British psychological society conference: Respectable face of road rage is revealed

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Priests, doctors and policemen do not fit the archetypal picture of a violent thug. But according to psychologists the modern phenomenon of road rage has created a new type of attacker - older, better-off and more respectable - than the typical violent criminal.

Over the past three years, more and more road-rage incidents have been reported and worsening traffic conditions and increased day-to-day stress have been held responsible.

Worryingly, increased awareness of the phenomenon appears to be legitimising this form of anti-social behaviour, said John Groeger, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Surrey.

The professor, whose talk at the Edinburgh Science Festival was sponsored by the British Psychological Society, said that he was initially sceptical that road rage existed. But after examining newspaper reports of 100 incidents since 1993 was convinced it was a new type of attack.

While social violence is usually carried out by young males aged 18-23, road-rage perpetrators showed a very different profile. The vast majority were in in their mid-thirties and were from widely diverging social classes. "This is most unusual," said Professor Groeger. "We are talking about a much older group of people (than are usually involved in violence)." He said that there were "a very big spread" in the types of people involved. Company directors and policemen had attacked others, and there were two cases of doctors pulling guns on their victims. In one incident, an elder of a Jewish church had attacked a Buddhist monk at a set of traffic lights, and a vicar's wife had also attacked another woman in another case.

Men tended to attack other men, and women other women: "The notion that there is a sex difference that males are violent toward women drivers is wrong," said the professor.

In other forms of violence, 80 per cent of perpetrators knew their victims, whereas people rarely knew those they attacked in a road-rage situation: "It all suggests we are talking about something different," said the professor.

Previous research he had carried out on 100 drivers suggested that over- confident drivers - those who thought their ability behind the wheel was better than average - could be more at risk of reacting violently.

In the study, drivers went out for 22 miles with an instructor who commented on their driving. Those who had been over- confident to start off with became anxious, hostile, more sensitive to criticism and more critical of other roadusers' abilities: "The over-confident became over-critical, and also tended to overreact because of their anxiety," said Professor Groeger.

Society has become increasingly aware of road rage - this week it was revealed that Derek Wilton's character in Coronation Street will die of a heart attack after a road-rage argument. But more media coverage of the problem added to the "danger it was becoming a legitimate form of anti-social behaviour", warned the professor.

More road congestion was adding to the problem and, coupled with extra stress if someone then cuts up a driver, violence can result: "The confluence of increased traffic density and increased stress in many other areas of our life can combine to produce that."

Professor Groeger said that more research needed to be done into road- rage attackers so that therapy could be more successfully targeted. In other situations, anger management had proved successful.