British motorists suffer more from road rage than drivers on the Continent, according to the first comprehensive survey of the phenomenon in Europe. Not only are Britons far more likely to be victims of road rage, we are also the first to resort to obscene gestures to relieve pent-up anger.
The new study of 10,000 motorists in 16 European countries shows four out every five Britons - around 80 per cent - have been victims of road rage.
Our chances of experiencing road rage are a third higher than in Finland or Switzerland, where fewer than 60 per cent of drivers have suffered road rage from fellow motorists.
But the survey, by Gallup International, shows we are not suffering in isolation. German and Dutch drivers are prone to tailgate fellow motorists, and flashing your headlights on full beam is the favoured tactic in Portugal.
The key factor behind the prevalence of aggressive driving is identified as our congested road network, the most heavily used in Europe. At any time, there are up to 24 million cars on the road, 31 million people hold a driving licence and there is an average of 67 vehicles per kilometre of road, compared with 33 vehicles in Belgium and 34 in France.
The RAC Foundation, a policy unit specialising in road safety, said the survey's findings highlight the need for the Government and police to take road rage more seriously.
"While many motorists lose their cool, toot their horns and leave it at that, it can lead to much more," said Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation. "We have had high-profile cases such as Kenneth Noye and the six-month-old baby who died when a car was allegedly driven off the road by another vehicle.
"But the police are reluctant to categorise such offences as anything more than the kind of aggressive driving which has always been around. We're not calling for road rage to be made a specific crime but we want police to codemark crimes such as dangerous driving and actual bodily harm when road rage is a factor."
The survey coincides with the launch of a website, www.reportroadrage.co.uk, to which the RAC Foundation has contributed. The site will collect statistics of incidents of aggressive driving, and includes advice on how to avoid losing your temper, and a questionnaire to test your susceptibility to seeing red behind the wheel.
The RAC believes road rage drivers fall into two categories, the unreconstructed offenders, who are aggressive, impatient and inconsiderate in everyday life and take their anti-social behaviour into the driving seat. The second group is made up of normally calm individuals who react badly to events and circumstances on the road.
There are several triggers. Drivers who cut into roadwork queues at the last minute are cited by an RAC survey as the major factor, while others include motorway drivers monopolising the middle lane; driving too close at high speed; overtaking on the inside; stealing parking spaces; jumping red lights; failing to thank others for letting them pass in a narrow street, and loud thumping stereos.
Women are as likely to be overcome by road rage as men. Mr King said: "We had a case of a vicar's wife punching another female motorist for taking a parking space. If they had bumped into one another on the pavement there would have been apologies all round. Some women - not all - may feel empowered by a car and consider it a suit of armour." Mr King believes we can learn from the efforts of other nations.
In the US, where 459,000 crashes were caused by aggressive driving in 1997, road rage is a recognised crime in many states. Those convicted can be made to take courses in defensive driving and anger management.
"Motorists often misinterpret someone's driving as aggressive when it isn't," said Mr King. "You can have a simple lack of concentration but some drivers see their cars as second homes and view a driver cutting in front of them as invading their space.
"We need to get cars talking to one another. If you make a mistake, just raise your hand in acknowledgement. The Gallup survey also showed Italians were most likely to vent their anger by tooting their horns and shouting. That may be a good thing because it relieves the tension."
The RAC Foundation is also trying to discover whether certain types of vehicle are more likely to be involved in road rage incidents.
"There is a hierarchy of cars and size is part of it," said Mr King. "White vans and four-by-fours are certainly part of the equation."
Road rage spreads far. A four-by-four driver in the Indian capital of New Delhi faces the death penalty for reversing over a driver after a minor bump at a pizza parlour.
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