Fuse control

| February 01, 2006

You can stop road rage before it gets started by curbing your temper.

For American truckers, coping with potential road rage – in themselves and other drivers – is a part of the job.

“It’s not an everyday occurrence, but you’ll probably deal with it at least a couple times a month,” says owner-operator Jim Kennedy from Brooksville, Fla. It’s going to happen. How will you respond?

It helps to understand the basic principles of road rage. “The key element of civilized conduct is the skill of inhibiting the physical expression of anger or fear, so it doesn’t come out in provocative or violent behavior,” says road rage expert Dr. Leon James, professor of traffic psychology at the University of Hawaii. “This principle of non-aggressiveness has been thrown overboard by the culture of cynicism on highways.”

According to James, our national psychology can change from “normal” to power-mad, paranoid, fearful, hyper-aggressive and retaliatory when we get behind the wheel. Using self-righteous indignation and revenge, normal people can routinely escalate minor traffic mishaps into full-blown rage situations.

“Feelings, thoughts and perceptions are as much traffic and transportation issues as road conditions and traffic flow,” James says.

Driving is dangerous, often involving high speeds and heavy equipment. But according to James, it’s also a complex, demanding activity. All motorists make mistakes that scare and anger others, and that’s the crucial moment, because how those emotions are handled will lead either to peaceful coexistence or an enraged desire to get even.

James says the “emotionally intelligent” driver will understand traffic and human nature. He will expect mistakes or rude behavior, and he will drive accordingly: defensively, as if to protect himself. Drive cautiously, “and accommodate others’ movements,” James says. When other drivers do dumb or rude things, the “EI” driver naturally gets scared or angry, but he does not use these emotions as catalysts to revenge and rage. He avoids engaging in power struggles with other drivers, does not see errors or rudeness as provocation, and avoids challenges.

If he makes an error and upsets another driver, he remains calm, seeks to pacify hurt feelings, and uses his EI to actually defend and explain away the other driver’s actions. He retains self control: does not let his fear and anger run away or use them to “fan the flames of righteous indignation” and “resists the temptation to ‘teach the other driver a lesson.’”

“Use every opportunity to ‘come out swinging positive’ by appearing to be calm, like you’re no longer taking a fighting stance,” James says. “It takes the skills of switching to a non-confrontational posture and of rationally predicting the consequences of road rage.

“You need to train yourself to be able to back out of a fight by practicing ‘an attitude of latitude’ or forgiveness.”

Calm down, back down and slow down.

It sounds almost un-American; but that’s part of the problem because the alternatives are usually tragic.

Truckers deal with angry drivers on a regular basis. “There’ve been people who came up the on-ramp, and we weren’t able to pull over for them,” says Laura Rogers of Nashville, Ark. “They drove on the shoulder, and then they got behind us, and then they came around, cut in front of us and slammed on the brakes.”

“They were getting even with us,” says Laura’s husband, Chris, who’s a company driver with Southern Refrigerated Transport.

Laura says she’s ridden with Chris “every mile since day one.” She recounts instances of retaliation when other drivers sought “revenge” against her and Chris. “Cars like to fly off the get-on ramp, and they think trucks ought to stop for them,” she says. “We move over when we can, but sometimes they expect you to move over or stop when you can’t.”

Traffic merging from an on-ramp can be scary, a perfect breeding ground for road rage.

“The worst ones are the ones that will do it to you and laugh,” Kennedy says. He recounts an incident on I-10 in Mobile, Ala., where the driver of a four-wheeler deliberately harassed and taunted him by pulling in front, hitting the brakes, and then dropping back even on the left and laughing.

Dr. James might say the driver, enraged to the point of cruelty, used his car as a weapon. “He did it four times,” says Kennedy, who acknowledges fear from the near collisions and then anger at the offending driver. “Maybe he was trying to get run over that day or something,” Kennedy says. “He sure came close.”

Kennedy acted professionally: stayed calm and backed off. “I just gave him as much distance as possible.”

With 17 years of experience, he’s seen plenty of bad driving but exercises maturity and James’ “attitude of latitude” to safely reason through his anger. “In actuality, if you’re a professional driver, you look out for those kinds of people just as much as you look out for yourself. That’s part of the job,” he says, adding that this philosophy gets him back home safely to his wife and three kids. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what’s important,” he says. “Get the job done and make it back home.”

Some truckers don’t agree and drive like it.

“Four-wheelers are bad, but other truckers do it, too,” says Chris Rogers. “Other truckers tailgate when there’s no reason for it,” he says. “They cut me off and cut right in front of me. It’s inconsiderate.”

“It’s not just four-wheelers,” Housel agrees. “It’s other trucks, too. Just as many trucks come up (in the hammer lane), sit beside me and box me in,” he says. “It’s getting to the point where trucks and four-wheelers are one and the same.”

Like most experienced drivers, Housel says there’s more rudeness among drivers now, and that only makes the job tougher. “When I started driving, you could pull into a truckstop, get your fuel, pull up and pay, and then leave,” he says. “Now you have drivers who park in front of the fuel island.”

Drivers who park at the pumps and run in for “a quick cup of coffee” can wind up waiting in lines at the coffee counter and the cash register. This has sparked road rage’s ugly cousin, fuel island rage, more than once.

All drivers acknowledge that one factor of road rage is stress, and trucking has its share.

