Road rage is a curious phenomenon. In our quietest, most reflective moments I hope we would all be prepared to admit that none of us is perfect – that we sometimes react to perceived poor road craft in a way that doesn’t show us in a very good light and which might even inflame any confrontational situation in which we happen to find ourselves.
When cyclists feel threatened by bad driving, more often than we care to admit it we shout and swear and gesticulate with the worst of them, justifying our uncharacteristic loutishness by saying that we are in fear of our lives in these situations. And of course that’s true – there’s nothing quite like a near-death experience with its unwanted rush of adrenaline to add a bit of an edge to your debating style.
What’s also true is that far too many motorists (and let’s not duck the fact that most of us are motorists too) get dreadfully wound up when they’re behind the wheel and do things that they – we – wouldn’t dream of doing anywhere else. We shout at strangers, we refuse to consider views other than our own, we threaten each other, we explode if our progress is impeded, we protect our place on the road with a rabid, disproportionate zeal. Most of the time, most of us do none of these things, of course, but it’s a pretty rare motorist who can truly claim to be innocent of all charges. I know I can’t.
With depressing regularity, things escalate to a ridiculous level. We all watched the recent YouTube clip of the cyclist’s altercation with everyone’s favourite Australian café chain owner and Landrover driver with a mixture of horror and barely concealed glee, our prejudices hardening by the second as we stared, slack jawed at the driver’s spittle-flecked lunacy. Many of us chose to downplay the role played in the drama by the cyclist himself. Or if we didn’t, we rationalized it with the old yes-but-we’re-not-endangering-anyone’s-life defence. It’s a good defence too, even if it doesn’t take any of the heat out of these volatile clashes.
It is mind-boggling that this titanic confrontation, which could so easily have ended in a serious assault and injury – perhaps even a jail sentence – stemmed from a moment’s misguided irritation triggered by someone not using a cycle path. Can you imagine such an explosive encounter stemming from something so trivial anywhere other than on the road? At the supermarket checkout, perhaps, when someone brings six items to the five-or-fewer queue? In the café, when someone beats you to the fairy cake you had your eye on? Hardly.
The only comparable scenario I can think of might be in a city centre pub at chucking out time on a Friday night when a pint is spilled, but that would be fuelled by industrial quantities of lager and shots. There is no such explanation for road rage.
So what does explain it? Is it cultural? I don’t think so. I’ve never seen any violent bike vs car encounters on French, Italian or Spanish roads and, let’s face it, they're hardly nationalities known for suppressing their feelings. Perhaps that’s the issue – perhaps us Brits are all so buttoned up for so much of the time that we need an outlet for our rage. But laughing boy in the Richmond Landrover was Australian so there goes that theory.
The only logical explanation I can think of is traffic congestion. My completely unscientific observation is that the emptier the road I’m using, the nicer other road users are. I’ve never felt safer than I did when I was cycling in the Massif Central a few years ago. On the odd occasion that I encountered cars (perhaps a dozen on a really busy day), drivers would toot (not BLARE) their horns and wave and smile as they passed, giving me as much space as the road allowed. But then they weren’t late; they weren’t being held up; they weren’t desperately cursing the moment they started this infernal journey…
So what do we do about it? I have no idea. In order for congestion to ease, the roads would have to become emptier, at which point we would flock back to them like the fools we are. We are so completely, pathetically and terminally in thrall to the motorcar that I can’t see this pattern ever changing.
So collectively, perhaps, we are doomed. But individually we have the power of choice. We can choose to not drive. We can choose to avoid the busiest roads at the busiest times – leave earlier; take the scenic route! We can choose to be courteous rather than combative.
Perhaps we can even choose, in those red-mist moments of inflamed passions and righteous fury, to remember that really we’re all the same. That crimson-cheeked loon you’re screaming at for being so wrong, so stupid and so dangerous really might as well be you.