Anger Management - dealing with "red mist"
and "road rage"
From time to time I get asked if I have any solutions to what are
known as "red mist" and "road rage". Of all the questions I've had
to try to answer, this one is probably the most difficult. And, I'll
be perfectly honest, not only for other people but for myself too. I
find it all too easy to slip into a state where I'm acting
aggressively on the roads and it's something I've fought to control,
with varying degrees of success, for many years.
Unfortunately, as the roads get busier, the trigger events happen
more and more often, so it's become even more important to find
So first of all, you need to know what the problem is.
What are "road rage" and "red mist"?
What is commonly known as "Road Rage" is a psychological state
people encounter whilst driving. Although it's only hit the
headlines in the last dozen years or so, "road rage" has been around
since Daimler first stuck four wheels round an engine - think of Mr
Toad in "The Wind in the Willows"!
When drivers and riders start acting aggressively, often tailgating
or using some hand signals you won't find in the Highway Code,
that's low-level "road rage". Hopefully it ends there, but if the
other driver responds in kind, then the situation can rapidly
escalate out of control and serious consequences can ensue. It's not
unknown for drivers to try to run bikes off the road or ram other
cars, with potential and real fatal consequences.
"Road rage" normally happens because one driver does something to
irritate another. According to some research on what annoys drivers,
the main things that can trigger anger:
Undertaking on motorways
"Red mist" is a somewhat different psychological trap that drivers
can fall into. It may be related to "road rage" such as chasing
after a person who has annoyed you, but professional drivers such as
police or ambulance drivers can get frustrated or angry too, and
start taking risks in pursuit of a 'noble cause' whilst responding
to an emergency call. The big problem is that if you allow yourself
to slide into this state, you no longer assess driving risks
So, how do you stop yourself venting your anger and aggression on
the world on wheels?
That's the tricky bit. Do a Google and you'll find plenty of
articles about how to control "road rage" and they usually start by
saying "first recognise the symptoms, then it's easier to deal
with". For instance, I found this advice:
"The best way to keep yourself from flying into
an uncontrolled rage on the road is to remain calm and keep
perspective. When someone does something you feel is careless or
stupid on the road, you have to just let it go."
Errrrr... well, actually, I'd have to say... but HOW??
So, I went a bit further than most of these articles seem to go, to
find out about why some people respond to provocation by getting
angry and others seem to let it run over them like water off a
How your brain is put together
At the most fundamental level, it's down to the structure of our
brains. The brain is designed for survival rather than reasoned
Your brain is built of three very different layers, known as the
"triune brain", which in very simplistic terms mirrors our
development from primitive vertebrate to modern human being:
the top layer (neo-cortex) - is the thinking
part. It is split into two hemispheres, the right and the left.
the middle layer (limbic) - is the emotions part.
It deals with our sense of identity and values, and with long term
the lower layer (reptilian) - is the survival
part, controlling all body functions and instincts.
Go back 450 million years and the first fish appeared, with a very
small and simple brain. About 150 million years later, reptiles
evolved with slightly more sophisticated brains. Not only did these
handle the basic body functions such as breathing and heart beat,
but the reptilian brain had, loosely speaking, three 'compartments'
managing other physical capacities: one in the front for smell, one
in the middle for vision and one in the rear for balance and
co-ordination. In addition, the reptilian brain was 'hard-wired' for
reflex actions, such as the basic instincts necessary for survival
and the preservation of genes, such as the sexual drive and the
'fight or flight' response to danger.
The responses from the reptilian brain are designed for survival,
and are stronger than our reasoning thoughts will ever be. 'React or
Die' - at least that's the way the system was originally designed to
operate all those millions of years ago.
Around 200 million years ago, the first mammals appeared and
inherited the basic functioning and hard wiring of the reptilian
brain, but developed two new areas:
The limbic system:
This is the middle brain controlling emotions, maintenance
functions, and is the site for long term memory. This part of the
brain runs our emotions, immune system, sleeping, governs our
sexuality and routes information to where it is processed in the
neo-cortex. The limbic brain validates new knowledge. The limbic
area holds all three parts of the brain in balance, and links
long-term memory with emotion. Emotions are more important to the
brain than cognitive understanding.
This is the thinking cap. It is the part of the brain used in
problem solving, discerning relationships and patterns of meaning.
OK, so that's how the brain's built, what does it do for us now?
