In the self defense world we always stress the importance of awareness and good decision making. With a little preventative maintenance, any individual can reduce their public risk of assault and harassment. Quick fixes like avoiding dangerous locations, cell phone distractions, and public intoxication are great first steps. However, no person is completely safe from danger, no matter how well prepared they are. One perfect example is road rage.
Aggressive driving is commonplace in the modern world, accounting for about 66% of traffic fatalities in the United States1 . Unfortunately, it is also cumulative. Much like the Broken Window Theory, the more people are exposed to aggressive driving, the more they believe it is the norm, and thus, acceptable. Road rage incidences start off as honking, tailgating, verbal abuse, and obscene gestures, but sometimes escalate into situations of physical violence.
Take a look at this video. In it, a young man and his female passenger get into a fender bender with another vehicle. The video begins when the owner of the struck vehicle gets out and starts a confrontation (STRONG LANGUAGE WARNING. To read the full report of this incident, click here.):
Lot’s of anger and potential violence on display! Let’s break a few things down and examine if a fight would have been legally justifiable in this road rage incident. Before we start, understand that laws vary from state to state. I am going to use good general information and opinion, but there is wiggle room depending on your state laws.
Following Proper Accident Protocol
In order to make any conclusive judgement about the need for self defense in this situation, we first have to cover a few basics for accident protocol2. From the context of the video, we can assess that this was a fender bender type of accident. No one was injured and the angry aggressor mentions “rear-ending”. Usually rear ending accidents are the fault of the person in the back as they have control of proper driving distance. Even quick stops are generally considered the responsibility of the rear driver.
In fender benders, it is typical to pull the accident off of the main roadway. Pictures are generally taken as early in the process as possible, even before moving the accident if traffic allows. Serious accidents are not to be moved. In any accident that leave vehicular damage, both parties are expected to wait for police to arrive in order to report the incident and share their side of the story.
Assessing the Need for Self Defense During Road Rage
On to the big question at hand – would a self defense encounter have been warranted in this video?
We can safely assume that the drivers pulled off of the primary roadway and are waiting for police to arrive. The aggressor (large, muscly fellow) gets out of his car in order to berate the defender (thin fellow who perpetrated the fender bender). When the defender notices how angry the aggressor is, he makes the wise decision to stay in his car and lock the doors. The defender is then tempted multiple times by the aggressor to get out and fight. The aggressor goes so far as to kick the defender’s vehicle, bang on it, and pull at the handles.
To determine if getting out and fighting would have been justifiable self defense, we need to assess the aggressor’s IMOP (Intent, Means, Opportunity, and Preclusion). If all of those criteria are met, the defender would likely have the right to fight.
INTENT – Does the aggressor have the will and desire to cause harm? I think we see in this video that he very much does. In fact, he is overrun with intent, causing him to break into a full-on monkey dance.
MEANS – Does the aggressor have the capability to cause harm? The aggressor is young, angry, and filled with a mix of testosterone and muscle. Although he lacks a weapon, I think it is clear that he could do damage. On the flipside, a 70 year old lady throwing a similar tantrum after an accident would not possess the same “means” (although that video would be amazing to see).
OPPORTUNITY – Does the situation allow the aggressor to cause harm? The defender is locked inside of his vehicle. Since the aggressor does not have a tool to break the windows or unlock the vehicle, he does not have the opportunity to cause harm to the defender. The defender would have to willfully exit the vehicle in order to provide an opportunity.
PRECLUSION – Does the defender have the ability to escape from the situation without fighting? We can make a fairly safe assumption that both vehicles in this accident remained operational after the impact. Even though it is common accident protocol to park on the shoulder of the road and wait for police, when the aggressor began his abuse it was well within the power of the defender to drive away.
After assessing IMOP, we can see that “Intent” and “Means” are met, but “Opportunity” and “Preclusion” are not. As a result, getting out and fighting would not have been justifiable self defense on the part of the defender.
Not a Good Example of “How You Should Respond to Road Rage”
Under the video you see the caption: “How you should respond to road rage. Warning: Strong language.” The individual who posted this video was impressed by the self control of the defender who didn’t get goaded into an argument or fight. I was impressed by that also – the aggressor was being obnoxious. However, this is actually a dangerous example of how to handle road rage. The aggressor was in such a state of heightened agitation that, had he gotten his hands on the defender, the beating could have been traumatic and might have extended to the defender’s wife. Furthermore, the defender was lucky that the aggressor did not have a weapon. A gun or any blunt instrument could have granted the aggressor access through the windows of the vehicle, and of course would have lead to serious risks for the defender.
