Roaad Rage: Drivers' Understandings and Experiences

By Lupton, Deborah | Journal of Sociology, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Roaad Rage: Drivers' Understandings and Experiences


Lupton, Deborah, Journal of Sociology


Abstract

The phenomenon of road rage has attracted much media attention since the mid-1990s, but little research has been conducted into how motorists have incorporated the concept into their experiences and understandings of driving. This article reports the findings from a qualitative study on road rage, which used in-depth interviews with 77 people living in Sydney to investigate the meanings given to road rage and aggressive driving. The research showed that driving was a potent source of autonomy, pleasure and self-expression among motorists, meanings that were often frustrated by the travails of negotiating the road system. The concept of road rage had become integrated into the interviewees' accounts of driving, and they were uniformly condemning of it. Road rage was represented as a response to the stresses of urban living, not only driving in a crowded road system but also the pressures exerted by such factors as a competitive work environment and lack of time. A strong gender and social class difference was noted in the ways in which the interviewees described their emotional responses to driving frustrations. The findings revealed that the expression of anger in road rage is negatively conceptualized because of the challenges it poses to the idea of the `civilized' body/self, but also that such expression is seen as understandable in the context of an urban environment replete with stress.

Key words: aggressive driving, anger, emotion, road rage

Introduction

The phenomenon known as `road rage' has attracted much media attention in recent years. Road rage is a new term, used to describe a range of aggressive and dangerous driving behaviours directed at other motorists. The phrase invokes images of uncontrolled temper, the open display of anger and frustration. Whether it is referred to by this more colloquial term or more formally as `aggressive driving', such behaviour has been subject to a heightened level of concern and policy-making since the mid 1990s, when it first began receiving attention in the news media (Lupton, 2001).

Acts of violence on the roads have: been an object of academic study for over 30 years, mainly from within the discipline of psychology (Brewer, 2000: 49). Most of the relevant literature uses quantitative methods to investigate the difference between drivers who are aggressive and those who are not, focusing on psychosocial and individualistic factors (Lowenstein, 1997). There are very few studies in this area that adopt a sociocultural perspective or take an in-depth or qualitative interpretive approach. Indeed, given the everyday nature of driving for many people in western societies, and the important and dominant role played by the motor vehicle in these societies, both as a form of transport and as a consumer commodity (Stallabrass, 1996; Graves-Brown, 1997; Lupton, 1999), it is surprising how little sociological research has been published on driving or car culture. Even fewer sociological studies have sought to address the question of aggressive driving or road rage.

In this article, I report on the findings from a qualitative interview-based study exploring Sydneysiders' experiences of road rage, focusing here on three major aspects: the driving experience; the characterization of road rage and road ragers; and anger and the self. First, however, I provide an account of how perspectives from the sociology of emotions may provide some insights for how to conceptualize and theorize road rage as a socio-cultural phenomenon.

The sociology of the emotions and the road rage

From a sociological perspective, the emotions are not viewed unproblematically as embodied sensations that are solely physiological and thus universal across societies and cultures. Rather, the emotional experience is regarded as being at least partly (and for some strong constructionist sociologists, fully) a product of socialization and acculturation.

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