General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine



Road Rage

By Phyllis Coleman and Robert M. Jarvis

This article profiles the road rage phenomenon, reviews a growing number of court cases involving road rage, and describes Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED)-a psychiatric diagnosis that might explain why some motorists cannot suppress the urge to strike out and cause injury. The article concludes by suggesting that when IED is present, courts should be receptive to its use as a defense in road rage cases.
The road rage phenomenon. A great deal of speculation exists about why road rage occurs. The ostensible misunderstanding between drivers usually is considered to be only the trigger rather than the reason.
One possible explanation is that aggressive driving reflects an increasingly violent society. Of course, a host of external travel conditions, such as congestion, help to provoke road rage. Racism also has been linked to road rage, with approximately 38 violent traffic episodes per year being attributed to bigotry. Most of these begin as an accident or close call, but as tempers flare and racial insults are exchanged, the situation spins out of control. Except in rare instances, however, such quarrels really have "little relation to hate or racism. They are simply arguments between two motorists who overreact to a traffic dispute." Domestic violence plays a surprisingly large role in aggressive driving, with spouses and lovers increasingly venting domestic problems on the highway.
A driver's basic personality type also may be a significant factor. Poor impulse control can result in explosive episodes triggered by seemingly minimal provocation. Whether these are caused by personality disorders or organic disease, they are an important cause of dangerously aggressive driving. Violent traffic disputes are rarely the result of a single incident but are the cumulative result of a series of stressors in the motorist's life.
The majority of aggressive drivers are young, poorly educated males who have criminal records, histories of violence, and drug or alcohol problems. Many have had previous rages. At the same time, however, hundreds of motorists who have snapped and committed incredible violence are successful men and women with no known histories of crime, violence, or alcohol or drug abuse. Indeed, a number of celebrities have had road rage incidents, including Michael J. Fox, Huge Grant, and Gene Hackman. It is not possible to predict beyond doubt who will become a road rage aggressor.
To date, no state has passed a statute specifically addressing road rage, although a number of such bills have been drafted. Concerns over both the phrase's inherent ambiguity and its overlap with already existing laws are generally cited as the reasons these efforts have failed. In the meantime, a few jurisdictions have explicitly targeted various types of "aggressive driving." At present, the most commonly used interventions are enforcement and education.
Because of the psychological aspects of road rage, psychiatrists and others recommend therapeutic interventions like anger and stress management programs. Others, switching the focus, advise that potential victims should help protect themselves from road rage by being courteous and refusing to respond to rude or aggressive motorists.
Case law. Courts regularly make explicit reference to the road rage phenomenon. For example, in Boucher v. Grant, an accident caused by a postal worker's mistaken indication that it was safe to turn led the judge to comment, "At a time when 'road rage' has become commonplace on our highways, this case requires this Court to decide whether a courteous wave by one driver to another can give rise to liability."
The shadow cast by road rage also influences judges' thinking. In Schrader v. State, for example, the defendant challenged his conviction for possession of cocaine, which was found when the car in which he was a passenger was stopped because the radio was so loud it violated the city's anti-noise ordinance. When the defendant argued the stop was illegal because the ordinance was unconstitutional, the court replied, "The ordinance may restrict some First Amendment activity, but it may also reduce one form of public unrest-road rage." In E.M.C. v. K.C.Y., the court decided to transfer primary custody of a child to his mother after his father acknowledged that he inflicted damage to a woman's vehicle in "a fit of 'road rage.'"
Although no state has yet made road rage a crime, road rage incidents have led to prosecution and conviction for some other type of offense in numerous cases. For example, in State v. Plaisance, the defendant was charged with shooting into a car during a road rage incident. At trial, the state was permitted to introduce two previous road rage incidents involving the defendant. The appeals court found no error in allowing this evidence. In Crandall v. State, a woman's admission that her husband-charged with criminal mischief-suffered from road rage was used to establish he had acted intentionally in damaging another vehicle when leaving the scene of an argument.
In several cases, convictions for assault have been affirmed when altercations grew out of road rage incidents. Similar outcomes have been obtained in cases in which the charge was murder.
Intermittent Explosive Disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th ed. (DSM IV) classifies and organizes mental disorders. DSM IV provides the following diagnostic criteria to identify IED: (1) several discrete episodes of failure to resist aggressive impulses that result in serious assaultive acts of destruction of property; (2) the degree of aggressiveness expressed is grossly out of proportion to any precipitating psychosocial stressors; (3) the aggressive episodes cannot be better accounted for by another mental disorder and are not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance or a general medical condition; and (4) after an initial period of tension followed by a sense of relief, an individual may feel upset, remorseful, regretful, or embarrassed about the aggressive behavior.
DSM IV excludes incidents that are the direct physiological effects of a substance. Because an estimated 25 percent of road rage cases involve alcohol and/or drugs, this criterion may preclude the use of IED, but researchers repeatedly conclude that individuals with IED and other impulse disorders may become aggressive under alcohol's disinhibiting influence and frequently demonstrate a marked sensitivity to alcohol. Thus, as in road rage, substance abuse often contributes to IED episodes.
Although DSM IV concludes that IED is rare, other researchers contend that a large number of cases escape diagnosis. DSM IV cautions "[i]n forensic settings, individuals may malinger Intermittent Explosive Disorder to avoid responsibility for their behavior."
Despite such concerns, psychiatric evidence is remarkably consistent with the profiles of many road rage aggressors, including histories of multiple traffic accidents and moving violations. Although anyone can be a road rage aggressor, the majority are young men. Many people attribute the disparity to testosterone and the hypothesis that high levels of the hormone in boys from puberty on contribute to aggression. Psychiatrists recognize that episodic violent behavior is more common in males than in females and, despite uncertainty about the onset age, appears to be so from late adolescence to the mid-thirties.
DSM IV's reference to "several discrete episodes" is important in light of the fact that a recurring question in criminal prosecutions is the admissibility of prior road rage incidents. Ordinarily a defendant will seek to exclude evidence of prior bad acts, but in road rage cases, the aggressor may actually want to introduce earlier episodes. This can help establish that the individual suffers from IED.

Phyllis Coleman and Robert M. Jarvis are professors of law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 383 of The Urban Lawyer, Spring 2001 (33:2).

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