Another Perspective

Intermittently Explosive Commuting

Are drivers crazy -- or is the drive itself just nuts?

By 6.8.06

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"Road rage" is now an official disease -- Intermittent Explosive Disorder, the shrinks call it. According to a study funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, something on the order of 16 million Americans suffer from IED. Inadequate production of the brain chemical serotonin leaves victims unable to properly regulate their moods -- and thus, their behavior. Confronted with chock-a-block traffic, left-lane hogs, etc., they gesture rudely, hurl insults -- or worse.

But is IED really a malady? Or just the natural expression of a heavily overtaxed fight-or-flight mechanism intrinsic to human nature? In other words, is it reasonable to be stressed out and angry as a consequence of having to sit and stew in endless traffic?

Or is it in fact a sign of health that more and more of us chafe at being caught like lab rats in a continent-sized Skinner Box -- and manifest our natural frustrations by leaning on our horns, stomping on the gas and doing whatever's in our power to flee?

Think on it for a moment: Modern humans are essentially the same as our ancestors of 100,000 years ago; widespread (and inescapable) gridlock is a phenomenon of the past 50 years. In most parts of the country, it is a younger phenomenon than that. We were not bred for this sort of abuse. We have not had time to evolve new mechanisms (such as an internal morphine release gland, let's say) to cope with an environment our hunter-gatherer systems are completely ill-equipped to deal with. The chaos; the unremitting noise -- the slow boil of constant pressure with no escape valve. The flood of stress hormones that rush into our bloodstream, finding no productive outlet. Of course we want to shout. Or even hit something. The temptation to use our car as a battering ram is hard to beat back down into the nether regions of our subconscious.

We respond, in other words, very much in the way you'd expect a cornered animal to respond. We get angry. Our vision narrows to the singular focus of getting through -- and getting away. Forms of civility become a hobble; like passengers on a doomed ocean liner, the situation devolves to every man for himself. Sink or swim -- even if you have to push someone else under to keep your own head above water.

It's ugly and unpleasant -- but it's the reality. Being quiet and polite is not only increasingly difficult, it's apt to leave one holding the short end of the stick (or at least, constantly abused by fellow -- and more aggressively self-preserving -- motorists).

But it's not a "disease."

Becoming stressed out -- and ultimately, enraged -- is an entirely predictable, entirely natural reaction to an unnatural situation. Sitting in traffic for a couple of hours every day is madness. Willfully subjecting ourselves to this and not expecting negative consequences is like failing to make the connection between a pack-a-day habit and emphysema. Stop smoking -- or better yet, never start -- and the problem disappears.

We don't need a pill.

We do need to recognize a dangerous and unhealthy situation for what it is -- and take steps to ameliorate it. That would include encouraging people to live closer to where they work -- or telecommuting -- instead of encouraging them (via short-sighted land-use policies) to buy a home in some distant suburb.

That's what's crazy -- not the supposed sufferers of "Intermittent Explosive Disorder." If we want less of it, we need to address the underlying causes -- not focus on disease-ifying the all-too-predictable symptoms.

Failing that, subscribe to satellite radio, get some books on tape -- whatever it takes to get your mind (and your glands) off the galling prospect of another daily grind. Your blood pressure will thank you. And you might just avoid a fender-bender, fistfight -- or worse.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.