We all get mad sometimes, but road rage destroys lives

A bad choice in a road rage situation can have lifelong impacts not just on the people behind the wheels but their families and beyond.

A bad choice in a road rage situation can have lifelong impacts not just on the people behind the wheels but their families and beyond. (Eliza Anderson, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — One driver cuts another off or follows too closely. A driver may not adjust speed to let someone merge onto the freeway. Perhaps a cranky driver "brake-checks" someone perceived to be following too closely, forcing evasive action.

Will the other driver shrug it off? Maybe make a rude hand gesture? Will the perceived offense simply spark annoyance or will it kick off a dangerous game of tit for tat?

The decision is in the hands of the drivers involved — and a bad choice can have lifelong impacts not just on the people behind the wheels but their families and beyond. Law enforcement officials say that quick, angry reactions often spill far beyond what anyone imagined or wanted.

That truth hit Deseret News this week when a member of its extended family died in such an incident.

Mike Brown, 38, and his two sons, 8 and 10, had a near-perfect morning Sunday before the day went terribly wrong, as Cyndi Brown, a Deseret News employee married to Mike's older brother John, recounts it. His wife, Mandi, was on her way back to Utah from a high school graduation in Idaho; they were all going to meet for lunch. That morning, Mike took his boys to hit some golf balls, then to play baseball. They went swimming. He was, Cyndi Brown says, a dad who loved time with his kids. Mandi was waiting at the restaurant when she got word he'd been injured.

With the exception of the little boys, the family wasn't there. Deseret News has chosen not to address what happened in an altercation described by Lehi police as resulting from road rage, but rather to focus on the aftermath. It is known that at some point Brown and another driver got into a physical altercation. Brown hit the road hard. He never woke up.

John Brown gave him an ecclesiastic blessing, in keeping with their faith as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over the next day, when it was clear he would not recover, "the focus shifted from saving him to keeping his organs vital" so he could be an organ donor, says Cyndi Brown, calling the situation agonizing.

He officially died late Monday afternoon.

"As a family, we are grappling with the enormity of it," she says. "It's almost surreal."

But it's not as unusual as public safety officials would like.

Mike and Mandi Brown with their sons. He died in what police have called a road rage incident.
Mike and Mandi Brown with their sons. He died in what police have called a road rage incident. (Photo: Brown family photo)

Hard to quantify

KSL recently reported that in 2022, the Utah Highway Patrol counted 736 road rage crashes, resulting in 28 deaths in the state. In 2021, 27 people died. The number was 25 in 2020.

Property damage, injuries and crashes related to road rage are much more common than deaths, officials told Deseret News.

Exact numbers, though, are hard to come by. There's no traffic violation category called road rage, said Lt. Cameron Roden of the Utah Department of Public Safety. Actions that both cause and demonstrate it are typically violations like following too closely, cutting someone off or brake-checking them.

Still, the hints are written in the crash data and sometimes in personal injuries. They are seen in the calls police dispatchers get about aggressive driving — some proven true and others not. It's easier to count as road rage the calls they get when someone brandishes a firearm in a confrontation. That's an offense that can get someone in trouble.

Lt. Chad Ray with the Lehi Police Department told Deseret News that the phones ring often with reports of traffic offenses: people driving aggressively, speeding, passing in unsafe ways. They may or may not locate the subjects of the calls. And people may think road rage is more common than it actually is. "But when it happens, it changes the lives of multiple people and their families," he said.

Despite no accurate count, both Roden and Ray are confident road rage incidents have increased in recent years.

In May, Bankrate analyzed U.S. road rage, pointing out that aggressive driving and road rage are not synonymous, but that the former fuels the latter, often with deadly results. Its dive into U.S. statistics found nearly 1 in 5 drivers routinely drive aggressively, including speeding, running red lights, switching lanes quickly and following too closely. Those things are dangerous on their own, but also make other drivers mad. Reactions can be as life-altering as the dangerous driving itself. In the decade ending in 2023, road rage led to 481 shootings and 777 deaths nationally, the report said.

Slow, clogged traffic, people worried about running late and disregard for others and the law all contribute to both aggressive driving and road rage, the article said. Related behaviors, which may not veer into road rage, also kill. Speeding alone was responsible for 12,151 traffic deaths in 2022, according to the National Safety Council .