“You’re dealing with people stress, company stress,” says Kennedy. “You got your dispatcher wanting you to do something, you want to get home, you got delivery times to make,” he says. “You’re dealing with all that stuff, so when somebody cuts you off, it’s like a catalyst. Every fire needs a catalyst. It just takes the one extra person to cut in front of you and slam on the brakes.”

“A lot of aggravation is from guys out there driving their 11 hours, and at the end of the day they can’t find a place to park, can’t get a shower, can’t get a decent meal,” Housel says.

“Something can be happening at home that can cause stress, and then some little thing happens on the road that can make a man click,” Chris Rogers says.

As if that’s not enough, piloting a big truck through strange, crowded cities exacts its toll.

“People in cars don’t understand that the majority of times they see trucks in their town, it’s probably the driver’s first time there,” Housel says. “The reason he’s going slow is to be safe because he doesn’t know his way around.”

“It’s pretty easy out on the open road,” Chris Rogers says. “But when you get around big cities where you’re a stranger, it’s very stressful,” he says. “On top of maneuvering the truck, you’ve got to follow laws and follow directions. That all adds up to stress.”

“If you get lost or somebody gives you wrong directions – that causes stress,” says Laura. “People think you can turn around in somebody’s driveway or the first open spot,” she says.

“I get that pretty often: bad directions that get you someplace where you don’t need to be,” Chris says. “We’ve got directions that said ‘left’ when it was supposed to be ‘right,’ and ‘left’ was a dead end.”

And no discourse on stress for truckers is complete until it mentions weather. Bucking strong crosswinds with a lightly loaded, 53-foot van on snowy and icy roads might be the most stressful thing a driver can do.

Stress is fertile soil for road rage, and professional truckers need what Dr. James calls “inner power tools” to help them keep calm.

“The required level of courtesy is higher for a professional truck driver than other drivers,” Kennedy says. “Have patience, too. That’s one of the key factors for dealing with road rage.”

Adequate trip planning is a huge stress reliever. “Give yourself plenty of time,” Kennedy says. “When you’re in a hurry, you want to be in front of everybody. If somebody cuts you off, you want to get back in front of them,” he says. “But if you give yourself plenty of time, you don’t have to be first.”

Housel lives and drives in Florida, and his “inner power tool” for stress is getting out of the truck. “I got to the point where I can go home whenever I please,” he says. “I’m usually only about three hours away. I can get out of the truck for a couple of days and take a break.”

“The best cure for stress is to pull over and take a break, if you can,” says Chris Rogers. “Take a walk, watch television, do something different for a while.”

Exercise is an excellent “power tool” for reducing stress. “Most truckers don’t get enough exercise,” says Laura Rogers. “In some rest areas they have little paths you can walk on.”

Considerable stress and highway insanity are parts of the job. Trip planning, breaks, exercise, patience, courtesy and defensive driving are all tools professional drivers use to diffuse stress, avoid road rage in themselves and others, and deliver the freight safely and on time.

“There’s really no excuse for road rage,” Chris Rogers says. “You can avoid it. It takes work, but you can avoid it.”


Keep Road Rage in Check
Use these techniques to take control of your emotions while driving

When there’s no time to pull over for a break, truckers behind the wheel can keep calm with “Self-Witnessing,” a mental tool created by Dr. Leon James, professor of driving psychology at the University of Hawaii.

A foremost expert on road rage, James has dissected it into three successive parts: the brain’s feelings, thoughts and action commands. James has had great success getting drivers to “witness” these activities in themselves and control them.

He suggests the “think aloud” method for witnessing feelings and thoughts. In other words, speak your mind: all of it.

“Once you speak your thoughts out loud, you can witness them,” he says. “But if you don’t speak them out loud, they go by so fast you won’t even see them.” That means all thoughts, not just some. “The drivers speak thoughts aloud continuously,” James says.

“Through their thoughts, drivers can get to their feelings. They’re harder to control, but it can be done.

“Get to know yourself,” James says. “What makes you mad? When do you get angry?” He says to note these instances, and when they occur, “witness” your feelings about them. “You might notice that your first reaction is either anger or fear.”

That’s not an anger problem. “That’s normal,” James says. “It’s our first reaction, and for the first five seconds, it’s OK to express that.”

But your next thoughts are crucial. “By what you think and say, you can either escalate that or talk yourself out of it,” James says. “If you stay with it and vent to yourself, you’re only polluting your own mental environment.”

James says this is a solo act. “You’re the one keeping that anger up,” he says, thus giving the offending driver control.

“Don’t put your sails up in somebody else’s wind,” James says. That doesn’t mean suppress the anger; transform it with positive thoughts and words.

How? “Sing: you can’t sing and be angry simultaneously,” James says. “But even more important is to find positive thoughts about this other driver,” he says. “Think about him as a human being, a father or a neighbor.”

James says it might help just then to remember the times when you have done the same thing or something similar. “Think about the driving mistakes you’ve made,” he says.

In other words, come to the offending motorist’s defense. “You make excuses for him in your own mind,” James says. “Maybe he doesn’t drive much,” James says. “Maybe something terrible has just happened to him.”

You’re not really bailing out the other driver, though. “You do it for yourself,” James says. “We’re talking about the trucker managing his or her emotions. You don’t just manage your truck and your schedule. You manage your emotions.”

James says by controlling the immediate emotional response to another motorist’s bad driving, you prevent enraged thoughts and actions from developing. “Evaluate yourself and make changes in your reactions,” he says. “Your purpose is to transform negative feelings into positive ones.”

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