Road Rage!

By Yeo Li Shian

35-year-old Jack Tan* (not his real name) lost his cool recently when another driver tried to cut into his path during a traffic jam at SS2, Petaling Jaya. Furious that the other car almost hit his, he gave chase to the other car just to let off steam.

His anger made him lose control, which resulted in him hitting the back of the other car. Not long after, he suffered the consequences- a huge insurance claim by the other driver who claimed that his car was badly damaged.

“I don’t know what got over me that day,” laments the usually law-abiding driver.


According to Dr. Nivashinie Mohan, a consultant psychologist at a private hospital, road rage can happen due to various reasons. Rising stress levels especially during bad traffic jams has an impact on behaviour, such as blasting horns or tailgating another driver, which can instigate road rage.Dr Nivashinie points out that many drivers are overworked and frustrated. “When stressed by traffic jams, they lose their rationale and tend to drive badly. This in turn stresses out other drivers.”

While the majority of rage-related accidents are fuelled by stress, road rage may be more than an emotional outburst. Psychologists believe that typically good-natured people could also turn aggressive and impulsive when provoked on the roads.

“Some people just seem to change personalities when they get behind the wheel,” says Dr Nivashinie.


According to Mayo Clinic, an online health resource group, road rage is one of the many possible symptoms of Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). First recognised by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1980, the condition involves an outburst that grows out of proportion to a situation.

These impulsive emotional outbursts are often the main triggers for subsequent aggressive actions and property destruction. However, it is immediately followed by a sense of relief, Dr. Nivashinie explains.

“Road rage may be a symptom of a deeper cognitive and psychological problem,” she points out.  “After the episode, a person with IED may feel upset, remorseful, regretful, or embarrassed about their aggressive behaviour.”

Recurrent aggressive stimulations such as road rage can take a great toll on people. Research shows that stress hormones released in anger are harmful to the heart and other parts of our body. Inability to manage this anger could result in health implications such as heart attacks, headaches, increased anxiety and insomnia.

Although the cause true cause of IED is not clear, Dr. Nivashinie says categorising all road rage behaviour as IED might be used as an excuse for otherwise plain bad manners. She believes that increasing stress levels and unresolved childhood experiences are possibly the root causes of these emotional outbursts.

“IED appears to be more common in men than women especially among those from families with a history of mood disorders or substance abuse,” she reveals. “The disorder usually becomes apparent during adolescence or the following decade.”

Symptoms may appear during childhood or suddenly, continuing into adulthood. Although the condition usually improves with age, Dr. Nivashinie cautions that it can worsen if there is head trauma, brain injury, alcohol addiction or substance abuse.

Early risk factors include physical and emotional causes. Aggressors may have experienced a bitter childhood that led them to drugs or alcohol.  A lack of positive role models or growing up in an unstable family environment lead to negative characteristics such as addiction-prone, impulsive and antisocial.

“Symptoms of IED can appear at any time from late childhood through early 20s,” she adds. “The onset may be abrupt without any warning.”

Physiologically, aggressors experience symptoms such as a tingling sensation, buildup of pressure inside head or chest and palpitations before an outburst. Some people describe it as a feeling of losing control of their senses all of a sudden.


As modern life gets increasingly hectic, are there any solutions to curb road rage? Dr. Nivashinie suggests a combination of educational media campaigns and tightening legislation on aggressive behavior on roads.

Knowing they can’t get away with it will remind drivers to be more tolerant on the road, she stresses. She also recommends stress management techniques such as breathing exercises or playing upbeat music on your car audio system, which helps generate more oxygen and keeps you calm.

Her take-home message is that all drivers must learn to accept traffic jams as part of urban living. “Don’t get agitated when other drivers do silly things and stay calm. Laugh at the other driver’s mistakes instead of retaliating in anger,” she advises.

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