Guns increasingly play a role in road rage deaths. The article cited statistics showing road rage deaths from shootings increased nearly 90% between 2020 and 2024, compared to before the pandemic.

Every single road rage case is preventable. It's in the hands of drivers, who can choose to engage or to let it go.

Ray points out that often multiple families must deal with tragedies that could have been avoided — and deal with it for the rest of their lives.

The psychology of road rage

E. Scott Geller, a distinguished professor of psychology at Virginia Tech, feels some sympathy for people who lose their temper on the road because he's been there. Other drivers sometimes make him mad. Fortunately, his emotional intelligence is well enough developed that he doesn't follow them or engage in dangerous ways.

That emotional intelligence is key, he said. "Research shows that is more influential in one's success in life than IQ," he told Deseret News, noting it's a fancy term for controlling one's emotions.

"Road rage reflects emotions out of control," says Geller, adding that after studying related issues for 50 years, "it's clear to me we are driving faster these days, not using our turn signals and we are driving closer to the car in front of us."

Part of that is because cars are passing on the right and trying to squeeze in, with or without signaling, he said. So drivers close the gaps. "There are all kinds of driving behaviors out there that cause frustration. This leads to emotion that can be anger. If you don't control that emotion, you have road rage. I've been there. Sometimes we drive as a result of our anger and that just contributes to more bad driving behavior."

Emotional intelligence is more than road-worthy. Geller said it influences resilience, the ability to try again in the face of failure and self-motivation. It's a "real determinant of future success." IQ is nature. You're born with it. EQ — emotional intelligence — is nurtured and developed. "We can control our emotional intelligence and we can help others control theirs," he said.

People may get emotional about lots of things, from anger at how someone else drives to picking shoes, said Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior. " When emotion surges, it's hard to access logical reason. "People feel like a victim — someone did this to them," she said.

In her book, she quoted comedian George Carlin, who said that anyone going slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster is a maniac.

She describes "attribution therapy," where you're never at fault and are often a victim. Her example is tripping on a sidewalk and noting a crack in the pavement as you pull yourself back up. Oh, that's why you tripped. It was not a moment of clumsiness or inattention on your part. "People attribute other people's mistakes to character flaws, but for your own it's just the circumstances. If someone is driving fast and cuts you off and you miss the light, it's their fault, some character flaw."

Some drivers will chase a person down to "teach them a lesson." That, says Wallin, is among "stories we tell ourselves: 'My agenda is more important than anyone else's and they're doing this to me. I have to fight back'. I call that the inner brat." In road rage incidents, she notes, emotion can be strong, especially if people escalate it, fueling rage with actions like yelling and hitting.

But don't kid yourself, she adds. You can avoid allowing anger to take over to the point you ignore your own logic.

Willing yourself to let it go

Ray believes road aggression is more prevalent these days, perhaps in part because more people are living here and that means more people on the roads. More people are moving from point A to point B and "unfortunately people think their time is more important than anyone else's."

Showing respect for other drivers, even reluctantly, can calm tempers. But when people find themselves in a fraught situation on the road, "don't hesitate to call us if you need us. We'd rather prevent than deal with the aftermath," including consoling families, says Ray.

Among his advice: If you find yourself in the situation where tempers are flaring and drivers are raging, "do your best to separate yourself from the situation. Get off the roadway you're on. Don't escalate it by hand signals or smiling. If the person pursues you, do your best to safely drive to the local police department while calling 911 and giving updates on where you are and what's taking place."

When Geller feels frustration or anger with other drivers creeping in, he uses self-talk. "Control your emotions, Scott. There could be lots of reasons for why this person is driving aggressively." He focuses on the bigger picture. "Today, we seem to be more self-serving than ever before," he said. "If we think about our interdependence — systems thinking — we can consider that the person driving aggressively might be rushing for a real emergency."

Empathy helps. You don't need to get angry, though you definitely want to steer clear, he adds.

Geller, who wrote a book and started a foundation called Actively Caring for People, said gratitude helps, too. Grateful people are less apt to lash out. It reduces negative emotions. He advocates a friendly wave and show of appreciation for people who let you merge in traffic or who stop for you at a crosswalk. "Showing gratitude makes us and the other person feel better and can reduce negative emotions on the road."

