Serious Question: Why Does Losing a Few Seconds Lead to Road Rage?

If you’ve ever biked on a city street — or even just driven a little below the speed limit — you’ve probably encountered this situation: A driver behind you starts honking in irritation, then races past you at frightening speed only to hit a red light at the next intersection.

Why does this type of thing set your blood boiling behind the wheel? Photo: Wikipedia
Why does this type of thing get people’s blood boiling behind the wheel? Photo: Wikipedia via Streets.mn

What is the source of all that aggression?

Adam Miller at Streets.mn has been giving road rage some thought, and he thinks it’s not really about the lost seconds, it’s about the violation of our expectations:

Think about someone in front of you driving more slowly than you’d like in left lane of the freeway. Think about the car in front of you being slow to start at the newly green light. Think about Grandpa out for a leisurely drive when you need to get to work. Or even worse, think about one of those darn biking scofflaws taking the lane (in between running red lights, skimming from god-fearing taxpayers and endangering soccer moms’ children).

The first three may be technically illegal and/or dangerous. None of them are a material delay to your driving experience. All of them are frustrating. Why?

If you spend a half mile behind a bike, or two miles doing 55 instead of 65 or a few extra seconds at a light, your trip will range from exactly the same (if, for example, you’d have to stop at the next light anyway) to a few seconds longer. Why does it feel so important?

I think an answer to that question is critical to thinking about how to design our roads and, hopefully, make them safer for all users. If the answer is those lost seconds are precious and drivers can’t be asked to spare them, then maybe we can just keep expanding road capacity (to heck with induced demand!) and we’ll be a nation of happily speeding drivers.

In case the sarcasm isn’t obvious, I don’t think those seconds are that precious. And I don’t think anyone who stops to think about it actually believes they are.

Instead, I think what’s frustrating about these experiences isn’t that we’re not going slightly faster. It’s that we’re going slower than our context tells us is appropriate. Driving less than 30 miles per hour somewhere like here, for example, doesn’t inspire the same rage:

Nobody expects to race unimpeded down a street like this, says Adam Miller, via Streets.mn
Nobody expects to race unimpeded down a street like this, says Adam Miller, via Streets.mn

When I was a kid we lived on Long Lake Road in New Brighton. When we first moved there, it was a winding two-lane county road with a gravel shoulder. Then it got rebuilt with wide paved shoulders and cement curbs. I remember my dad consistently making a point of driving exactly 30 miles per hour down the new, wider, safer-feeling road. There was always someone tailgating him. Are the north suburbanites just scofflaws?

Nope. It was “safe” for the vehicles to go significantly faster than 30 mph down the new, wider, straighter road and they could feel it. Asking them to consciously restrain themselves to 30 mph (or below) is a losing game, even in the days before cell phones. Compliance takes constant vigilance that humans may simply be incapable of maintaining even if they want to.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Plan Philly has the news about a $10 million TIGER grant to help bridge some key gaps in the city’s bike system. Greater Greater Washington reports that D.C.’s transit agency has picked a new general manager from outside the transit industry. And Bike Portland shares a study that identifies key differences between what makes a place good for walking, and what makes it good for biking.

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