'Road Rage': We're Driven To Destruction

In the simple act of merging into traffic on the highway you can see how evolutionary history has failed to prepare human beings for life in the 20th century. It is there that humanity's powerful instinct for territoriality, designed to operate at foot speed, is tested in the split seconds that separate a merely assertive maneuver from a provocative one at 60 miles an hour. And it was at such a juncture that the lives of a 24-year-old mother named Tracie Alfieri and 29-year-old Rene Andrews came together for a few fateful seconds last fall, at an on-ramp to I-71 near Cincinnati. Apparently enraged by the manner in which Andrews pulled into her lane, Alfieri, according to witnesses, attempted to pass her on the right shoulder, then pulled around Andrews's car on the left, cut in front and hit the brakes - causing Andrews to swerve into a stopped tractor-trailer, resulting in multiple injuries and the loss of the 6-month-old fetus she was carrying. Convicted on May 2 of aggravated vehicular homicide (against the fetus), Alfieri was sentenced last week to 18 months in prison.

You can't drive if you're blind, or blind drunk, but an alarming number of Americans find themselves, at least occasionally, driving in a blind rage. "It's a major social issue," says Dr. Ricardo Martinez, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "A 3,000-pound car in the hands of a rude, hostile person is a lethal weapon." A report on "road rage" to be released this week by the American Automobile Association concluded that "motorists . . . are increasingly being shot, stabbed, beaten and run over for inane reasons." And inanity is not confined to young louts in "Baywatch" T shirts; young men are by far the most common perpetrators, but middle-aged men and women can be equally big jerks. The most common manifestation of road rage was aggressive tailgating, followed by headlight flashing, "obscene gestures," blocking other vehicles and verbal abuse. Drivers have been assaulted with weapons ranging from partially eaten burritos to canes ("a favorite with the elderly and disabled") to golf clubs - and other vehicles, including buses, bulldozers, forklifts and military tanks. "In terms of fatal crashes, drunks are a much bigger menace," says David Willis, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "But the average motorist doesn't encounter a drunk very often, while in a place like Washington, D.C., at least once a week you'll have an encounter with some crazy guy on the road."

Naturally, the phenomenon has given rise to its own therapeutic movement, whose leading practitioner is a Whittier, Calif., psychologist named Arnold Nerenberg. Nerenberg, who calls himself "America's Road Rage Therapist," has identified four stimuli that provoke road rage. The most common is feeling endangered by someone else's driving - for example, when another driver cuts you off or follows too closely. Others are resentment at being forced to slow down, righteous indignation at someone who breaks traffic rules or steals your parking space and - perhaps the most dangerous, because it opens the door to an escalating exchange of hostilities - anger at another driver who takes his own road rage out on you. The fact that most drivers are mutual strangers contributes to the volatility of highway confrontations. "There's a deep psychological urge to release aggression against an anonymous other," Nerenberg says. Road-rage therapy tends toward the common-sensical - "Take a deep breath and just let it go," Nerenberg recommends - but it might help to consider that you might not be all that anonymous to the other driver. One of his patients realized the depth of his problem after he yelled an obscenity at the woman in the next car - who turned out to be his boss's wife.