A Wild Theory About Road Rage

By Chris Churchill

I wrote a song once called Satanic Bible. The opening lyrics are, "I got cut off by a cab. And the woman in the back seat, asked me if I was crazy. So I held up my Satanic Bible, and I said, 'Yes.'"

While not exactly Maya Angelou, those lyrics were, in a very literal way, about road rage. I live in a big city. I drive for part of my income and have for nearly 20 years. I understand that we get upset out there in traffic. Someone does something that seemingly dismisses us as equals in society and we rage. I just read a statistic from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that said that about 31 percent of traffic accidents can be caused by driving behaviors associated with road rage. But we all knew road rage is a problem, right? We have watched ourselves turn from world’s nicest driver to a lunatic who has just endangered the very life of another human being because we got our feelings hurt. It’s because we’re in cars. The communication is less clear and the repercussions are much greater than in face-to-face misunderstandings. 

I still remember a driver’s course I took when I was a new driver where the instructor told us that when sitting down into the driver’s seat of our car, we should say to ourselves, "I am now entering a lethal weapon." I think of that a lot. I see people edging into a crosswalk, as if thinking, "They’ll move or I’ll move them." Like that isn’t irresponsible behavior. Like that isn’t bullying. Like we wouldn’t cry if someone crept into our pedestrian zone. We’ve all seen, or been the victim or culprit of the quick-cut passing move on the highway where, once we pass a slowpoke, we zip back into the lane just a little to quickly and too closely… to make a point. We do these things. And we, hopefully, know we shouldn’t.

But why do we get so angry out there? Why does our blood boil when someone sitting in their own car, not thinking of you our your family or bills or job stress, accidentally stares at their radio dial for two seconds longer than it took for the light to turn green? Why does it infuriate us when someone doesn’t feel safe going only 15 miles over the speed limit when you’re dead set on driving 20 miles over the speed limit? In general, these are all inconveniences without an intended target. But we see ourselves as targets of other drivers’ occasional rage.

I think the whole problem is cars don’t have faces. Horns sound the same when you’re happy as when you’re mad. There's no communication happening from car to car, so we imagine communication. One thing humans are good at, in fact, compulsively driven to, is the seeking out of faces, or, rather, meaningful shapes. The phenomena is called pareidolia. We see another car out there, and we can easily see a face. The headlights are eyes. The front of the hood is the nose. The grill is the mouth. They’ve done a whole series of Pixar cartoons about this idea. But unlike the Pixar cartoons, these faces are all blank and expressionless, for the most part (excluding the flashing of headlights). So we see a bunch of blank faces out there.

They’re next to us, they’re coming at us, they surround us. Just expressionless faces. There are only two types of communication they can offer. Their maneuvering in traffic and their expressionless faces. The expressionless face becomes the problem. If any of you are film students or aficionados, you may be aware of The Kuleshov Effect. It was shown in old silent films that if you showed the same expressionless face before four completely different images, the audience decided that the face wasn’t expressionless at all, in fact, the actor must be brilliant in his subtlety. So hungry for soup, so sad about the dead child, so horny for that woman, etc.

So, to transfer that idea into driving, someone has done something irresponsible to us in traffic, so we look at that expressionless car front and we see… someone who intended to do that! Then, depending on our own traumas and hang-ups, we may project even more onto it. Say, we're used to feeling disempowered, we’re going to feel even more so in a traffic situation with a deadpan grill.

You ever wonder if, in those brief moments of out of control rage, the person you see losing their minds must be reliving all the moments in their lives where they felt the most vulnerable and discounted all at once? Well, if you hadn't considered that, maybe you will now. I'd like to think that if we could remember, "That’s not an uncaring face, that is just the face-like grill of an inanimate object being controlled by an organic creature that sometimes makes physical, mental or emotional mistakes." I wonder if that would help. They aren’t trying to hurt you. You and they would probably like each other very much if you weren’t currently driving around lethal weapons that were essentially sporting Guy Fawkes masks. They don’t hate you. Calm down.