Road rage is genetic? ‘Accelerousal’ likely an ‘innate’ behavior for edgy drivers

HOUSTON — Does a drive in your car leave you in a worse mood than when you started the trip? Is road rage something you often find yourself struggling to hold back? If so, a new study finds you may be dealing with a case of “accelerousal.”

That’s the main finding by researchers at the University of Houston, who say some drivers have no problem staying calm, cool, and collected behind the wheel — regardless of traffic, reckless drivers, or other road nuisances. On the other hand, other motorists can’t help but feel like they’re going to explode.

“We call the phenomenon ‘accelerousal.’ Arousal being a psychology term that describes stress. Accelarousal is what we identify as stress provoked by acceleration events, even small ones,” explains study leader and UH Professor Ioannis Pavlidis in a university release.

“It may be partly due to genetic predisposition,” he adds. “It was a very consistent behavior, which means, in all likelihood, this is an innate human characteristic.”

Feelings of road rage monitored in drivers

Along with colleagues from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute, study authors investigated how various drivers reacted to common acceleration, speed, and steering events taking place on a “carefully monitored itinerary.”

“Thanks to our work, we now have an understanding of accelerousal, a phobia that was hidden in plain sight,” says Tung Huynh, a research assistant on the project.

In all, 11 drivers took part in the study. Study authors monitored each person closely during a series of half-hour drives along the same route in the same Toyota Sienna minivan. As participants drove, researchers looked for signs of instantaneous physiological stress.

The team measured stress using thermal imaging that specially targeted drivers’ levels of perinasal perspiration, an involuntary facial response which indicates fight-or-flight reactions. Meanwhile, the internal computer within the car also tracked the vehicle’s acceleration, speed, brake force, and steering.

Accelerousal takes a toll on the body

Following these drives, researchers discovered that about half of the drivers showed “peaked stress” during moments of “commonplace acceleration,” like stopping at a red light, for example. The other drivers stayed clam while driving.

“This has all the characteristics of long-term stressor, with all the health and other implications that this may entail,” Pavlidis notes.

“The differences were significant, with ‘accelaroused’ participants logging nearly 50% more stress than non-accelaroused ones,” he continues. “Moreover, psychometric measurements taken through a standardized questionnaire given to every volunteer at the end of the drive revealed that acceleroused drivers felt more overloaded.”

Drivers who showed signs of stress were much more exhausted after finishing than the others. Apparently, it’s hard work getting upset.

“This was a clear indication that accelerousal was taking a toll on drivers, and that the drivers were not consciously aware of that,” Pavlidis adds.

Study authors say their findings warrant much more research in the future. Better understanding how the human body reacts to the experience of driving may help save lives in the future — both on and off the road.

“For instance, delivery drivers, which is an expanding class in the current gig economy, are exposed to stop-and-go events all the time. Therefore, delivery drivers who experience accelerousal – and for now, are unaware – could have a way to detect this condition in themselves and account for its long-term stress effects,” Plavdis concludes.

The study appears in the journal Association for Computing Machinery.