The term "road rage" sounds like something that lives on social media, but it actually appears in the California Vehicle Code. Road rage is an aggressive act by a driver directed toward other drivers and it can range from yelling rude epithets or using rude gestures to pulling out a revolver. In California, road rage can be charged as assault, assault with a deadly weapon, battery, brandishing a firearm, hit-and-run, reckless driving or attempted murder, depending on the circumstances. Anyone who is a victim of, or a witness to, road rage should report it to the police. It helps to know the different options available in California to notify the authorities.
What Is Road Rage?
The word, rage, used in any context indicates something beyond anger, an emotional response that is out of control. It is this out-of-control aspect of road rage that is dangerous and terrifying. A driver who is enraged at another driver will act in a threatening and aggressive manner. This is different from regular anger and also from aggressive driving. However, elements of aggressive driving can be part of a road rage incident, and usually are.
Aggressive driving includes speeding, honking, tailgating and weaving. In and of itself, it is a traffic offense or series of traffic offenses. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the difference between aggressive driving and road rage is this: aggressive driving can result in tickets or violations, while road rage is a crime with criminal penalties that include jail time.
Road rage occurs when a person commits an act of violence against an individual on the road, including another motorist, a pedestrian or a bicyclist. Someone exhibiting road rage behavior uses their car as a weapon against another person, such as nudging into their car with their bumper or bringing out another dangerous weapon like a gun.
What Acts Constitute Road Rage?
Many different actions can be classified as road rage. The common thread is the threat to assault or attack another person on the road or highway. All of these acts of aggressive driving can be part of a road rage incident:
- Driving closely behind another car, or tailgating.
- Yelling or swearing at another driver.
- Honking in anger.
- Making rude and angry hand gestures.
- Using a car to prevent another vehicle from changing lanes.
- Cutting off another vehicle deliberately.
- Stopping a vehicle and getting out to confront another driver.
- Bumping or ramming another vehicle on purpose.
Behaviors Triggering Road Rage
According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), some common behaviors are more likely to trigger road rage than others. If that is true, an individual can sidestep a road rage incident by avoiding certain behaviors, including:
- Driving slowly in the far left lane, blocking faster drivers from passing.
- Driving too close behind another car, especially at night when headlights in the rearview mirror can be disruptive.
- Failing to use blinkers to signal a lane change.
- Changing lanes too close to other vehicles.
- Making gestures that can be interpreted as hostile or obscene.
- Using the car horn for anything but emergency situations.
- Waiting to turn right until the green light appears, rather than turning right after a complete stop at a red light.
- Improper or rude parking behaviors, like parking in a disabled space or taking up more than one parking space.
- Failing to dim high-beam headlights for oncoming traffic or when approaching a vehicle from behind.
- Retaliating to oncoming high beams by using high beams.
- Failing to allow other drivers to merge into the lane.
However, some experts suggest that road rage is personal to the driver rather than triggered by the driving behaviors of others.
Understanding Road Rage
According to those trained in psychology, road rage can also be called intermittent explosive disorder, and refers to violent incidents resulting from stress caused by accidents or incidents on the road. These experts assert that the frustration and aggression of road rage is not actually caused by the traffic, but is a learned cultural habit of retaliation. It is an expression of an underlying problem with a driver who is not able to remain in control of themselves and their emotions.
Given that the underlying problem is the driver's attitude and inability to control emotions, it is no surprise that almost anything can trigger road rage. Slow driving, clumsy driving, pulling out in front of a driver can all trigger road rage, but it can also be simply that the driver doesn't like the way another driver looks or the bumper sticker on their car.
California Law and Road Rage
Very few states list road rage as a separate crime, but it can be prosecuted under other criminal statutes. Although California does not list road rage as a separate crime, the California Vehicle Code has a specific section about road rage: Vehicle Code Section 13210. This statute gives the DMV the authority to suspend a person's driver’s license for engaging in road rage behaviors. The section states that “the suspension period…[for] road rage shall be six months for a first offense and one year for a second or subsequent offense.”
