SYDNEY // The scourge of road rage is making motorists in Australia more fearful as research shows that aggressive driving is getting worse. In a survey of 2,500 people, a leading insurance company has found that behaviour on the continent's roads has reached a new low, with 60 per cent of drivers worried about hostile confrontations while behind the wheel. The annual AAMI Crash Index has reported that the vast majority of Australian road users thought their fellow drivers had become far more belligerent, while the findings support a raft of evidence gathered by motoring organisations.
"It is a serious issue. We research our members regularly right across Australia and over the last few years violence on the roads has really moved up the scale of their concerns," said Wendy Machin, the president of the National Roads and Motorists' Association. "I think people genuinely are frightened about this and anybody who has had an experience of road rage no matter how minor finds it very disconcerting."
Victims do have some recourse under traffic legislation; for example, authorities in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, have enacted specific rules that outlaw menacing driving. "Obviously most of us have all got our horror stories to tell about road rage. The law in Australia at the moment does cover certain offences. So, if there is an assault in the road environment that is a criminal offence. Predatory driving is addressed under the traffic code as a serious offence and it does have jail penalties," Ms Machin said.
Overheated arguments have resulted in serious assaults and deaths when seemingly petty disputes escalate into violent clashes. Grant Brecht, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist, has experienced road rage at its most savage when he witnessed a murder on a busy city street. "There was a middle-aged professional man involved and a younger woman. She was driving a smallish car and cut in front of the man, who was obviously in a hurry to get somewhere. It transpired that he had had quite a violent altercation with his partner at home and he just pulled up in front of this woman, dragged her out of the car and with a pocket knife started to stab her and ended up stabbing her about nine times."
There are a multitude of complex reasons why Australians are getting so angry when taking to the country's thoroughfares and highways. Experts point to such internal factors as fatigue, domestic problems and being late for an appointment as well as external considerations, including the weather and congestion. "There is no doubt that things have got worse with people not controlling their anger. We seem to have lost some common decencies in terms of looking after each other and being empathetic and understanding," Mr Brecht said.
"Even though we may not be under attack from an enemy in terms of a war happening, we still need to realise that there are a lot of everyday pressures which build those stresses." Australia's roads are the busiest they have ever been and the private car has trumped public transport in one of the world's most urbanised societies. As individual freedoms have flourished with motor vehicle ownership, so have frustrations as drivers increasingly find themselves hostages to an overcrowded road network.
Researchers believe that the red mist that can impair the senses of enraged motorists is a reflection of the anxieties that afflict the wider community. "There is an old saying in road safety that people drive as they live and I think it is very true. We've known really for over 50 years now that the way people behave on the road is largely an extension of their general life," said Professor Barry Watson, director of the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety at the Queensland University of Technology.
He said those who engage in intimidating driving often have a "sense of invulnerability" because they can remain mostly anonymous while pursuing their victims. While acknowledging mounting public concern at such aberrant conduct, Prof Watson has been keen to point out that irresponsible driving is not always motivated by malice but could simply be the result of carelessness. "When someone is being tail-gated they may often think that is an act of aggression on the part of the driver following them.
"But if it is not intentional and the other driver is doing it because either they are careless or distracted, or they don't appreciate what a safe distance would be, we may get a situation where the victim feels that this is an example of aggressive driving but the perpetrator won't see it as aggressive driving at all." Antidotes are not likely to come easily but Ms Machin said she believes efforts that promote courtesy would be a good start. "Maybe it is time for clubs like the NRMA to lead the way in a nice driving campaign to get people to chill out, relax be a bit friendlier and see if we can start changing attitudes on the road."