Another problem was the arrival of the aggressor’s friends. Although in this situation they mildly attempted to calm the aggressor down, it could have very easily turned into group violence. You will notice that when the friends arrive, the aggressor goes into an even more frenzied state. This is typical of a full monkey dance as the aggressor feels empowered by the support and hopes to impress his crew with his intensity.
It’s clear that the defender should have drove away as quickly as possible, finding a crowded area or police station while his wife called the police in order to update them on the situation and location. It would have been ill-advised for them to drive directly home or to a secluded location. If, for some reason, the defender’s car did not run in this situation, the wife should have maintained contact with the police while the defender attempted to secure assistance (via phone) from nearby businesses, friends, relatives, etc.
Arguments FOR Self Defense
The following are some arguments that might be made in order to justify violence or fighting. I think some are more valid than others.
The Aggressor Hit the Vehicle – It might be argued that as soon as the aggressor struck or damaged the defender’s vehicle, he opened himself up for counter attack. The justification is that the defender has the right to defend his property. In reality, the damage done to the vehicle did not change “Opportunity” or “Preclusion”. In most U.S. states, feeling threatened wouldn’t have been enough in this scenario. Had the aggressor busted through the window, self defense could have been justified. However, he did not. The defender DOES have the right to sue the aggressor afterward for damages.
The Wife Was Verbally Abused – One big cause of violence between males is the treatment of females. It’s one of those tribal, DNA things we all have as a result of primitive evolution. Even though the aggressor verbally abuses the defender’s female, he does not have the opportunity to hurt her (nor does he directly threaten her). Fighting for the “honor” of his woman would be ego-based for the defender, not self defense.
My Car is My Castle – The castle doctrine in America generally states that a person has the right to defend his/her home, with violence if necessary, when they feel threatened. The castle doctrine varies significantly from state-to-state. For example, Texas and Florida do not require preclusion for home or vehicle – if the defender feels threatened, they may react violently. Other states, like New York and Pennsylvania, require preclusion for both home and vehicle3. The video we are analyzing in this article was filmed in Camp Pendleton, California. In California, the defender is subject to preclusion and could not have used castle laws as a defense for violence4.
Avoiding the Street Justice Temptation
There is one special consideration that I want to make for martial artists. After studying martial arts for awhile, most people have the desire to use their abilities for the betterment of society. This sometimes manifests as an urge to exact “street justice” on criminals and bad people. The aggressor in this video is large, obnoxious, and volatile. In fact, he is a perfect avatar for the kind of bully that causes a lot of men and women to join martial arts in the first place. The temptation to get out and deliver street justice to this young man would have been palpable for many of us.
I would remind martial artists of three things when they are confronted with a situation like this:
1. The ego can land people in trouble. The aggressor in this video is a big, fit Marine who is enraged. It’s wise to assume he would be difficult to beat in a fight. In addition, his large friends are nearby. All in all, this is not a desirable fight. Don’t let emotions cloud proper judgement of the situation.
2. Make sure you understand self defense laws inside and out before you carry weapons, especially guns. If the defender in this video had panicked and pulled out a gun, he could have laid waste to a number of U.S. Marines and spent the rest of his life in jail (or worse).
3. Traditional martial arts like karate are designed for life protection, not for street justice. Withholding the hand unless there are no other options is key to karate’s practice and study. This, in fact, is another reason why traditional arts are so valuable in modern society – life protection coincides with IMOP (Intent, Means, Opportunity, and Preclusion). If a person is following the old ways, they will understand the deadliness of their practice and the value of withholding it unless absolutely necessary. Martial artists should watch this video and imagine themselves protecting the life of the young marine by not engaging in combat with him.
. My understanding of traffic law and self defense law comes from time in the Douglas County Sheriff CSV Academy and Patrol. I am not a legal expert and readers should take time to learn the traffic and self defense laws in their state.
Photos Courtesy of the following websites: Fender Bender By Eddie Maloney from North Las Vegas, USA (FENDER BENDER) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Three Car Accident By David King from Haifa, Israel (Three Car Accident – Kikar HaSefer) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Broken Window By Myke2020 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Did you know you can use your space bar to scroll down on websites? Go ahead, try it now (unless you’re on mobile).
