September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

In Salt Lake City, after a fender bender, one driver guns her engine and runs over the other—fatally. In Santa Cruz, Calif., a man who tailgated is shot dead by the offended tailgatee. In Massachusetts, a driver flashes his high beams at another motorist. When the two come to a stop, the slower driver steps out of his car and fatally wounds the would-be passer with a crossbow.

American Automobile Association figures suggest that episodes of driver-to-driver violence—acts of so-called road rage—are up more than 50 percent since 1990. Arnold Nerenberg, a Whittier, Calif., psychologist who treats patients who can’t control their anger behind the wheel, has drawn some general conclusions. “I stumbled into road-rage therapy when I was giving marital counseling to a woman who said, ‘You know, the thing that really upsets me about my husband is that he turns into an absolute lunatic behind the wheel. He becomes very ugly, very negative, very vengeful, and I can’t stand it.’ I started investigating and discovered that road rage is very common.”

In July, Nerenberg, a 56-year-old father of seven, testified before a congressional hearing looking into aggressive driving. He has also published a booklet, Overcoming Road Rage: The 10-Step Compassion Program. He spoke with PEOPLE’S Cathy Free.

Exactly what is road rage?

It’s where one driver lets another driver know that he or she is angry because of something that the other driver did. In expressing that anger, the driver might make obscene gestures, scream, honk, put on the brakes, cut in front or brandish a weapon. Or even use the weapon.

What prompts road rage?

Within the human psyche there’s an urge to release our aggression on an anonymous “other” when we feel justified. While driving, that can occur when someone cuts us off, tailgates, grabs a parking space, blocks the road by driving slowly or directs their rage at us over what they perceive to be our driving errors.

In particular, why are people so quick to get angry while driving?

The keys are anonymity and a feeling of power. The person driving might be a small guy who would never get into a fight, but here he is in a huge truck or a big car. He feels invincible. He feels he can strike and run away very quickly. A car, like a gun, is a great equalizer.

Is there really any difference between now and, say, 20 years ago?

The difference is that today road rage is more frequent and more intense. Road-rage murders are happening all over the country. One thing that makes the problem worse is that we have more Americans arming themselves. Millions of us illegally carry loaded weapons. The more guns in cars, the greater the chance they’ll be used.

Why is road rage on the rise?

A simple reason is that roads in metropolitan areas are more congested. More people, more cars, more delays during the commute, more frustration. In the past 15 years, as more women have entered the workplace, families have gone from one car to two cars, even three. Additionally, many people say they are feeling more stress in their daily lives—there’s more divorce, child-care issues in two-career families, less job security. You’ve got someone who may feel powerless and frustrated in many aspects of their life—and now they’re behind the wheel of a 3,000-pound vehicle.

How many lives are lost because of road rage each year?

That’s a problem. Nobody knows. There are scores of high-profile cases that make news. But you never hear about, and can’t measure, situations where a driver is distracted by anger or aggressive behavior—their own or another driver’s—and winds up crashing a car.

Is road rage a gender issue?

Not really. Based on my preliminary research of about 585 interviews, 45 percent of road-rage incidents are committed by women, and 55 percent are committed by men. It appears that men are doing most of the shootings and women are doing most of the ramming.

How does a driver recognize that he or she may have a problem?

Well, if you brandish a weapon, you have a big problem. But if you flip people off more than twice a year or you shout at them and beep your horn or flash your lights more than twice a year, I’d say you have a problem.

What’s the best way to handle your on-road anger?

First, you have to say, yes, I have a road-rage problem. Then, instead of honking your horn or rolling down the window to yell at another person, cuss at him under your breath. I had one person tell me he cursed at people in foreign languages. It’s fine to be angry, but don’t communicate it. You’ll live to drive another day.

Did road rage exist before cars?

I think so. Think about the story of Oedipus, in ancient Greece. He’s walking along a road and encounters a royal carriage. They tell him to get out of the way. He won’t. They argue. He kills everybody in the coach. And, as we all know, that was only the beginning of Oedipus’s problems.

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