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November 30, 2011

Taming Your Inner Monster

Photo courtesy of stock.xchng
Is there a monster in your car? Look carefully in the rearview mirror, because the monster might just be you. Normally, you maybe the most attentive and courteous motorist out there, but sometimes you can become a nasty and dangerous speedster. Even the best of us, myself included, fall prey to aggressive driving behavior. It’s a steadily growing problem with the increasing car sales and the shrinking road infrastructure. However, it’s also a problem that’s easily rectifiable.

What is Aggressive Driving?

The US-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines aggressive driving as “when individuals commit a combination of moving traffic offenses as to endanger other persons or property.” Likewise, it’s an on-road behavior that’s largely motivated by impatience, annoyance and hostility towards other drivers. In the Philippines, this feeling is usually evoked in an attempt to save time.

Aggressive driving is different from road rage, which is the actual perpetration of violence on a person or property because of a driving incident. They are, however, closely related. Aggressive driving, if left unchecked, can lead quite easily to road rage.

In our roads, aggressive driving is quite prevalent. The most common occurrence is the refusal to let another driver change into one’s lane, even if the other driver signals and enters properly. This has led some drivers to forego signaling altogether, in the expectation that signaling will only make other drivers react aggressively.

Even worse behavior that’s almost considered normal include: blocking the intersection even if the way forward is already clogged and driving into oncoming traffic just to get ahead of the crowd. If you want proof that it happens almost any day are uniquely Philippine road signs proclaiming: COUNTERFLOW NOT ALLOWED.

Why Does Aggressive Driving Take Place?

Human beings tend to be territorial creatures, and thus consider not just the vehicle but the road as part of their personal domain. Thus, there’s an instinctive aggressive reaction when we feel threatened by other vehicles.

Another factor is the relative anonymity afforded by being in a closed metal capsule and tinted windows. After all, you’ll probably never encounter this particular motorist again, so we don’t other being courteous to him. Man’s competitive instinct can lead a driver to respond by being overtaken or cut off by another vehicle as a challenge, and thus an impromptu drag race starts off.

Driving may also lead some to feel a sense of power which they may not have with their jobs or families. In some cases, it may even manifest itself as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” effect, where someone normally polite and courteous becomes a maniac when put behind the wheel.

Another serious problem is drivers who try to punish others for a particular driving behavior which displeases them. This “vigilante” behavior includes driving too closely to the vehicle in front (tailgating), braking suddenly as a warning to the vehicle behind (brake testing), deliberately blocking the passing lane, using headlights on full beam to punish other drivers, and shouting or making obscene gestures to other drivers.

All these behaviors are exacerbated by the stress and time pressures of modern life. On top of that, the ever congested roads also lead to feelings of frustration and are responsible for cases of aggressive driving and the lack of respect for other drivers. It must also be remembered that aggressive driving is a learned behavior, so children can learn this irresponsible behavior from parents who drive aggressively or from the media which portrays aggressive driving in a “fun” context such as car chases in films and video games.

The Four Realities of the Road

Motorists who might respond to provocation from an aggressive driver should think about the four realities of the threat:
  • Men, women and children are seriously injured or killed each year as a result of senseless traffic disputes and altercations.
  • There are mentally and emotionally disturbed individuals on the road. Charged with anger, fear and/or personal frustration, and often impaired by alcohol or drugs, these motorists have murdered or maimed other drivers form seemingly trivial reasons. Explanations such as “He stole my parking space,” “She kept on honking her horn”, “He gave me ‘the finger’,” abound in police blotters. 
  • Many motorists are armed with knives, clubs and other weapons. Some also carry guns. More importantly, every driver is armed with a weapon more deadly than any firearm: a motor vehicle. 
  • Anyone can become an aggressive driver. Aggressive driving behavior affects old and young, males or females, rich or poor. Do not underestimate the potential for violence in any driver.