The DMV can suspend a driver's license for road rage by finding that the driver lacks the skill to drive, and then sending them an Order of Suspension. It is also possible that the driver can be declared a negligent operator if they have accumulated enough demerit points against their license.
These are administrative actions, however, not criminal charges, and a driver can challenge the DMV decision to suspend their license for road rage. The driver can request an administrative hearing and argue that they do have the skill to drive or that they are not a negligent operator. If they convince the administrative hearing judge, the DMV will cancel the license suspension.
Criminal Penalties for Road Rage
While the only California statute to specifically mention road rage is Vehicle Code Section 13210 regarding DMV license suspensions, road rage can also be a criminal offense in California. Generally, road rage incidents in California are prosecuted as crimes under these statutes:
- Reckless driving, Vehicle Code 23103.
- Assault, Penal Code 240.
- Assault with a deadly weapon, Penal Code 245(a)1.
- Battery, Penal Code 242.
- Brandishing a firearm, Penal Code 417.
- Criminal threats, Penal Code 422.
- Hit-and-run, Vehicle Code 2001 et seq.
- Murder, Penal Code 187.
Reckless driving includes driving with a wanton disregard for the safety of others or their property. In California, it is a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail. Simple assault involves threatening a person, and the California courts have determined that a vehicle can be considered a deadly weapon for a charge of assault with a deadly weapon if it is used deliberately to injure someone. Battery means physically assaulting a person. Murder occurs when someone takes another person's life "with malice aforethought."
Reporting Road Rage in California
Both victims of road rage and those witnessing road rage in California should call 911 to notify the California Highway Patrol of the behavior. The 911 number is for emergencies only, which would be ongoing incidents of road rage or driving under the influence. To report an incident that you witnessed after it is concluded, call the nonemergency number, 800-TELLCHP, or 800-835-5247. This phone number can be used anywhere in the country to let the California Highway Patrol know about a road rage incident or other important information.
Obviously, anyone calling 911 or even the nonemergency number should have identifying information about the car and the driver they want to report. It is a good idea to note the make and color of the car, the license plate number and any distinctive features about the vehicle. It's also important to supply information about the driver to be sure that the correct person is identified as the road rage driver. These days, when almost every cell phone has a camera, videos of the incident are also extremely helpful to the CHP.
Reporting Aggressive Drivers to the DMV
Anyone can report an aggressive or road rage driver to the DMV in California. The DMV is charged with promoting traffic safety and protecting the motoring public by minimizing the number of unsafe drivers.
To that end, the DMV provides a PDF form to download and fill out to report a driver who may no longer drive safety; this is called a Request for Driver Reexamination (DS 699). One of the reasons that can be checked when sending this form to the DMV is that the person acts violently or aggressively when driving. It is also possible to simply write a letter to the DMV to identify the driver and provide justification for the report.
Finally, it is possible to submit the information about a road rage driver to a national database online, like http://reportdangerousdrivers.com/. Be sure to get the license plate number of the car and any other information about the vehicle and the driver. Some apps are also available to report bad drivers for entertainment purposes, like baddrivers.com. But reporting to these apps will not get the information to law enforcement agencies.
- Great West Casualty Company: What Is the Difference between Aggressive Driving and Road Rage?
- Geiko: What Is Road Rage?
- Anger Management Group: What Is Road Rage?
- Shouse Law Firm: California Vehicle Code Section 13210
- Legislative Info: California Vehicle Code Section 13210
- California DMV: California Driver Handbook
- CHP: How to Notify
- DMV: Potentially Unsafe Driver
- DMV: Request for Driver Reexamination
- Never take the law into your own hands when dealing with an abusive driver. Do not provoke an obviously angry driver and avoid eye contact to prevent a potentially dangerous situation.
- Note that the best route is to go directly to the police. Third party sites may not always follow through in reporting the incident to the proper authorities.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.