a few years back, a toy for grown-ups, called Road Warrior, provided the vicarious thrill of shooting that exasperating Sunday driver in front of you. The black plastic console that fit over your dashboard resembled the weapons control panel of a jet fighter. Bristling with gun sights, dials and a joystick, Road Warrior transformed your driver's seat into the cockpit of an F-15. The best feature was the sound effects. You lined up your quarry in your cross hairs, pressed the trigger and "BUDDABUDDABUDDABUDDA!!! -- right at the car in front of you. In heavy traffic, the experience was immensely therapeutic, a cleansing burst of belligerence that didn't go beyond the imagination.
The toy never really took off, and that's too bad. Nowadays, its ersatz violence has been replaced by the real thing. In California, home of the three-hour commute, more than a dozen people have died on the highways from traffic-related shootings since 1991. Elsewhere, an increasing number of drivers are using their cars as weapons to avenge real or imagined slights on the road. One typical episode occurred last February on a highway just outside Washington, D.C. A driver cut off another motorist, sparking an angry high-speed chase that left three people dead.
The growing carnage is part of a new phenomenon labeled "road rage," and a House Transportation subcommittee is holding hearings on Capitol Hill Thursday to explore ways of dealing with it. "It's a national disaster," says Jeff Nelligan, a staffer on the House committee. "It's making our roads some of the most dangerous places in the country."
Arnold Nerenberg, a Los Angeles psychologist who conducted a study of the problem, estimates that fully half of the nation's 120 million drivers experience road rage an average of four times a year, producing a quarter of a billion highway incidents annually, ranging from shouting to shooting.
"Road rage is an identifiable mental disorder in which one driver cannot control the anger he or she feels toward another driver because of something that other driver did," Nerenberg explains. "At the non-felonious level, it can range from screaming, making obscene gestures, beeping the horn, flashing headlights, hostile stares and spitting. At the felonious level, it escalates to ramming the other car, firing guns and chasing after other drivers with the intent to harm them."
All too often, those intentions are fulfilled. In an incident last week in Washington, D.C., a beeping horn so enraged one driver that he stopped his car in the middle of a busy street, dragged the other driver -- an off-duty policewoman -- from her car and choked her until stunned passersby pulled him off.
What triggers road rage? Nerenberg points to aggressive type-A personalities behind the wheel whose fuse is lit whenever they feel endangered or delayed by another motorist. Like the Washington cop-choker, sometimes the beep of another driver's horn is enough to light their fuse. For others, it can be something as simple as the loss of a parking space. "Generally, road ragers don't care about their rage, and they don't think about the damage they can cause," Nerenberg says. "All they care about is all those bad drivers out there who are holding them up, driving poorly and pissing them off."
Earlier this year, after a spate of anger-related traffic accidents, a group of Washington, D.C.-area residents formed Citizens Against Speeding and Aggressive Driving. Executive Director Lisa Sheik says the group now lobbies nationally for more stringent highway safety measures and more aggressive law enforcement.
The House Surface Transportation subcommittee says it plans to explore these suggestions, as well as some time-honored ones. Committee spokesman Nelligan says Republican members tend to view the problem of road rage as a reaction to the poor state of the nation's highway system. In other words, the solution could be more federally funded road construction -- traditionally the biggest pork barrel in American legislative politics.
Nerenberg favors a more therapeutic approach. To treat road rage, he says, a person first must admit that he has it, and then he must demonstrate the willingness to change. Says Nerenberg: "If they can come that far, the battle is already half won." Nerenberg also provides show-and-tell demonstrations to his patients, accompanying them in the car and throwing screaming fits to demonstrate how crazed and unattractive they appear. In some cases, he tapes their tantrums, then plays them back. He monitors their blood pressure to demonstrate how anger sends it skyrocketing.
"The idea is to get them to go from road rage to road annoyance," Nerenberg says. "Most drivers feel annoyance toward other drivers at some point while they're driving. The cooler heads may mumble something under their breath, and that's normal. What's abnormal is when it goes beyond muttering to screaming and other aggressive actions."
One gift store here that used to carry the "Road Warrior" is now selling a more touchy-feely driver's aid: a spiral flip book that drivers can hold out their windows at the end of a handle. Each page has its own message, allowing a driver to communicate. Many of the messages are benign, even flirtatious. But others are downright rude, like "Get off my butt," "Learn to drive" and "Do not reproduce, you're ugly."
"I suppose that's an improvement," says Nerenberg. "At least one of the drivers isn't screaming those insults. Then again, I've seen words far less insulting trigger some amazing displays of road rage. My advice? I'd forget the flip book and stick to the Road Warrior. It's safer."