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What You Should Know About Road Rage and Aggressive Driving

Updated on April 23, 2008

Aggressive driving pertains to display of aggression by a driver. The term is often misinterpreted as similar to ‘road rage'. There is a marked difference between the two terms though. Although both stem from aggressive behaviors, the New York State Police have stated that there is an important difference.

The New York State Police defines Aggressive Driver as one person who:

Operates a motor vehicle in a selfish, bold or pushy manner, without regard for the rights or safety of the other users of the streets and highways.

Road Rage, on the other hand, as defined by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety and used in a study published in 1997 was taken to be:

an incident in which an angry or impatient motorist or passenger injures or kills another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian, or attempts or threatens to injure or kill another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian.

New York State Police have stated that "Road Rage", such as using the vehicle as a weapon or physically assaulting a driver or their vehicle, is NOT aggressive driving. Such acts comprise criminal offenses, and are penalized under the law as grave offenses or violent crimes. The term road rage should refer specifically to the criminal acts of assault.

Is Aggressive Driving Increasing?

The American Automobile Association, Foundation for Traffic Safety wanted to address the problem on shortage of available information with regards to aggressive driving trends or the scope of the problems of aggressive driving and road rage by commissioning a study on aggressive driving in the United States in 1996.

The result of the study was compiled and published in March 1997 together with two studies by the Group Public Policy Road Safety Unit of the Automobile Association in Britain.

Aggressive Driving Study -

(AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety)

The study was conducted in the United States focused on incidents of violence that were due to traffic altercations and the use of vehicles as weapons. The cases included were some of the most violent incidents which were reported in a police crime report or newspaper article. These comprise only a small portion of the incidents which would fall under aggressive driving.

From January 1, 1990 through September 1, 1996, 10,037 extremely violent incidents occurred:

Year Extreme Aggressive Driving Incidents

1990 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,129

1991 . . . . . . .. . . . .. . . . . 1,297

1992 . . . . . .. . . . . . . .. . . . 1,478

1993 . . . .. . . . . .. . . . . . 1,555

1994 . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . 1,669

1995 . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . 1,708

1996* . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,201

Total . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . 10,037

* Figures for 1996 were for an eight month period only. The projected total for the year is almost 1,800.

Profile of Aggressive Driver

There is not one specific profile for the aggressive driver. The majority though falls under the ages 18 to 26 years of age, not-so educated males with criminal histories such as violence and drug or alcohol problems. Most of them had recently undergone emotional or professional problems.

A startling number though revealed that hundreds of these people branded as aggressive drivers were actually successful men and women with no crime, violence or substance abuse records. Drivers between the ages of 26 and 50 were also noticeable. And 86 reported incidents where the drivers aged 50 to 75 years old. Study reveals that a seemingly minor traffic problem leads to an aggressive driving incident which is due to some stressful events in an individual's life which ends in extreme violence.

Gender Differences in Driving

Men and women reveal a number of driving behaviors that influence their attitudes, safety and insurance risk. Many factors are behind these differences such as neurochemical structures and hormonal processes brought about by evolution and universal socialization practices. Each plays a role in explaining why men and women drivers differ when it comes to records in accidents and insurance claims. Studies conducted over a period of time in different countries revealed that differences between male and female drivers in terms of crash rates are noticeable in a wide range of countries, including the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa, with males being significantly more at risk than females.

Similar differences are apparent among male and female pedestrians and accidents taking place at home and work. The differences do not reveal the levels of competence and driving skill of men and women. The differences in aggressive driving history actually are due to the most basic differences in specific areas of behavior and psychological functioning.

Extensive studies conducted point to the undeniable fact that men, and young men in particular, tend to be more aggressive than women (in all known cultures) and they express aggression in a direct, rather than indirect, manner. This behavior has a very significant effect on driving. It encourages the competitive and hostile behavior which leads to higher probabilities of accidents such as crashing.

Levels of deviant or rule-breaking behavior are seen to be markedly higher in men than in women. This behavior is apparent in a young man's tendency to have greater frequency of violation of traffic regulations, such as speed limits, traffic controls, drink-driving, etc.

More often than not men, on average, manifest higher levels of sensation-seeking and risk-taking attitudes in a number of settings. This ingrained sex difference has a hormonal and neurochemical basis. It is not brought about simply by socialization or experience.

