Sunday, June 15, 2008

The 'blinkered' science of road rage

I’ve recently started reading several articles on the topic of road rage and have been amazed to see what a strange science it is. So far I haven’t found any articles that have identified cyclist and motorist interactions as a dimension of ‘road rage’ and this has become a real cause of concern.

For instance, in the article, ‘Road Rage’: Media hype or serious road safety issue? the Australian Transport Psychologist, Barry Elliot, makes a number of claims. Most importantly, he argues that ‘road rage’ is a very problematic concept:

It can be defined as a term coined by the media to describe a range of anti-social behaviours and/or acts of aggression which occur on the road. The range of behaviours include minor instances such as gestures and use of car horn through to the more serious violent acts such as assault or even murder.

‘Road rage’ can include a number of activities such as:

Beeping the horn;
Pursuing a vehicle;
Flashing head lights;
Forcing a car off the road;
Forcing a car to pull over;
Verbal abuse;
Bumping into another car;
Threatening another driver;
Breaking or slowing suddenly;
Damaging another vehicle intentionally
Deliberate obstruction
Physically assaulting another driver; and
Cutting off or swerving in front

Given the diversity of activities identified above, it is fair enough that one should want to develop different terms to distinguish between ‘road rage’ and road aggression. The concept ‘rage’ presupposes an escalation of aggression towards violence. According to Elliot:

The majority of motorists will experience one or more of the above road behaviours over a normal year or two. However, if we define ‘road rage’ as assault then it is a rare phenomena.

But it is here that we find the crux of the problem. No consideration is given to how other vehicles, such as bicycles, may experience acts of road aggression in a vastly different way. Personally, I can say that I’ve experienced 7 of the 15 acts listed above and that I’ve twice experienced the more malicious acts of being run off the road by a raging motorist. Thankfully, such events have been rare, but the lesser acts of road aggression are very common and would occur on a less than monthly basis. One can only speculate on what findings Elliot would have made if he’d asked different road users about their experiences of ‘road rage’/aggression?

The next problem I found with the article is a level acceptance it gave to road rage/aggression as a public concern. According to Elliot:

While there are good reasons to reduce levels of violence (‘road rage’) on our roads, doing so is unlikely to have any noticeable effect on road crash statistics. In essence, ‘road’ rage is not a road safety priority issue. It is an ‘issue’ for those dealing with violence in our community.

Just because an action of road rage/aggression may not result in injury or death, why would it then be considered a ‘low priority’ road safety issue? Why do acts of aggression have to be extremely ‘violent’ to become a cause of concern? While road rage/aggression may not be an issue for accident statisticians, it still affect people as an often unsanctioned form of social violence that takes place in a social field that should be governed by road rules/education.

Another concerning part of this article was on the causes of ‘road rage’. It was suggested that road rage is largely caused through a dynamic relationship between a perpetrator and a victim. According to Elliot:

The consensus among experts in this area is that ‘road rage’, even broadly defined, originates because of poor, careless or risking driving… Sometimes, perhaps mostly, the victim unintentionally or unwittingly raises the ire of the offender with no malice intended. But the recipient of the poor driving (the offender) takes the incident as a personal affront which involves an emotional reaction – usually anger… The critical contributing factor in ‘road rage’ in general is the behaviour of the victim which leads to aggression by the offender and so long as the victim retaliates the conflict increases. Accordingly, it ought to be possible to lower the level of possible road rage by: improving driving standards.

So what does this mean for cyclists? Given that there is substantial of evidence that many motorists (in Australia) don’t even know or respect the rights of cyclists to be road users, it would seem rather short-sighted to simply ‘blame the victim’ as the unfortunate recipient of aggression on the road. This victim/perpetrator model of road aggression doesn’t seem to be able to give an account how acts of violence and aggression can be completely unprovoked and without some sort of quasi-legitimacy.

While I haven’t read far enough into these matters, it seems to me that a lot of research on ‘road rage’ has been framed within the ‘blinkered’ paradigm of the automobile and that an analysis of acts of road aggression towards cyclists has been ignored and unspecified. Road rage research is most often conducted by criminologists, transport psychologists and crime prevention researchers. I wonder if they'd ask different questions if they rode their bikes?


Treadly and Me said...

I think you'll find interesting reading in this essay (I commented on it at the time it was published).

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