What drives South Africans to road rage? How an ancient part of our brains could be to blame

South Africans have become desensitised to violence and this is spilling out onto our roads. Picture: Newspress.

South Africans have become desensitised to violence and this is spilling out onto our roads. Picture: Newspress.

Published Jun 23, 2024


There’s no denying that South Africa has a culture of aggressive driving.

Blame it on the stress of modern life if you will, but the basic lack of consideration for others on the country’s roads is a fuse that often ignites violent, or even deadly, behaviour.

Durban pensioner Anthony Ball is currently standing trial for the murder of Dean Charnely in a road rage incident that took place in Kloof back in 2022.

Ball claims he feared for his life after Charnley, a man much bigger than himself, shouted expletives and bashed parts of his car after a road altercation allegedly sparked by Charnley tailgating.

East London motorist Matthew Lottering told IOL that he feels lucky to be alive after being forced off the road in late 2021.

Multiple perpetrators allegedly attacked him, hitting him with a rock while pulling him out of the car and then crushing his skull beneath their feet after he fell to the ground.

Lottering later received facial reconstruction for his multiple injuries, which included seven skull fractures, and he still suffers from reduced vision and severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A court case is currently pending.

Kyle Smith from Johannesburg was left shaken after a confrontational motorist jumped onto his car and started pulling off his windscreen wipers at an intersection. Thankfully he was able to reverse and drive away before anyone got hurt. The cause? A few intersections back Smith had refused to give way to the perpetrator, who had been trying to proceed straight from a turning lane.

All too often on our roads we see people breaking the rules and then attacking those who refused to enable their vile and sick sense of entitlement. Conversely road rage is also often sparked by otherwise courteous drivers trying to teach a lesson to those who break the rules. Understandable to a degree, but dangerous nonetheless.

In the end, there are no winners.

Arrive Alive defines road rage as “an incident in which an angry or impatient motorist or passenger intentionally injures or kills another motorist, passenger or pedestrian, or attempts or threatens to injure or kill another motorist, passenger or pedestrian.”

But what drives South Africans to lose their cool on the roads?

Renowned sports and performance psychologist Lloyd Bemelman told IOL that there are structures in the brain that get overtaken in the heat of the moment. He refers to it as a “hijacking of the brain”, in which the amygdala, which is an older part of the brain that’s responsible for emotions, overrides the prefrontal cortex, which is a more recent evolutionary development associated with rational thought.

This happens when the adrenal-cortical structures of the brain, which are responsible for stress hormones, including adrenaline, get stimulated.

Anger ignites quickly behind the wheel. File picture: Jose Carbajal via Unsplash.

“Road rules that people are expected to follow, seem not to apply to some drivers, so that upsets people, irritates them and results in anger, which takes over the brain and results in road rage,” Bemelman says.

Arrive Alive says aggression, along with depression, is one of the most common mental disorders suffered by modern man.

“We are quite an angry nation, and the turmoil in politics and our daily lives don’t help to keep the frustration levels at lower levels,” Arrive Alive spokesperson, Advocate Johan Jonck, told IOL.

“There are many different factors such as financial stress, load shedding and so on, that contribute to the stress of those behind the steering wheel.”

In a society such as South Africa, where most citizens have become desensitised to violence, it’s not surprising that aggressive behaviour is becoming more common on the roads, Jonck said.

Time urgency is another aggravating factor in our overall stress levels, according to the road safety organisation.

Emotions can be as destructive as alcohol

Eugene Herbert, CEO of the MasterDrive driving academy, said intense emotions can be just as dangerous as intoxication, fatigue and distracted driving. He encourages motorists to manage their expectations out on the road and simply be as nice as possible.

“Ignoring bad driving from another driver will stop the situation from escalating,” Herbert said.

“Instead, give someone a chance to slip in, in gridlocked traffic. Thank others when they let you in. Apologise if you accidentally anger another driver. Do not underestimate the positive effect of being courteous and forgiving on the road, for you and them.”

Psychologist Lloyd Bemelman describes road rage as a clear lose-lose situation, where keeping your emotions under control for just 10 seconds could prevent much anguish down the line.

He said there were many techniques that motorists could use to keep their road rage under control. Among them is mentally preparing for the fact that things will go haywire out on the road, and avoiding heavy traffic and even bad weather traffic situations that could lead to a lot of people breaking rules.

If you do have to hit the road, take a more relaxed approach to your driving and envision yourself retaining control of your emotions rather than fantasising about how good it would feel to assault another person, Bemelman added.

Advocate Johan Jonck advises motorists to: “Breathe, accept that others may make a mistake and remind yourself that conflict can only continue to exist with participation.”

Arrive Alive has devised a 10-point plan to prevent road rage, which includes ignoring the temptation to retaliate as well as planning your route ahead to make it as stress free as possible. Playing soothing music and the simple but effective act of counting from one to 10 should not be overlooked either, according to the organisation.

Regardless of how our brains are wired to react to tense situations it is up to all of us to pay attention to, and manage, our emotions as best we can while out on the road. And if you are psycho enough to start trouble with those you feel should get out of your way, maybe it’s time to see a professional?

IOL Motoring