With millions of vehicles traveling the roads every year, driving can be stressful. When drivers are in a rush and become impatient, they can exhibit aggressive behavior behind the wheel.
When that behavior escalates or endangers others, it can end in a "road rage" traffic accident—causing property damage and injuries and even leading to criminal charges.
Find out what constitutes road rage, how to handle aggressive drivers, what you should do after a road rage accident, and why you probably can't count on car insurance coverage in these situations.
(Note: While we use the term "accident" in this article, in these road rage incidents, the enraged driver often intentionally tries to hurt another person or cause damage to their property.)
If you've ever gotten angry while behind the wheel, you're not alone. Nearly 80 percent of drivers in an AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study said they had gotten angry at least once behind the wheel in the past year.
But just getting angry at another driver on the road and laying on the horn isn't necessarily road rage, although some might call it that. So what qualifies as road rage?
One definition of road rage, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), describes it as "when a driver or passenger commits a traffic offense or uses another dangerous weapon that endangers a person or property."
Examples include intimidating behavior like deliberately swerving toward another vehicle, making angry or threatening gestures, or getting out of a vehicle to confront another driver (with or without a weapon).
Road rage can turn deadly. In 2021, a record number of road rage incidents involved guns. Out of 728 road rage shootings that year, 62% led to injury or death.
Aggressive driving is generally described as any unsafe driving that's done on purpose.
Examples of aggressive driving include:
Aggressive driving may not seem as dangerous as road rage, but it can be just as deadly.
A 2009 study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) reported that based on data tracked by NHTSA's Fatal Accident Reporting System, aggressive driving played a role in 56% of fatal crashes from 2003 through 2007. The study also revealed that excessive speed was the top factor in crashes.
Road rage and road rage accidents stem from a number of factors.
One big element is driver anonymity, according to a study published in the New York University Law Review. Drivers feel protected and anonymous in the confines of their vehicle and don't see other drivers as people.
Driver demographics and traits also play a part in the incidence of road rage. Younger drivers, men, and drivers with certain personality types are more likely to engage in road rage behaviors.
Circumstances such as traffic congestion or running late can also lead to road rage.
There are ways to avoid or de-escalate a potential road rage incident when you're behind the wheel.
The NHTSA, the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Smooth Operator program, and AAA offer tips to deal with an aggressive driver. Here are a few:
"If you're involved in a crash as a result of road rage, what you should do immediately afterward depends on whether or not the other driver is still around," says David Goguen, J.D., a Nolo legal editor.
Every state requires you to take certain steps after a car accident, often including:
But what if it was a road rage accident and the other driver is now pounding on your window and yelling violent threats?
The danger posed by the other driver in this situation almost certainly overrides your legal obligation to follow post-accident protocol, explained Goguen, at least until the threat is gone.
Here are some practical tips to help keep you safe after a road rage accident:
Keep a record of this information for yourself too, either by using voice-to-text on your phone, or by writing it down. Later, law enforcement might be able to obtain video footage from nearby doorbell, surveillance or security cameras to locate any witnesses who may have seen what happened.
Road rage itself isn't a crime. Aggressive driving can lead to a traffic ticket, while some road rage behaviors can net you criminal charges.
"When your driving-related conduct endangers or injures someone or damages their property, that's when you could find yourself facing criminal charges after a road rage incident," explains Goguen.
Road rage can spill over into a non-driving scenario too, says Goguen. If a driver stops and gets out of their vehicle to confront another driver, that could lead to a physical altercation, which could lead to criminal charges.
Every state's criminal laws and vehicle codes are unique, but some examples of crimes that you could be charged with after a road rage incident include:
"The specifics of the road rage incident and the nature of the aggressive conduct will dictate what's charged," says Goguen.
Aggressive or reckless driving might lead to a traffic citation or misdemeanor charge in some states. However, any type of assault (vehicular or otherwise) or a more serious offense could qualify as a felony.
Car insurance is meant to cover losses resulting from run-of-the-mill carelessness and unsafe driving, when the resulting harm is accidental. When road rage leads to injuries and vehicle damage, that kind of harm is almost never covered by car insurance, explains Goguen.
The intentional and often criminal conduct that is related to road rage is almost always specifically excluded from any type of auto insurance coverage, usually in the fine print. It might sound obvious, but auto insurance also doesn't cover assault.
If someone injures you or damages your property in a road rage accident, you can file a lawsuit against them—just as you could after any incident in which someone else's wrongdoing causes you harm.
But unlike harm that comes from most driving-related misconduct—getting rear-ended at a stoplight, for example—don't expect the other driver's insurance company to pay for your losses.
That means even if your lawsuit is successful, your road rage aggressor will need to have sufficient assets or money to pay for any court-awarded damages.
In certain circumstances, your own insurance might cover certain losses you incur as the result of a road rage accident.
Keep in mind, if you are convicted of any traffic violations or other crimes after a road rage incident, your insurance company might be within its rights to suspend or cancel your coverage.
No matter which side of a road rage accident you're on, if anyone was injured or there was property damage of any kind, you probably need to report it to your car insurance company. That's true regardless of whether the incident will ultimately be covered by your insurance (and as we've discussed here, it probably won't be).
If you've been injured by someone else or had your property damaged in a road rage accident, you might want to contact your local law enforcement agency so they can investigate the matter. Criminal charges against the other driver might be possible.
On the civil law side of things, you can discuss your situation with a personal injury attorney, including the option of filing a lawsuit against the driver responsible for the road rage accident. (Learn more about getting help from a personal injury lawyer.) But keep in mind that the likely absence of any car insurance coverage might make your case something of an uphill climb.
If you've been accused of road rage-related conduct and you're facing more than a potential traffic infraction (including misdemeanor or felony charges), it might make sense to discuss your situation with a criminal defense lawyer.