe Driving Actions.

(9) Connell, D. & Joint, M. (1997) Driver Aggression. The AA Group Public Policy - Discussion paper March 16, AA Road Safety Unit.

(10) Howard, Andrew & Joint, Matthew (1994) Fatigue and Stress in Driving, The AA, Group Public Policy, U.K.

(11) Crime Research Centre University of WA (1997) Road Rage: Driving Related Violence in Western Australia, RACWA.

(12) Ingham, R. & Rolls, G., (1995) "Safe" and "Unsafe" -- a comparative study of younger male drivers, Dept. of Psychology, University of Southhampton.

(13) Larsen, John (1996) Steering Clear of Highway Madness, Book Partners, Wilsonville, Oregon

(14) Nerenberg, Arnold (1996) Overcoming Road Rage: The 10 Step Compassion Program.

(15) Wright, P. Gaulton, R. & Miller, I (1997) Road Rage: An Exploratory Study, New Zealand Police, Wellington.

(16) Kraus, J., Blander, B & McArthur, D (1995) Incidence, Risk Factors and Prevention Strategies for Work-Related Assault Injuries: A Review of What is Known, What Needs to be Known, and Countermeasures for Intervention, Annual Review of Public Health, 16, 355-379

(17) Wuyts, M. Kluppels, L. & Felix, B. (1993) "An educational programme for aggressive drivers".

(18) Felix, (199?) "An Educational Programme for Aggressive Drivers: An Alternative Penalty for Road rage in Belgium".

(19) Ontario Ministry of Transportation (1996) 1996 Aggressive Driving Campaign Information Kit: Aggressive Driving Stop You Dead. Road Safety Marketing Office, Ministry of Transportation, Ontario, Canada.



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All Comments (23)

Showing 1 - 23 comments


Any driver who remains in a lane that has a sign stating that the lane ends is a aggressive driver.All states should erect signs that read NO PASSING AFTER A CERTAIN POINT and then should be enforced.


some people really need to read this, i hate being in the car with some one while some one cuts us off. i get mad as well as the driver. and it doesnt help when the car next to us continues to push us away from our exit of the high way.


Just received a letter from a Sgt from the FLORIDA highway patrol and they are targeting the 'aggressive drivers who just have to exceed the posted speeds,tailgate,and change lanes frequently.Florida Troopers wrote over 1,000,000 citations in 2009.Thanks to these inconsiderate drivers many of the safe drivers are getting their insurance rates raised also because of the high risk of these jerks.


what factors can we use as law enforcers to reduce road rage?


i hav given assigment on road range im a beat worry cause i can't get the information that i need please help me you're help will be highly appreciated


"A classic Road Rager" will actively look anything,even the most minor incident on the road and construct in there own minds the worst possible outcome and exagerate it as much as possible and now they see themselves now as the victim.
They now feel personally violated,and now they feel they have a reason to deal out their own justice.
Having driven In the USA,and actually driven an American car on Australian roads,Olds Cutlass.
I would have to say i have never encounted some much vile aggression on any road system even compared to the USA as what ive seen and encounted here in Australia.
Australians are friendly people,but on the roads,Australians are probably the most uglyiest people in the world.
Then again Australia has probably the most outdated interstate freeway system in the western world


it is very good refrence page for road rage

Roger H Groot,

Keeping up with the flow is wise IF the flow is going the posted speeds.One habit I have observed in aggressive drivers that was not addressed are the drivers that deliberately stay in the lane that is closed until the last few hundred feet and then expect other drivers to "just let them in"Wait your turn like others, aggressive drivers!!!


The problem with our society today, is there definately is no teaching young children about respect for others and their belongings. Our world is in such chaos, very sad that adult drivers were once spoiled undisciplined children, and today they are on the roads running everyone over and thinking of nothing but themselves. Be kind to one another, take time to smell the roses.


road rage is a very dangerous action! it is one of the uprising issues in india!! can anybody help me out on researching on it!!


A hand gesture indicating 'It's my fault, I'm sorry'?! What could it possibly look like, and how could we ensure that aggressive drivers don't misinterpret it? Look at the morons who go for a punch-up just because they believe someone's looking at them - add a hand gesture and you're asking for trouble!


if someone does something wrong on the road, you have a choice regarding how you react. someone doing something stupid cannot cause road rage, its how you respond.


obviously road rage occurs because someone is doing something stupid and wrong. get out of the way.


its too helpful for me.thanks a tonne


you see speeding up at roads isnt any great thing.
the world isnt going to come to an end if you just spend atmost three to four minutes covering a road that you could have covered in one minute ,
risking your life and others to.
so stay safe and follow road rules.

davis india,

the details were very helpful for me.thank you.


I am a road rage victim who did nothing wrong. I am, however, now blind in one eye thanks to a very impatient young man who could not wait for two older drivers to pass on the opposite side of a narrow road. I was also a teacher who sees no sense in pursuing his career.


Road Rage, rage off the road.
It's pretty much the same thing, isn't
it? Same kinds of results?


"road rage" comes mostly from other drivers not doing what the hell they are supposed to, therefore pissing everyone else off and creating a problem. Most of it is people driving too slow in the left lane and not keeping up with the flow of traffic. Others are people who gawk at someone changing a tire on the side of the road and holding up the flow of traffic.


Is road rage apart of useing the cellerphones when you are driving the car?


we r humans & we r alive. it can happen to anyone but if we take contol , we can make healthy positive


im a student studying in mass & we r doing essays on road rage but i cant find nething for the background does ne1 have ne suggestions???

Bob T. Bob,

When all else fails, blame the victim. Your argument is that most road rage victims are asking for it because they dont drive fast enough, turn fast enough, or whatever else? What a load of crap. The fact that some drivers are driven to psychotic highs because the person in front of them is following the speed limit does not excuse their behavior in any way shape or form.

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