The differences between male and female when it comes to their penchant for taking risks while driving can be explained, at least in part, using the evolutionary psychology perspective. This view suggest that much of neural circuitry of the human brain evolved to come up to the requirements set by societies and cultures. We evolved from a culture that is very different from our own as that of a hunter gatherer - that existed for over 99% of our evolution as a species. Despite our advancement to the 21st century, our human brains are basically still ‘stone-age' brains. The brains of men are women are different in certain crucial aspects.

Stone-age man may not have cars or know how to drive but his hunting, aggressive and risk-taking past - qualities that enabled him to survive and mate has been handed down to our present males. This is his way of passing his genes to future generations and which manifests in certain instances in today's male such as in the way a man drives his car.

A report published by the Department of Gender and Women's Health at the World Health Organization has demanded that these fundamental differences between men and women drivers and the need to develop policies that are relevant to each gender should be recognized.

This increased level of risk among young men is not just limited to driving. The WHO (1999) and (2002) report shows that men are also more likely to die from falls, drowning, poisoning and a range of other events. Only in the case of deaths in fires are women seemed to show a slightly higher figure than men. The report also shows that injury and fatality rates are higher among men for every type of road injury victim in several developing countries. In Kampala, Uganda, for instance, the ratio for males and females is between 2 and 7 to 1 among injured vehicle drivers, passengers and pedestrians. In the United States male drivers have more possibility of getting injured or killed in road accidents than females. Figures showed that male accounts for 71% of all driver fatalities. This figure is consistent since 1975.


To a certain degree these differences are explained by the greater exposure of males to potential accidents because there are more men who are licensed drivers and have greater annual mileages than women. But this factor however do not account for the fact that levels of male driver injuries and fatalities and those resulting from being a pedestrian, passenger, cyclist etc. are almost similar. This goes to show that the risk-proneness of men while driving is directly reflective of their risk in a number of other settings not just in driving. The number of driver deaths fell substantially between 1977 and 1995 but the relative male/female ratios remained substantially the same throughout the period. (See also Mayhew et al (2003).

Differences between men end women in terms of their driving behavior and accident rates have long been revealed in the UK, mainland Europe, the United States, Australia and in many other countries. In all studies and analyses, without exception, men showed a higher rate of crashes than women. This gender difference is particularly noticeable for those 25 years below. Somehow this is also evident among older drivers. The difference between the sexes in terms of the number of fatalities resulting from road crashes is similarly marked.

The scale of this difference between the sexes is very substantial. Chipman et al (1992), for instance, show that men have double the number of crashes (per 1,000 drivers) than women. Waller et al (2001) also note that in addition to having a higher number of crashes, men encounter their first crash earlier in their driving career and are more likely than women to be held to blame for the incident. Norris et al (2000) and others believes this greater level of crash-proneness is due to higher driving speeds among men and less regard for traffic laws.

Waylen and McKenna (2002) observe that the pattern of road accident involvement also differs between the sexes. Men are more likely than women to be involved in crashes that occur on bends, in the dark or those that involve overtaking. Women, on the other hand, have a greater frequency of crashes occurring at junctions than men. This supports the suggestion by Storie (1977) that men are more at risk from accidents involving high speed while women are at more likely to be involved in accidents resulting from perceptual judgment errors.

Studies revealed that in the age category 20-29 years the fatality rate for males (including drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, etc.) was 535% greater than that of females. The difference between the sexes declined sharply with age - the difference between men and women in their sixties and older being insignificant. This is consistent with the findings of Maycock et al (1991) that the greatest difference between males and females in this context is in the 16-20 and 21-24 age groups.

The WHO report and other research documents put forward various reasons to explain the observed sex differences in the risk of injury or death while driving. These, overall, fall into three distinct groups, indicating differential levels of:

  • aggression
  • speeding and violation of traffic laws
  • sensation-seeking and risk-taking

Triggers of Road Rage

Part of the aggressive driving problem may be the roads themselves. The roads are more crowded these days. The number of vehicle miles driven each year increases by 35% in the past ten years, and more vehicles are plying on the roads. Yet the number of miles of roadway has increased by only 1%. Also, people are busier. Time is an important factor and the road congestion causes frustration for those pressed for time.