Proper Driving Begins With You

Any driver should keep their cool in traffic, to be patient and courteous to other motorists and to correct unsafe driving habits that are likely to endanger, infuriate or antagonize other people. Be aware of the behaviors that have resulted commonly in violence:
  • Lane blocking. Don’t block the passing lane. Stay out of the far left lane and yield to the right for any vehicle that wants to overtake you. If someone demands to pass, allow them to do so.
  • Tailgating. Maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you. Using a still point of reference such as a lamp post, count “one thousand one, one thousand two”. That’s the amount of space you should have between your hood and his bumper. As you go faster, increase the count to four or even five.
  • Signal use. Don’t switch lanes without first signaling your intention, and make sure you don’t cut someone off when you move over. After you’ve made the maneuver, remember to turn your signal off.
  • Gestures. You are playing Russian roulette if you raise a middle finder to another driver. Obscene gestures can get you killed.
  • Horn use. Use your horn sparingly. If you must get someone’s attention in a non-emergency situation, tap your horn lightly. Think twice before using your horn to say “hello” to a passing pedestrian or car; the driver in front of you may think you’re honking at him.
  • Failure to turn. In most areas, right-hand turns are allowed even at a red light. Avoid the right-hand lane if you’re not turning right as not to block the flow of traffic.
  • Parking. Don’t take more than one parking space and do not park in a handicapped or reserved  parking space if you’re not entitled to do so. Don’t allow your door to strike an adjacent parked vehicle. When parallel parking, do not tap the other vehicles with your own. Always look before backing up.
  • Headlight use. Keep headlights on low beam, except where unlighted conditions require the use of high beams. Dim your lights for oncoming traffic; don’t retaliate to oncoming high beams with your own in order to “teach them a lesson”. Don’t approach a vehicle from the rear with high beams and remember to dim your lights as soon as a passing vehicle is alongside.
  • Merging. Always look before merging onto any road. Don’t immediately swerve three lanes to  the left or the right; always merge to the lane nearest you. On highways, merge on the rightmost lane and if traffic permits, move out of the right-hand lane to allow other vehicles to enter from the on-ramps.
  • Blocking traffic. If you are pulling a trailer or driving a cumbersome vehicle that impedes traffic behind you, pull over when you have the opportunity so that motorists behind you can pass. Also, do not block the road while talking to a pedestrian on the sidewalk.
  • Mobile phone use. Don’t let cellular phones become a distraction—keep your eyes and attention on the road. Mobile phones are a godsend in keeping up with friends or work, but are bad for driving safety. The amount of distraction contributed by mobile phone use is similar to that of driving under the influence of alcohol.
  • Displays. Refrain from showing any type of bumper sticker or slogan that could be offensive; this might include personalized “2 FAST 4 U” license plates.
  • Eye Contact. If a hostile motorist tries to pick a fight, do not make eye contact. This can be seen as a challenging gesture and incite the other driver to violence. Instead, get out of the way but do not acknowledge the other driver. If a motorist pursues you, don’t go home. Instead go to a crowded area like a convenience store or maybe a police station where you can get help and there will be witnesses.
Reduce Your Own Stress

Traffic stress—indeed, anger in general—is hazardous to your health. The stress from road congestion is a major contributing factor to violent traffic disputes. Making a few simple changes in the way you approach driving can significantly reduce your stress level in the car.

Consider altering your schedule to avoid the worst congestion. Allow plenty of time so that you don’t have to speed, beat traffic lights, or counter flow. Think—is it really the end of the world if you’re a bit late? Could you plan your day so you could leave a little earlier?

Improve the comfort of your vehicle. Put the air conditioner in full blow, install a nice sound system to enjoy uninterrupted music or get a pillow or seat cover to make your seat more comfortable. Listen to classical or jazz music, this reduces your anxiety.

While in traffic, concentrate on being relaxed. Don’t clench your teeth. Loosen your grip on the wheel, take a deep breath, and do limited exercises and stretches for your arms and legs. Don’t drive when you are angry, upset, or overtired. Most importantly, understand that you can’t control the traffic but you can control your reaction to it.

Adjust Your Attitude 

Give the other driver the benefit of the doubt. Assume that other drivers’ mistakes aren’t intentional and aren’t personal. Be polite and courteous, even if the other driver isn’t; it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Before reacting to another driver’s mistake, ask yourself, “How many times have I made the same mistake?” Before initiating or responding violently to a traffic situation, ask yourself, “Is it worth being paralyzed or killed? Is it worth the time and money for a lawsuit? Is it worth a jail sentence?” Remember, split-second impulsive actions can ruin the rest of your life.

Encased in metal armor, many motorists who are normally passive become enraged road warriors when they get behind the wheel. Don’t become one of them. You should remember that (a) cars are not bulletproof; (b) another driver can follow you home; and (c) you’ve got to get out of the car some time.

Avoid all conflict if possible. If you are challenged, take a deep breath and get out of the way, even if you are right. You don’t want to be dead right. Instead, try being more forgiving and tolerant. Recognize the absurdity of traffic disputes and focus on what is really important in life. You cannot fight every battle. Save your energy—and your life—for something worthwhile.

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