Back on the road in the 21st century and millions of years on, the
primitive brain is still highly active and always on the alert for
life-threatening - real or perceived - events. If the reptilian
brain believes life is threatened, it tries to takes over, pitting
the ancient, hard-wired fight and flight responses of our reptile
ancesters against the more flexible "reasoning" responses of our
The trouble is that our reptilian brain doesn't know the difference
between a real threat to our lives that demands instant action, and
something that surprises and scares us but could have been dealt
with had we a moment to think about it.
In both cases it takes over - we react instinctively and without
thinking - and sometimes violently.
Cue "road rage".
This is why smug statements like this one don't help but positively
"The truth is that no matter where you go, no
matter how safe, careful, and considerate a driver you are, there is
going to be someone on the road who is not. They're going to
challenge all the patience you have built up, possibly putting your
life at risk... A road rager feels a certain degree of superiority
over all other drivers on the road. They feel it is their duty to
punish bad drivers and teach them "lessons...Their behavior is
equally selfish, immature, and dangerous."
Telling me I'm 'selfish, immature and dangerous' isn't going to help
me or anyone else overcome the problem. In fact, it's likely to
generate the very anger that the write is railiing against, whilst
generating a complacency in others who think "I'm not like that"
whilst making all the mistakes that generate road rage in others!
We are ALL potential road ragers, so whilst some of us need to know
how to avoid being one, the rest of us need to know how to avoid
setting someone else off.
Some strategies for dealing with "road rage"
So, know we know WHY we react, perhaps we can ask WHAT we can we do
about the problem?
What about the Zen-like calm that some people seem to think is a
worthy goal whilst riding? Can't we reach some state of nirvana
where we're always "happy" and nothing bothers us? It doesn't seem
very likely to me, and even if we could, we'd be missing something
that constantly feeds other information into our concious brain.
The key to me seems to be not to get rid of anger but to have two
learn to anticipate and avoid the situations that
might scare us - if we are expecting them, our reasoning brain will
deal with the fall-out and we won't give the reptilian brain chance
to take over
if we do respond instinctively, learn how to deal
with it in a manner that's not harmful to ourselves or to others,
and to heed its message.
Avoiding causing road rage in others and avoiding situations that
could cause road rage in us
Let's deal with the first option of anticipating and avoiding the
situations that might cause "road rage". There are several things
you can work on:
avoid road rage by accepting all riders and
drivers (including you and me) make mistakes
Accept that noone is perfect and ride accordingly. Get out of the
mindset that other drivers on the road are out to get you. Most
frequently, dangerous situations arise because one driver makes a
simple judgement error. Sometimes they are guilty of obliviousness
But - vitally - there is absolutely NO REASON you should join them
in their mistake. Don't put yourself in a position where you rely on
someone else to keep you out of trouble.
So, know where mistakes happen and use your anticipation skills to
stay out of trouble. Junctions, roundabouts, bends, busy dual
carriageways are just a few places things go wrong. If you sit in
the blind spot of a car, and the driver suddenly changes lane into
your space, who's fault is it? His for not seeing you? Or yours for
hiding where you couldn't be seen?
Aim to be able to say to yourself: "ah yes, I was expecting him to
do that". It's a skill well worth practicing!
You might make the mistake yourself. An apology - a raised hand -
can often defuse a situation straight away. Advice to avoid eye
contact may only make things worse. I know that when someone does
something daft in front of me and then pretends I'm not there, my
blood pressure rises rapidly.
reduce your own stress threshold
In the first place, try to stop yourself from being stressed and in
a rush when you leave the house. Leave early and give yourself time
to get to your destinations so that you're not in a rush. Be
familiar with the route and alternate routes, and where the patterns
of traffic form. Traffic and weather reports will forwarn you to
problems before you leave.
Other things that will increase your stress threshold are discomfort
and tiredness - take regular breaks to rest and rehydrate on long
rides and wear kit that keeps you cool in hot weather. Try to avoid
driving if you feel unwell, or distracted for any reason. Don't ride
and drive, avoid riding when ill and be careful when taking any
Other common causes of stress are work and family problems.
avoid triggering aggressive behaviour yourself
Another trigger for "road rage" is drivers who are going too slow or
do not seem experienced. Make allowances for others. Don't make hand
signals. It's all to easy to speed up to tailgate or flash our
lights at a driver we feel is going too slow, and though we might
get our way, it could just easily tip the other driver over the edge
what you do may not affect you directly - but
could have a knock-on effect further down the road.