According to the media, there are a number of instances manifesting aggressive driving or "road rage" on the public highways. There is mounting concern among motorists about this problem. The American Automobile Association (AAA), Potomac Club commissioned a survey in early 1996 to determine what issues drivers were most concerned about in the Washington, D.C. area. About 40% of drivers revealed that they considered an aggressive driver as a major threat to traffic safety.

Road rage may have little effect on the total road fatality statistics but, as the Western Australian study reveals, it may form a significant part of violence between strangers and is therefore an occurrence that should not be ignored. The authors of the Western Australian study identified five ‘triggers' that may trigger a road rage incident:

  • Coming across slow drivers;
  • cutting in or overtaking by other drivers;
  • stereotyped sex roles (males believe females are incompetent drivers);
  • accidents between vehicles; and
  • competing for parking spaces.

Minor incidents may explode to violence due partly to the stress of driving. Road rage incidents tend to happen often in heavily congested traffic areas and are often committed by people that spend long hours on the road. Moreover, the environment inside the car ‘cocoon' decreases the ability of both victims and aggressors to neutralize potentially violent situations by pacifying gestures and language. Without the conciliatory acts, each act of driving could be seen by the angry driver as aggressive and insulting consequently causing an aggressive response.

Knowing what triggers the road rage behavior may enable us to understand the psychology behind road rage. The act of cutting in or overtaking may anger some people who think their ‘status' is being challenged. A Western Australian study reveals that:

violence is then seen as a necessary and justified response to what is perceived to be an injustice, usually some form of degradation or threat to the value of the self. Violence is thus a defense of honor and a means of restoring the self.

The use of violence to respond to a perceived injustice or to defend one's well-being is probably as old as the human species itself; to some extent such reactions are an evolutionary defense mechanism intended to enhance the chance of survival.

Other Findings

  • Crowded roadways and pent-up frustration lead to aggressive driving
  • How you feel before you can even start your vehicle will determine the level of stress while driving.
  • Humans are territorial by nature. When this territory is invaded, people instinctively try to protect themselves. Some drivers bring this tendency too far by asserting dominance in the road and chasing another driver. This behavior could lead to fatal consequences.

An earlier study conducted in 1992 by the Automobile Association (AA) in Britain examined lifestyle factors of young men who had previously been identified as "safe" or "unsafe" drivers. The study revealed that mood influenced the "unsafe" driver to a greater extent than it did the "safe" driver. It also revealed that being in a bad mood had a negative effect on driving behavior, especially for the "unsafe" driver, who was more likely to react to the actions of other road users.

This supports the view that some people are more likely to succumb to "road rage", but it does not mean that "road rage" cannot be controlled. Although the 1992 study was specific to young men, the 1995 study indicated that there was very little age or gender difference in the prevalence of "road rage".


Men and women are different. The differences in driving behavior are shown by the greater tendency of males to take risks, exhibit aggression and seek thrilling sensations. The results of these differences are shown very clearly all over the world in the form of higher accident statistics, more expensive and frequent insurance claims and higher rates of convictions for offenses such as dangerous and drink-driving.

These differences may be brought about by socialization, but they are rooted in more basic human factors. Evolutionary psychology provides a strong basis for these back to the almost similar cognitive structures required by our hunter-gather ancestors in the past.

In conclusion, there is overwhelming evidence that tendencies towards certain types of behavior, including less-safe driving, are deeply ingrained in men. The conclusion of the Department of Gender and Women's Health at the World Health Organization calling for recognition of the fundamental differences between men and women drivers and the development of gender-differentiated policies in relevant areas has valid basis and should be heeded.


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I'm a South African male and in my experience men are more risky on the roads. However, the only accident I've ever been in occurred because a women behind me was too distracted to hit the brakes. I also know that my older sister has reversed into her gate and gotten numerous speeding fines (which I have not). Also bare in mind that the average male drives 60% more than the average female, and that the average female is involved in significantly more non-fatal accidents than the average male. Another factor to consider is that males tend to drive sportier cars than females, not just because these vehicles are marketed to males, but because as a gender, males receive more income than their female counterparts.

      In other words men are generally better drivers than women (insofar as better means more attentive/reactive), but nonetheless take greater risks in deadlier cars 60% more of the time. Women have more accidents in general along with octogenarians, not because they're performing high-risk maneuvers, but because they set so much stock in standard safety precautions that they become complacent in their driving habits (or else their experience in high-risk maneuvers is insufficient to avoid a given accident).

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      this helped me with my report, thank you:)


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