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Anger Management - dealing with road rage and red mist

From time to time I get asked if I have any solutions to what the issues known as 'red mist' and 'road rage'. Of all the questions I've tried to answer, this one is probably the most difficult. Although my background is in science, I'm not a psychologist. Mostly what I've written here is what I know works for me on the occasions I feel myself getting a bit carried away with riding or acting aggressively if someone makes me angry. What I do know is the one thing we simply cannot do is let it take control. In particular, anger needs to be recognised for what it is - we are never far away from behaving like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum. We never grow up, we just learn how to behave in public, yet there's a limit to self-control. If we bottle anger up, it will simply build up until we 'kick the dog'. Some unsuspecting and innocent party bears the brunt of OUR resentment.

First of all, we need to try to identify the problem. Whilst because 'red mist' and 'road rage' are both psychological states we might develop whilst riding, they are not the same.

Red mist is a state where we are no longer assessing risk realistically. Perhaps we begin to ride at higher speeds, pull off more overtakes, or corner with bigger lean angles than we would normally. Instead of this increasing our stress levels, as it would normally, we can actually get a 'buzz' from this kind of riding when everything seems to be 'in tune' and effortless. Maybe we begin to enjoy the thrill, maybe we start to justify our behaviour because we're out to impress others - perhaps riding in a group, or even on an assessed ride. It's a state that racers, and even professional drivers such as police or ambulance drivers can get fall into in pursuit of the 'noble cause' of responding to an emergency call. It's something the professionals are warned about, but nobody tells the average rider how to look for the warning signs, we just get castigated when we fall into the trap.

Road Rage is a somewhat different psychological trap, and has been around since Daimler first stuck four wheels round an engine. If you want a classic literary example of a driver with road rage, think of Mr. Toad in "The Wind in the Willows". Essentially, it's aggressive behaviour around other road users, particularly when someone does something that irritates us, perhaps by impeding our progress. Road rage can be relatively low-level 'shouty' behaviour such as unnecessary flashes of headlights or use of the horn, or hand signals that aren't to be found in the Highway Code.

Hopefully we can shrug it off, but if we respond in kind, then the situation can rapidly escalate into aggressive tailgating, swerving towards other vehicles, or brake-testing the vehicle behind. Bikers have been known to kick cars, but 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. According to research on what annoys drivers, the main triggers for driver anger are:

  • tailgating
  • being cut up
  • inappropriate overtaking
  • undertaking on motorways

You'll notice the word inappropriate. It's nearly always a subjective view, where someone does something we don't think they should have. Not too long ago, I was rounding a fairly gentle left-hander positioned around half-a-metre from the centre line when I spotted an oncoming car. I moved inward to the centre of the lane - a completely unhurried manoeuvre that in no way inconvenienced the driver coming the other way. Nevertheless, he found it necessary to swerve aggressively towards me, sound the horn and make rude gestures.

Of course, our own view of what we just did is usually completely different. My position on the bend was - compared with a lot of advanced riders - rather restrained. I always aware that motorcyclists often appear impatient to other road users because of our ability to accelerate and overtake, or by taking up positions which a car driver finds inexplicable. Have a read of this:

"Aggressive drivers are careless drivers who want to get ahead of everyone on the road... [who] 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 commit."

Anybody here ride a bike because they think it allows them to make 'better progress' than "everyone else on the road"? Hmmm. We must never forget that when we share the roads, we are judged by everyone else's standards of behaviour. What seems perfectly good and sensible riding to us may not appear that way to the driver we just passed or coming the other way. Simply because think we are a 'better' rider than they are a driver is not an adequate reason for ignoring what 'the other fellow' thinks about our riding.

So who's right? The biker? Or the driver? If there IS an answer, it's probably "neither of us", but what I would say is that a really advanced piece of riding is not one that necessarily gains us 'advantage' but one that's almost imperceptible to other drivers.

What really doesn't help are smug statements like this next one:

"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 behaviour is equally selfish, immature, and dangerous."

It's positively complacent: "it's not me that's the problem, it's everyone else". This positively hinder our understanding. The fact is that road rage is not something 'other people' suffer from - anyone with a human brain is a potential road rager.

So, how do we keep ourselves under control when provoked? How do we detune ourselves when the buzz starts to get the better of us?

There are plenty of helpful-seeming articles online which usually start by saying something like:

"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... but HOW??

I did some reading around the topic and it seems that at the most fundamental level, the issue is at least partly down to how the human brain has developed. The most primitive part of the brain, sometimes called the 'reptilian brain' because we share it with crocodiles, is designed for survival rather than reasoned thinking. It's around 300 million years old and its basic programming is 'react or die'. The first mammals with more advanced brains only appeared around 100 million years later, and the human brain which gives us our flexible reasoning capabilities is only around 200,000 years old. But even in our human brain, that primitive reptilian brain always on the alert and it cannot distinguish between a real threat demanding instant action and a scary surprise that turns out to be nothing significant when we have had a moment to think about it. Whenever we're shocked, there's a conflict as the ancient, hard-wired fight and flight response of our reptilian ancestors is pitted against the flexible reasoning responses of our 'new' human brain.

So when we react instinctively and without thinking - and sometimes violently - we've let the reptilian brain take control.

Now, if you've read any of my other writing on the so-called 'survival reactions' - the totally inappropriate reactions that kick in when we suffer SURPRISE! on the road, you may begin to see something of a connection.

Not only do we need to try to defuse our own responses when we feel provoked, but we need to understand how not to provoke road rage in others.

I've long stopped looking at the road as a place where everyone should "do the right thing" because I've learned the hard way that when a dangerous situation arises because someone does something wrong, that's guaranteed to make me angry. And no-one using the roads is perfect. Not you and not me, and not even the most highly trained riders. We all make mistakes, and many of the dangerous situations really are the result of a simple error of judgement. There but for the grace of god, etc..

So I've learned to try to predict the situations where drivers could put me at risk - the classic SMIDSY near-miss is a good example - and to see it coming before it happens. If we're expecting something to happen, our reasoning brain deals with the fall-out and won't give the reptilian brain chance to take over - we'll simply say to ourselves: "I saw that coming".

And what if we're the unlucky rider greeted with an inexplicable display of aggression by another road user, like that driver who didn't like my cornering line? Maybe we were behaving in a predictable manner. Maybe we've just surprised them. Or perhaps we're on the receiving end of some 'second-hand anger' after the previous rider triggered the response we just saw. It doesn't make the driver's aggression right, but it does make it a little more understandable. Try not to get riled.

Most importantly we need to get out of the 'victim mindset' where we believe that all other drivers on the road are out to get us. They aren't. Drivers are mostly relatively careful around motorcyclists - it's just that our reptilian brain is far better at noticing the rare occasions when another road user puts us at risk than our reasoning brain is at spotting the far more common moments that drivers keep well clear of us.

If we do start to slip into red mist or aggression, we need to recognise it for what it is. We MUST acknowledge it. Only then will the reasoning area of the brain re-establish control, and decide what, if anything, we are going to do about it. But don't ignore red mist or anger. Once we realise we're not acting like a grown-up, breath deeply, count to ten, think it over and move forward.

And if I had to sum up my advice in one phrase? It would be:

"Start looking for the positive on the roads, tune out the negative."

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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