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Road rage increasing in Michigan

In a two-part series, 13 ON YOUR SIDE found drivers are behaving more hostile and aggressive on the road than in years previous.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — 13 ON YOUR SIDE received dozens of emails and calls about driver safety on the road. Some viewers said they no longer feel safe on our highways due to hostility and aggression from other vehicles. 

13 ON YOUR SIDE's Morgan Trau dug deeper into the claim to see what was happening on the roads.

Part One: Statistics

Road rage cases are on the rise. Crashes have increased, and so has speeding, according to the Michigan State Police (MSP). 

Road rage is a collection of behaviors that allow one person on the road to put other people at risk by their conduct, according to threat management expert and former San Diego Police officer Steve Albrecht. It is when behavior behind the wheel impacts the safety of other drivers because someone can't control their temper.

So far in 2021, 135 people in West Michigan have died in crashes, according to data given by MSP. Statewide, already 964 died from fatal crashes since January, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation. That is 19 more than in the entirety of 2020, with two months still left to go.

The number of collisions has increased dramatically compared to the same time last year. On Nov. 9 of 2020, MSP District 6 reported 35,727 crashes. On Nov. 9 of 2021, they reported 37,662. 

30,958 were non-injury and 6,569 had injuries, according to data given by MSP. This follows an upward trend of concerning and dangerous behavior that some drivers don't know how to stop. 

"Oftentimes, people use their car as sort of like a weapon. To scare people, or intimidate people close behind you or I'll pull close to the side of you or I'll flip you off, roll down the window"

"I know there's several of us that have stopped people going well over 100 miles an hour," MSP Trooper Lauren Posthumus said. "You could easily get one every 15 to 20 minutes and that's even in broad daylight."

Crashes aren't just happening in Michigan. The first half of 2021 shows the largest six-month increase ever recorded in traffic fatalities, the US Department of Transportation said. From Jan. to June, an estimated 20,160 people died in crashes, which is nearly 20% higher than in 2020.  

Road rage and reckless driving have dramatically increased in West Michigan over the past year, Posthumus said. The pandemic played a role in this aggressive behavior, she added. 

"If you were still working, and there was nobody on the road, you didn't have to worry about traffic," she said. "Now that things are starting to go back to normal, you have a lot of places under construction, a lot of downtown areas.

"I think that causes more of a road rage because it's not their regular routine at this point anymore."

Work from home shut down offices, stopped construction and greatly decreased the number of cars on the road. Posthumus says people got used to that, and now people must readjust to more traffic, road work and vehicles. 

People had already not been driving very carefully, even before the pandemic, she added. 

"I think that mentality came from you know, less people on the road, 'maybe they're not going to stop me because they don't want to get exposed,' she said, giving an example of what drivers may be thinking when speeding or driving recklessly.

Routine change is a large factor in road rage, but so is general temperament, according to Albrecht.

"I think people don't believe that there are consequences for their behavior and they don't think there are enough cops," he said. "I think that being anonymous in your car gives you a sense of power and the other big part about road rage is territoriality, which is, 'I do own the whole road. You can't come into my lane, you can't come into my space.'"

Behavior like cutting people off, swerving, not signaling, speeding and tailgating is dangerous enough, but when an aggressor does it around other people, it puts other drivers at risk and that's the biggest danger of road rage, he added.

"It's not the person who's driving crazily like a maniac is the primary concern," he said. "It's when they hit other people, where they cause accidents and then they keep on driving. So you know, they can have unintended consequences.

"Oftentimes, people use their car as sort of like a weapon. To scare people, or intimidate people, come up close behind you or I'll pull close to the side of you or flip you off, or roll down my window, but when they cause accidents, that's one of the big unintended consequences."

The problem with road rage incidents are they are difficult to quantify. Since reckless driving has been increasing, more crashes have been occurring. So police could be at a different crash when road rage calls come in.

Posthumus says they get numerous road rage calls a day — but they rarely get to the scene to be able to ticket and evaluate.

"The busier we are with crashes and people just driving carelessly, in general, ties us away from catching those reckless drivers," Posthumus said. "A lot of the time, they know that somebody is going to be calling 911. So usually they're gone by the time we get there."

So without enforcement from police, how does society stop this behavior? The stakes need to be raised, MSP and Albrecht said.

"It's not self-insight that corrects the problem," Albrecht said. Its consequences: my family, my relationship, my job, my employer, my landlord, whatever the anger is directed towards, usually the change only comes when the consequences are severe enough."

To him, that could look like thousands of dollars in fines, mandatory arrest, court-ordered therapy with points on your license. But not everyone agrees. 

"The issue isn't just giving people consequences," psychologist Dr. Nicole Beurkens said. "We know that actually, that doesn't solve the problem. We need to help people build skills."

The problem is actually physical, she added. A part of your brain isn't functioning correctly, and it needs to be addressed.

