How to React to Road Rage When Your Kids Are in the Car


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Photo: Dmitry Kalinovsky (Shutterstock)

I’m not entirely sure why the trucker was so offended by my zipper merge—which is the proper way to merge, thank you very much—but he very clearly didn’t like it and his horn let me know it. I was driving a minivan full of kids ages 6 to 8 to school, and traffic was unusually heavy on this particular morning. A few minutes later, one of the kids noticed the same trucker was flipping off another car, which caused much excitement in our vehicle as they had all recently learned what the raising of the middle finger meant.

“He is NOT in a good mood today, is he?” I said as the truck approached us again in the crawling traffic. Sure enough, the truck saddled up beside us and the driver bestowed upon us double middle fingers.

How I reacted to the road rage

My vengeful son muttered, “I shall do it back to him,” and readied his fingers, but I had a better idea. The traffic was so slow that we were still right beside the trucker, so I directed all three kids smile as big as they could and wave at him. I directed them to be “as cute as possible.”

I watched the trucker’s reaction as they did. He waved back, smiled at them, even. He and I made eye contact. He looked contrite. We had reached a truce and the rest of the ride was without incident.

I felt very smug, but upon recounting the story to others, I wondered if I should have left well enough alone. I didn’t know how deep his rage ran, and I didn’t know if he had weapons in the car or what it might take for him to feel justified in using them.

How you should react to road rage with kids in the car

I asked David Clark, an attorney in Michigan, how I should have reacted in that moment, and he told me that while laws vary by state, “your only course of action is to take the defensive position. It’s critical to shield minors from the commotion, as participating in the aggression could also put you, the parent, into a position liable for child endangerment.”

I certainly wasn’t aggressive. Passive-aggressive though? Yes.

We’ve previously advised these ways to respond to road rage to diffuse the situation instead of escalate it:

  • Get out of the way, if possible
  • Put your pride aside (don’t do anything to further antagonize them)
  • Don’t make eye contact
  • Be empathic (assume there is something else entirely going on with them unrelated to this incident)

I did several things wrong. I made eye contact, which I usually wouldn’t have done. I couldn’t really get away in the moment, but in a real emergency, I could have used the shoulder. And by shaming him with cute children, I wasn’t being particularly empathetic—and that’s where the teachable moment could have come in. When kids are in the car with you, you can use an episode of road rage to talk to them about how sometimes, when people seem this angry over such a small offense, there actually is a deep sadness beneath the rage. Maybe they just got some really bad news and it’s causing them to react in a way they ordinarily wouldn’t.

You can report unsafe or aggressive driving to your state’s DMV or the police and, in the case of this driver who was driving a commercial vehicle, you could call their employer. If you (or a passenger) can do so safely, you could also film them for the police.

Or you can just let it go, and move on safely with your day.

   



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