Road Rage: Can Driving Phobias Be a Contributing Cause?
Road rage is so common nowadays that it’s become a cliché. Nothing is scarier than being out on the highway and having another driver cut you off, then make an obscene gesture to emphasize the point. This kind of behavior is dangerous, and can have fatal consequences. What is it about driving that can make otherwise rational and sedate people act like maniacs? New scientific research suggests that it could be a driving phobia, manifested as anger and aggression.
High-Anger Drivers and Driving Phobia
We hear stories about road rage every week from friends or the media, but how bad is it, really? In the early 1990s, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety did a review of over 10,000 police reports and found that road rage was an important factor in 218 deaths and 12,610 injuries. Perhaps the most sobering finding of all was that this disturbing trend is getting worse – for every year of this six-year survey, road rage incidents increased by seven percent.
More people on the roads means more crowded highways. Is this the main cause of aggressive driving? To further explore this question, a study done at Colorado State University by Jerry Deffenbacher first characterized students into low- and high-anger drivers based on questionnaires and actual driving simulations. Then he looked for psychological differences between these two types of drivers.
High-anger drivers typically are quicker to become angry when behind the wheel, and will engage in aggressive behaviors more often than the other group. They have more accidents, supporting the study done by the AAA. But these drivers aren’t necessarily reacting against something that happened on the road. According to subjects’ self reports, a person with a high-anger profile is typically angry or anxious even before they get inside the car. The incident on the road is the excuse for road rage but not the primary cause.
What makes these drivers angry? Other studies have pointed to actions on the road that trigger road rage – people forgetting to signal, tailgating, or driving in a way that the high-anger driver perceives as reckless. But all drivers encounter this type of behavior, and most of us don’t respond with aggressive and dangerous recourse. The main predictor of road rage doesn’t seem to be what happens on the road, but rather the mental state of the driver as they enter the car. These new findings lead some researchers to believe that the root cause of road rage is driving phobia, a fear-based condition that often results in higher levels of stress and aggression.
Amygdala on the Loose: How Fear Becomes Phobia
Driving anxiety is considered a phobia, which is defined as an irrational response to a normally harmless stimulus. Few people enjoy snakes, but someone with a snake phobia would react to the sight of a snake with strong, almost paralyzing symptoms. Phobics will go to great lengths to avoid the feared object, or trigger, and even the thought of that trigger can bring on the symptoms. It is estimated that about 10 million American adults currently have at least one classifiable phobia.
Phobias are part of a larger syndrome known as anxiety disorders. Panic disorders and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are also in this group. In fact, it’s fairly common for people with driving phobia to have another anxiety disorder as well. The common ground here is that some people are highly sensitive to certain situations or objects, and react with thoughts and emotions that are counterproductive.
Researchers have done numerous studies to reproduce the same fearful behavior in lab rats. A neutral stimulus, such as a tone, is paired with an electric shock, and with enough pairings the rat reacts with the same physical symptoms and avoidance behavior when the neutral tone is presented without the shock. This type of learned fear or phobia is known as “fear conditioning.” With enough trials, almost any stimulus can become a trigger for fear or phobia.
To understand how phobias work, we need to understand a little bit about how the brain processes potentially dangerous information. Most of the complex thinking is done in a part of the brain called the frontal lobe. But all sensory information is sent simultaneously to another, more primitive brain structure called the amygdala. The amygdala quickly scans information, performing a sort of “danger check.” If a new stimulus is seen as threatening, the amygdala’s job is to warn of the present danger, even before the frontal lobe has time to make a rational decision.
How does the amygdala react when the alarm goes off? With the symptoms known as fight or flight – aggression or avoidance. For example, a person with a driving phobia will go to great lengths to avoid getting behind the wheel. Once on the road, the driver reacts with a higher heart rate and pulse, classic signs of anxiety. A recent study done in Queensland, Australia showed that drivers in an anxious state also have decreased attention and performance and drive more aggressively.
Aggressive driving, high anxiety, decreased performance – these are all familiar symptoms of road rage. New brain scan studies show that when people with spider phobia are presented with a picture of a spider, the amygdala “lights up,” or is activated, compared with images taken of normal subjects. It would be interesting to see if the same results are present in the brain scan of a road rage warrior.
How Virtual Reality Therapy Can Treat Driving Phobia
Phobias are learned, but research has also shown that they can be unlearned (or treated) as well. A recent study by Wald and Taylor examined the use of VRET (virtual reality exposure therapy) as a treatment for people with driving phobia. Over a number of weeks, participants navigated different simulated driving courses using a computer equipped with driving controls and a virtual 3-D headset. Most people in this study reported decreased anxiety while driving as well as decreased avoidance of driving, and these results held up both during and after the treatments.
Why these improvements, in so short a time? Using a simulated, non-threatening environment, people with driving phobia are able to experience most of the imagery of the road, minus the negative emotions and fear. Now that anxiety is removed from the driving experience, the driving phobia becomes unlearned or extinguished.
This kind of research has broad implications, because lately there are other techniques that allow a person to experience driving in a non-stressful setting without actually being on the road. Treatments such as VRET, mindfulness, and desensitization therapy are becoming effective ways of calming the angry amygdala, thereby putting an end to driving phobia.