Woman driving a car

Anecdotal reports suggest belligerent behavior on the road has generally increased during the pandemic. (iStock)

2021 was the worst on record for road rage shootings in the United States, according to data released by Everytown for Gun Safety, which found that more than 500 people were shot and wounded or killed in more than 700 incidents. The monthly average of 44 people killed or wounded by gunfire on the roads was double the 2019 average.

There are probably two main factors driving the increase in shootings on the road, said Sarah Burd-Sharps, research director for Everytown. “One is that Covid-19 has brought all kinds of new stressors into our lives, and that’s playing out in terms of health behaviors that are quite frightening,” she said. The other, she added, is a spike in gun sales.

Experts say the rise in road-rage-related shootings is a quantifiable slice of an alarming problem. While it is difficult to determine the frequency of other kinds of road rage incidents — such as making obscene gestures, throwing objects or sideswiping or forcing a fellow driver off the street — anecdotal reports suggest that belligerent behavior on the road has generally increased during the pandemic.

“It’s like the Wild Wild West out there, and it’s just unacceptable,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, senior director of external engagement with the Governors Highway Safety Association. The group manages the National Law Enforcement Liaison Program and frequently hears from officers about “angry drivers, road rage aggressiveness, people going incredibly high rates of speed and people being really unpleasant to each other,” she said. “It is very concerning.”

Retired police captain Greg Fremin, an adjunct criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, agrees. “Unfortunately, there’s been a serious increase,” he said. In the case of shootings, he said, “it’s a very hard crime to solve because it happens very quickly, unless there are witnesses that saw the license plate or vehicle. People say, ‘Oh, we heard the shot, but we didn’t know where it came from.’”

Below, experts help us understand the reasons people erupt into road rage and offer strategies for keeping yourself and others calm, and for responding to angry drivers.

Why we experience road rage

Humans have evolved to have a fight-or-flight response — a physical reaction to stressful events, said Ziv Cohen, a New York City-based forensic psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. “We have a brain that’s acutely wired for things that might provoke us into anger or fear or survival,” he said. “And we have very, very well-preserved neural mechanisms that are millions of years old to activate us very rapidly into a state of action — to either flee or to attack.”

That’s why, when we feel provoked on the road — say, someone cuts in front of us or has been tailgating us for 10 minutes — we sometimes respond in extreme ways that might seem irrational, Cohen said.

A research article published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass in February 2021 about how to regulate road rage outlined the factors that go into generating it. In some cases, a person’s threshold for getting angry might simply be lower than other people’s, said co-author James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, where he directs the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory. “These are people who just have an angry temperament — you might say they’re very prone to getting angry, and it doesn’t take much to make them angry.”

The degree to which people experience a range of negative affective states, including anxiety and anger, is partially genetic, Gross added. Still, not all people with irritable temperaments will display road rage, he said. And others, who don’t have any predisposition to anger, will end up in a stressful situation that provokes them so much, they’re suddenly raging.

During the pandemic, road rage probably worsened for a variety of reasons, Cohen theorized. People have experienced tremendous stress and economic hardship, and there’s been an increase in depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Combine all that, and it’s easy to see why some people have “less of an inner buffer for dealing with things that provoke them” on the road, he said.

How to calm down

If you’re prone to road rage, Gross and other experts suggest these steps to control your intense emotions:

Don’t drive if you’re worked up. The first step to preventing road rage, Cohen said, is to stay home if you’re not emotionally equipped to drive safely. “Don’t get behind the wheel if you’re very upset or irritable or hung over,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen during the course of your drive — it could be uneventful, but there could be things that provoke you that you’re going to be less able to cope with.”

Maintain comfort. If your car is too hot, or you’re listening to an upsetting podcast, you might be more likely to get agitated. Gross suggested making yourself as calm and comfortable as possible: Keep the car at a temperature you like and listen to soothing music, perhaps. It can also be helpful to practice deep breathing, especially if you feel yourself starting to get annoyed.

Give other drivers the benefit of the doubt. Reframe how you’re thinking about the situation, Gross advised: Tell yourself that maybe the black Durango that cut you off was rushing to the hospital or late for a make-or-break job interview. “Thinking differently, or reappraisal, is a big one,” he said.

It can sometimes be difficult to extend such grace to other drivers because the stakes are so high — and “mistakes can mean death,” said Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay who studies anger. That’s why it’s so easy, when you see someone being careless, to become “livid with rage.” But, as he points out, we can probably all remember a time when we didn’t look carefully when we changed lanes and accidentally cut someone off. He implores drivers to let these incidents roll the same way they hope others would do for them.

Have a plan in place. Road rage often demonstrates a lack of impulse control, said Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist based in Beverly Hills, Calif. One strategy is to have a carefully thought-out strategy for responding to someone who, say, cuts you off or honks at you repeatedly. “Know your trigger points,” she said. For example, decide in advance that if someone wrongs you, you’re going to “count to 10 and not put the pedal to the metal.”

If it happens repeatedly, seek professional help. “Road rage is a reflection of someone’s mental health overall,” Cohen said. If you’re having extreme reactions that you didn’t used to have, or if they’re putting you in dangerous situations, consider talking to a therapist. “You shouldn’t just normalize it and say, ‘This is how I am on the road,’” Cohen said. “It’s definitely an indication that something is going on.”

What to do if you’re the passenger

If you’re driving with someone who flies into a fit of road rage, don’t criticize them or yell at them to relax or calm down — those tactics will inevitably backfire. Instead, strive to stay calm and speak with a soft voice. “We can influence people a lot more by getting them to model our behavior than by actually telling them what to do,” Martin said. He suggests starting with something like: “Hey, I know you’re frustrated. Let’s take a couple deep breaths.”

Then, Martin recommends framing the conversation around how you’re feeling. You might say, “Hey, I’m feeling really scared right now.” That approach will “let them know in a passive way that what they’re doing is leading you to feel a bit anxious,” he said.

You could also offer to take over driving and give your companion a chance to collect herself while riding as a passenger, Cohen suggested.

How to respond if you’re being targeted

If you’re being pursued by a rageful driver, resist engaging in any way. “You don’t want to respond to their aggression with your own aggression,” Fischer said. “Absolutely don’t make eye contact, and refrain from gesturing. If you show your frustration, it’s going to escalate even more.”

If you’re on a multilane road, move out of the angry driver’s way. You could turn off the road to get away, said Fremin, the retired Houston police captain, but you shouldn’t pull over. “If you pull over and stop, they’re going to pull over and stop,” he said. “That’s what they’re wanting you to do.” (If you do end up in a scenario where someone approaches your car, lock the doors, lay on the horn and call 911. Don’t get out of the car, Fischer said.)

You should also call 911 if you’re being followed. “Tell the dispatcher you have an aggressive road rage driver that’s following you, and the dispatcher is going to start quickly relaying that information” to an officer, Fremin said. Don’t hesitate to involve the authorities, he added. “It’s just a very dangerous issue we have happening right now,” and it’s best not to take any chances.