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Road rage: Many drivers under substance influence or mental illness – Psychologist



Road rage: Many drivers under substance influence or mental illness – Psychologist

Dr. Leonard Okonkwo, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist with the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, speaks about some of the issues that could culminate in irrational behaviors of drivers on the roads and how to manage such situations.

Can you please explain what road rage is?

Road rage is an uncontrollable anger that drivers feel in response to the behavior or attitude of other road users. They are usually expressed in the form of violence, and it usually occurs on the road as the name implies.

With the recent spate of such incidences, it might seem like road rage is on the rise; from your perspective as a psychologist, why do you think this is so?


I wouldn’t really say it is on the rise; maybe the reporting is more now. However, what I can say is why do we have these incidences? I will look at it from three different angles.

First, is the angle of genetics. Some people are prone, by nature of their genetic endowment, to be impatient and hot-tempered. Second, are environmental factors.

Drivers feel a lot of frustration in the land; financial frustration, social frustration, all kinds. You see someone who has just been given quiet notice in his rented apartment and wondering what to do next on the road. Clearly, he would be on edge.

There is a lot of stress as well. Part of the environmental factors could also be because a lot of our cities are congested; and the congestion, of course, means a lot of traffic, which culminates in a lot of impatience.


You see people trying to cut corners if you’re not moving as fast as they want; they try to get in front of you. The third factor is the fact that many of these people are under substance abuse.

And these are substance abuse that can trigger emotional responses at the slightest provocation, which will also lead to behavioral responses.

The fourth, which is also very important, is that there are people with underlining psychological problems and mental illnesses.

How do we determine that a person has psychological problems?

To determine that behavior is abnormal, you look out for the five Ds: (1) Deviation or deviants, which means there is a normal way that people are expected to behave or accepted by most people; so any behavior outside that is deviant.


A normal human being, for example, will not deliberately run over another human being, reverse and run over him again to make sure he was dead.

That is clearly deviant behavior. (2) Dangerous. When people begin to behave in a way that endangers other people, such as driving recklessly and dangerously.

(3) Distress. Is it distressing? (4) Is it dysfunctional? Is the behavior the type that would render the person dysfunctional? (5)And the fifth is duration. When you find these kinds of behaviors occurring over and over a period, then you know that such a person is not normal. Most people you see on the road have underlining psychiatric problems.

There are certain psychiatric problems that are very irritable, like the one we call bipolar affective disorder or manic disorder. When people have this kind of disorder, every little thing irritates them.


Let’s look at the mental or psychiatric part. Unfortunately, the only things our authorities seem to worry about are roadworthiness and vehicle licenses. Don’t you think it’s time the government started conducting mental tests on drivers?

Yes, that is very important. I once made that call in an interview I granted another medium. Road users’ mental states should be evaluated.

Many people can physically move cars from one point to the other, but their mental state, which is the control center of that action, is not in order. And if it is not in order, there is no how the lives of other road users would not be in danger.

Even if it is not yearly, applicants’ mental state should be evaluated at the point of renewing their driver’s licenses, just as they evaluate the eyes.


Aside from that, every time they break the traffic law, they should be evaluated, because they may be breaking those laws as a result of an underlining mental illness. And any time mental illness is spotted, they should be referred for treatment, not just fined. Unfortunately, the regulators seem to be more concerned with the money they generate from fining them.

What is your advice to the ‘saner’ people on the road when they come face to face with provocation from fellow road users so that they can avoid such occurrences?

Do not join issues with him. Let him go. One of the things I learned while learning to drive is that the other person on the road is either a learner or sick. So don’t expect that every driver you encounter on the road is normal.

What this means is that even when your rights are impeded, you should learn to be calm. It was the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, who propounded that people are not disturbed by the things that happen but by their views of those things.


This means it is the way you perceive these things that affect you, not the things themselves. So when you see somebody running recklessly ahead of you, do not say ‘ Oh, this person is insulting me, I must revenge.’ Or somebody scratched your car, and then you go and sit on his bonnet.

The last man that did that is nowhere to be found now. So always assume that other people may not be normal. Learn to be calm. Some of these things may not be so expensive after all.

Take it as one of the hazards of the road, except if it’s major damage, in which case you could have road users and law officers intervening. Of course, anger is a normal emotion; it’s only when it gets beyond the normal level that it’s not good.

You can control the way you see the situation by looking at things differently. There are four different ways of looking at things.


There is the empirical way, where you ask: do these drivers really intend to insult you by speeding past you? He might be rushing because there is a medical emergency or a threat.

Number two, when you see somebody driving recklessly, ask yourself, is it normal? Does it make sense? If not, then don’t join issues with him. Number three; look at it from the angle of functionality.

Will joining issues with this person not affect my functionality? Is it not going to waste my time? Philosophically, you can ask yourself, ‘Is the damage beyond what I can repair? Is it something I cannot overlook? Does the fact that he called you Weeree (madman), makes you a madman? So, I repeat, learn to calm down.

Also, keep a safe distance from such drivers, so you don’t expose yourself to unnecessary attacks.


In Europe and America, people who drive under the influence of alcohol can be picked out through random breath tests, don’t you think it’s high time such is introduced in Nigeria?

Yes, I would advise that such laws be introduced and strengthened. But the problem has not been the law itself but the enforcement. Don’t forget that some of the law enforcers like the Police, and LASTMA are under the influence of alcohol.

How do such officers enforce the law? Sometimes, enforcement is even an opportunity for law enforcement agencies to extort. In the UK and the US that you cited, there are checks and balances. Do we have those in place?

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