For instance, after following a slower driver for a couple of miles
on the twistiest, most fun bit of your favourite Sunday jaunt,
you've just impatiently carved your way past, forcing him to swerve
and brake to avoid hitting you (or at least, he thinks he would have
You've passed him - he's no longer a problem to you. But what about
the bike behind you, who has a perfectly safe overtake opportunity
but finds a driver now in the grips of road rage - and who swerves
towards the overtaking bike and tries to force him back behind him?
Ever happened to you? What goes round, comes around! We ALL share
the road, and your own behaviour may trigger aggression to the next
I'll cover this a bit more detail in another tip I'm preparing, but
you don't have to ride "in yer face" to make good progress. It's a
natural instinct to protect your own "space" - just think how
jealously people guard "their space" on a beach with towels and
windbreaks! Dazzling headlights, excessively loud pipes and
cut'n'thrust riding close to other vehicles all impinge on other
drivers' ideas of what their own road space should be, even when you
Read this statement I found on another website:
"Aggressive drivers are careless drivers who want
to get ahead of everyone on the road despite the toll it takes on
others... put their own convenience before anyone else's safety.
Other drivers may develop road rage, potentially violent anger, in
response and retaliation to the violations they feel other drivers
Now think about how we ride our bikes. Do we often want to get ahead
of everyone else?? Hmmm...
Never forget other road users have their own ideas about how riders
and drivers should behave on the roads and will judge YOU by THEIR
standards of behaviour. In other words, you may believe you did a
perfectly good and safe overtake but it may not appear so in the
eyes of the person you just passed or the driver coming the other
So who's right? That's a difficult one to answer, but if there is an
answer, it's probably "neither of you".
If you are performing manoeuvres that annoy or scare other drivers,
then you shouldn't be doing them, regardless of what you think is
safe. Aggressive driving is in the eye of the beholder - ask
yourself "how will another driver see what I am about to do" before
you do it - and it's worth remembering that few magistrates ride
bikes! A good rider is almost invisible to other drivers. On the
other hand, it's often difficult as a rider to understand why other
road users often have little perception of what is safe on a bike.
However, it's worth bearing in mind that the one who will come off
worst in any argument of four wheels vs two is the rider.
Avoiding responding to "road rage" like-for-like
So, move onto the second case - you are the unlucky rider who is
greeted with an inexplicable display of aggression by another road
user, or someone does something daft which you haven't foreseen and
you feel yourself getting angry.
HOW do you stop yourself responding with aggression yourself? HOW do
you stay calm and just let it go?
Easier said than done. As one expert on anger management writes:
"The anger will eat us up, while having little
effect on the object of our anger, which means we are twice victims,
and more the fool... Learning to manage anger is part of emotional
intelligence. We are never far from the two-year-old throwing a
tantrum. "We never grow up", someone said, "We just learn how to
behave in public". The difference is self-awareness and tools for
understanding the emotion, being able to stop, self-soothe and think
it through, and not letting it get the better of us".
The first step is to recognize it is happening and accept it. Our
responses are there for a reason, which should be noted. Anger gains
control over us when we either ignore it, or let ourselves react to
it in knee-jerk fashion. If you hide it away, the aggression will
simply build up and you'll "kick the dog" - some unsuspecting and
innocent party will bear the brunt of your growing resentment.
Well, the one thing we can't do with anger and aggression is ignore
it, even if we are not addicted to anger - and some people are.
Anger addiction goes way beyond anything you can deal with yourself
so professional councilling is in order.
So, at the risk of sounding a bit Zen-like myself, what are the
Sit with the anger. Experience it. Acknowledge it. Then let the
reasoning area of the brain re-establish control, and decide what,
if anything, you are going to do about it.
Respond, but don't react, by putting a deliberate pause in between
feeling and action. When you realise you are not "acting yourself",
breath deeply, count to ten, think it over and move on. Be willing
to do nothing, while feeling it at the same time. But don't ignore
A longer learning process is to learn to forgive. Injustices occur
all the time, and we have all been on the receiving end. One reason
this is a good policy is because mistakes can't be undone. An
apology may not be enough. If we forgive, we do so for our own
benefit, not the benefit of the perpetrator.
You can try to channel the anger into harmless activities. Chopping
wood or hitting golf balls when you're angry is theraputic. Riding
or driving faster isn't. On the bike you can try to describe the
situation objectively such as "ok the guy in front has pulled out,
failing to judge my speed and distance which means I now have to
brake to avoid him".
In conclusion, "road rage" is not something that other people suffer
from - we are all likely to be road ragers at some point. The key to
dealing with it is to both understand why we should avoid provoking
others to "road rage" and to try to deal with it if we ourselves
suffer from it.