Road rage? No, driver depression

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The Independent Online
Contrary to popular myth, road rage is not all the rage. The string of road closures announced last week is more likely to result in an epidemic of "highway helplessness" than outbreaks of physical violence.

The two-year closure of Hammersmith Bridge as of today, along with lane closures on the M4 flyover, not to mention the possible pedestrianisation of the City, is set to paralyse the west of London.

It will be enough to drive the 30,000 drivers who cross Hammersmith Bridge daily through the roof, but in fact they are more likely to keep a lid on their anger and suffer the psychological consequences later. In short, they will take flight rather than fight.

Feelings of helplessness and anxiety will be rife, says Matthew Joint, a psychologist in charge of behavioural analysis at the AA. In Driver Aggression, a study published this month, Mr Joint concludes: "The levels of anxiety and stress suffered by drivers are a more significant problem than the cases of road rage. The chances of a road rage incident are something like one in 10 million in a year, about the same odds as winning the National Lottery."

In extreme cases, these anxiety disorders may manifest themselves in panic attacks, post-traumatic stress and phobias of travelling on certain types of roads, Mr Joint adds. He cites two HGV male drivers who suffered such problems. "We're not necessarily talking about a woman in a small car. The stereotype is out of the window."

In the long term, some people will find that being snarled up in traffic will affect them more deeply. "Some people may suffer chronic anxiety, low self-esteem, hypertension or low blood pressure, and a greater number of the various medical ailments from colds and flu to back aches," says Mr Joint. "From an employee's point of view, the individual will become less efficient at his or her job."

Home life will suffer, too. "Research has shown that we can characterise our day on the basis of the worst elements. If you're having a lousy journey to and from work, when you get home and your partner asks: 'How was your day at the office?', you may be inclined to say it was grim, even if the interim was fine."

But forewarned is forearmed, according to speakers at a seminar next Wednesday at the Institution of Civil Engineers entitled "Behaviour and Congestion". One speaker, Kristine Beuret, a behavioural psychologist at the Social Research Associates, will propose a "more interventionist management of congestion". Drivers' tolerance of delays depends on the amount of information they have about them, she argues.