Most don't do that. When he and his students conducted experiments to see how many people express gratitude for such simple things, fewer than 10% acknowledged the courtesy. The truth, he notes, is we are interdependent. When people acknowledge that in even small ways, it improves their emotional intelligence and bolsters the ability to control emotions when someone's behavior sparks anger.

The solution to road-related aggression, according to Roden? "Start with yourself. You cannot look at others and blame them. We see that a lot. People think other people have a problem." Roden suggests to "start by driving courteously, following the law itself."

He points out that "if people do that, it fixes most of the problem," freeing law enforcement and other resources "to address the other group that won't do it themselves."

If a driver is in a situation that becomes aggressive, don't retaliate, he said. "Let that individual go down the road. Stop and get a soft drink or whatever."

Wallin's advice is to wait before reacting. "If someone is tearing down the street and weaving in and out and I don't try to block them, I can be happy to have them where I can see them. I would rather have them in front of me."

She recommends taking a deep breath and asking yourself if the situation and the other driver's "bad" behavior will make even the tiniest difference in your life in a week or just an hour. If not, don't bother with it now.

Wallin also suggests imagining you have just a dollar's worth of energy. "How much of that are you willing to spend on that person? A nickel? Will I give them 50 cents of my dollar? No."

If you let that frustrating, aggravating, rude, inexcusable example of a lousy driver go, how is your life going to change? It won't. "You can intentionally not provoke or agitate someone who has frustrated you," Wallin said. "You can do that not because you're a wimp, but because you want to have control over the situation."

She also notes that going to a public space tends to inhibit aggressive behavior.

If you know you tend to overreact or are sensitive to how other people behave and take it hard, you have more control than you may realize, Wallin said. It just takes practice. Be calm. If it's not going to matter later, don't react now.

"You prove nothing by winning whatever contest you have with another driver," she said. "It makes you feel powerful in the moment, but doesn't give you power. Real power is managing your emotions."

The law steps in

The Utah Legislature has gotten serious about road rage. Starting in July, a new law allows suspension of driving privileges for the instigator of road rage crimes if convicted. The instigator's car may be impounded, too.

HB30 defines road rage as a criminal offense where an operator of a vehicle responds "to an incident that occurs or escalates upon a roadway" with "the intent to endanger or intimidate an individual in another vehicle." There can be fines and a license might be suspended or revoked. Extreme cases can result in jail time.

Roden believes it will be easier to track road rage incidents and related aggressive driving after July 1. Among other things, the law bolsters education about the issue. And it creates new penalties, so that driving-related infractions over a class B misdemeanor can be enhanced a notch, even into a felony, if there's evidence of road rage and the offense is serious enough.

It's worth remembering, too, that car insurance companies have different policies, but some may excuse themselves from paying for damages caused by road rage if it can be shown the insured driver intentionally inflicted harm. Policies vary.

Mike and Mandi Brown. Mike Brown, 38, died June 3 after what has been described by police as a road rage incident.
Mike and Mandi Brown. Mike Brown, 38, died June 3 after what has been described by police as a road rage incident. (Photo: Brown family photo)

A family shattered

Mike Brown came from a large family, including nine siblings, their spouses and children. Most of them crowded into his hospital room to say goodbye.

The family members can't wrap their heads around what happened, says Cyndi Brown, who has known Mike since he was 5.

Friends are asking why he ever got out of the car during the incident. The family can't answer that. But they do know that he'd be here "if everyone had just taken a breath," she says. "I think we have to bring civility back to our lives. We all get frustrated behind the wheel."

Cyndi Brown hopes drivers will remember that there are "families in those other cars" if something bad happens, even if there's just a single person there in the moment. "When you let emotions get the best of you ..." Her voice trails off as she holds back tears.

She's painfully aware that two families are now suffering: Mike's and the other driver's. For both, that brief interaction resulted in "brutal loss" for a "moment that wasn't walked away from."

Mike Brown's extended family is now figuring out how to emotionally support the little boys and a young mother unexpectedly widowed.

Cyndi Brown agrees with every expert consulted for this story. In her words, "We've all been brake-checked. We've all cut people off. It happens because we're human." She adds, "You can get angry, but you have the ability to control and bring human-ness back."

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Lois M. Collins
Lois M. Collins covers policy and research impacting families for the Deseret News.


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