Part Two: Explanation

Police say Americans are stressed and angry and it's causing problems on the roads. Psychologists say it's more complicated than just being upset someone cut you off. 

When under stress, people don't always do things they are proud of. 

"You have a lot of adults out there right now who are really, really stressed whether they realize it or not, and they're not coping real well," psychologist Dr. Nicole Beurkens said. "When small aggravations happen, it's kind of setting them off into this spiral then of reactive behavior, that under normal circumstances, they might not respond in that way. But because of the chronic-ness of all of this stress, it's setting people off to do things that they wouldn't normally do."

The number of people seeking help for their mental health has skyrocketed. Anxiety screenings increased 93% from 2019 to 2020, Mental Health America found. 

The pandemic has caused chronic stress, maxing out a lot of people's thresholds for managing uncertainty or just life in general.

"When we're already really close to our threshold for everything we can manage emotionally, a little incident like that can just set us off," she added. "So we can be out, minding our own business, driving to the supermarket, and somebody cuts us off in traffic or somebody speeds up when we need to get over — something little like that, that maybe under normal circumstances, wouldn't really bother us, certainly wouldn't cause us to become angry.

"Suddenly, we're really angry about that, or we find ourselves swearing at the driver in front of us or even being aggressive in our reaction."

In a country where the pandemic and political divide have caused an "us versus them mentality," Beurkens believes we've lost this ability to have a middle ground, or even just accept other people may be in your way. 

"People are still stressed about the pandemic, they're trying to get to work, they're frenzied, they're under time pressure. Now there's a car in their way," psychology professor at University of Michigan, Stephanie Preston, said. "And there wasn't a car in the way for 12 months. So, all of a sudden, this change is really stressful for people."

Yes, changing routine is hard, but both she and Beurkens said this is a neurological issue. 

There are two parts of your brain at play here: your amygdala and your prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is really the center of emotions, while the prefrontal cortex is responsible for managing and regulating those feelings. 

"Your amygdala is sending messages to your frontal lobe about the state of the environment and your frontal lobe is sending messages back to your amygdala to get some break and context and get this fear analyzed and under check," Preston said. "If you're under time, pressure, or you're emotionally stressed, this capacity to send this bi-directional feedback, that capacity sort of goes out the window."

That's why a lot of people apologize directly after experiencing or behaving in road rage, Beurkens said. 

"There's that saying 'in the heat of the moment,' right? Really, what that's referring to is in the heat of our emotions, when our prefrontal cortex has shut down, the emotions have taken over and we're saying and doing things that in a more calm, rational state we never would have said or done," she said. 

The more chronic stress someone has, the more the decision-making skills shut down, the psychologists added. They can't see an end in sight if something doesn't change to decrease levels of anxiety, depression and anger, just like law enforcement said.

"I think a lot of this is going to depend on how quickly we can eradicate the illness," Preston said. "Social life has been greatly disrupted, especially the mental health rates are much worse for younger people, for minorities, for the essential workers and for people who are caregiving. So to the extent that those problems aren't going to change where the youth can't interact with and they can't socialize, people can't work. People have to take care of ailing relatives. Until those problems normalize, our mental health won't normalize."

While Beurkens agreed that the pandemic needs to end, the long-term mental health effects will linger in society unless addressed with coping mechanisms. Those take a long time to learn.

"We need to be thinking about and focusing on what are the treatments, the supports on a community level, on an individual level, on a school level that we can be providing to people to help them come out of this stronger, with better skills and be able to move forward in their life, because that's really what we're looking at now — helping people get through this and come out better on the other side, and that's going to require a lot more than just consequences," she said, referencing law enforcement's idea for raising the stakes.

In the short term, the best thing someone can do to support themselves is to try to slow down their reactions, she said.

"The easiest way to do that is to take a deep breath," she said. "Now people say, 'deep breathing doesn't work.' Well, the whole thing about deep breathing, first of all, it forces the pause, just even stopping myself to do that gives the frontal lobe that extra second or two of time to kick in and think about what we want to do next."

"And in that little space of just taking a good deep breath, we give ourselves that time to think that through a little bit, what we're also doing is supporting our physiology to calm what happens when we get into an escalated, anxious, angry, you know, emotion-driven state, is we tend to breathe very shallow, we tend to our heart rate increases, our blood pressure goes up, all of that sends a message to our brain that goes 'yep, this is something to be really worked up about.'"

Taking a deep breath can greatly decrease stress, calm the body and send a signal to the brain that someone is not in a life or death crisis that requires a huge reaction.

Being aware of yourself and others around you can help keep the roads a safer place. Chasing a car that upsets you may seem right in the moment, but the lifelong impact of causing a fatal crash based on a thoughtless reaction will never be worth it. 

A guide created by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety to avoid road rage incidents can be found here. 

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