Pretty slick huh? Little tips and tricks like that have become known as ‘hacks’ due to our computer friendly society. Hacks are a great way to improve your productivity and efficiency in virtually any endeavor. That includes teaching martial arts.
One thing I’ve realized over the years is that good instructors know how to manage themselves as much as their students. Avoiding emotional and psychological tangles frees up the class to focus on the material at hand. The following three mental hacks are great ways for you to improve both the quality and consistency of your teaching.
1. Remove Your Patience Trigger
Imagine a thermometer. As heat rises so does the red mercury goo inside the glass piping. Now imagine things getting so hot that the goo bursts out of the top (I don’t know if this actually happens, but you see it in cartoons all the time). A patience trigger is like that, where we experience a certain level of annoyance or frustration and it results in an external reaction. Road rage, for example, is a very common patience trigger. A slight inconvenience on the road can cause people to launch into fits of rage.
The big realization here is that with a little forethought you can understand where your own patience trigger is in most common situations, learn to feel it coming, and take active mental steps to avoid allowing that trigger to activate.
The bigger realization is that when instructing martial arts you can eliminate that trigger if you have the wherewithal to try.
I remember many times parents approaching me and apologizing for their child’s behavior in class. In most of those scenarios the child was definitely being disruptive. I had to take special time and attention to wrangle them back in. The funny part is that the parents expected me to have the same patience trigger for their child as they themselves had (which is to say, very low tolerance). However, as a martial arts instructor I (and you) live up to a different standard while in the dojo. It is our job to maintain balance, poise, and focus. The rest of the class will feed on that energy one way or another. Therefore, even as your temperature rises, there can be no trigger moment where you lose your cool.
This one is hard to execute all the time and is something we need to remind ourselves regularly especially when there is a particularly abrasive annoyance. We should not confuse this for allowing ourselves to be pushed around. The Sensei does not tolerate annoyance and bullying but neither do they sink to those levels.
Identify the behavior you are most likely to encounter in the dojo that will trigger you. Learn to feel it coming and consciously disarm it.
2. Utilize Your “Prime Time” Self
This one is all about being a professional. It’s odd, but since the Sensei is autonomous in their own dojo they lack accountability. Good managers and CEOs know that going to work means delivering top performance. The company is relying on them and they are expected to set the tone for the rest of the work place. On the other hand, many Sensei fall into the trap of believing their dojo is their own personal playground, workshop, or therapy couch.
Your “Prime Time Self” is essentially a way of bringing your best game to the dojo time after time. When you enter the dojo door you should imagine yourself putting away external problems, worries, and grievances. You should then adopt the persona of your best self – the teacher you WANT to be. This does not mean putting on airs and pretending like you’re Confucius. Instead it means behaving in a way that is worthy of your title as Sensei – thoughtful, level-headed, and focused. The attention of the class should be on progress and the art itself, not the mood of the Sensei.
3. Avoid Buddy Syndrome
This particular hack tends to apply more to Western instructors than Eastern. In Eastern culture the role of instructor has a built-in aloofness that can be downright distant at times. Western culture, on the other hand, prefers more of a coach mindset where the authority figure becomes a mix of friend and confidant as well as guide. The role of Sensei can be found somewhere in between, but it’s easy to get off track.
If a Sensei has an innate need to be liked and approved-of they may find themselves looking to be friends with students as well as an instructor. This can lead to buddy syndrome, which often results in complications. A Sensei’s treatment of students needs to range from encouraging to challenging and will often switch at a moment’s notice. If a student’s behavior begins to go awry, or their focus wains, the Sensei needs to get them back on track. This treatment can be more stern and demanding than a ‘friend’ would be able to do, so when those roles begin to mix a certain amount of relationship drama is sure to ensue.
Having a friendly, comfortable relationship with students is one of the great pleasures of being a Sensei…but avoiding buddy syndrome is important to maintain at all times.
Conclusion – First Know Thyself!
When people think about teaching a martial art they tend to focus on technical content and managing the personalities of the students. Those are both important, but if you don’t check yourself first you’ll find more trouble than you expected and be less prepared to deal with it. Use these hacks the next time you take the floor and remember – you are setting the tone. What you see in the students is a reflection of yourself!
I was recently at an Iaido seminar working Seitei waza. The instructor, Iwakabe Hideki Sensei, was demonstrating one form in particular known as Sanpogiri.
(For reference, here is Noboru Ogura Sensei demonstrating the form):
After discussion of technical details and multiple demonstrations it was our turn to try. We performed as a group, and then individually. When it was my turn I got up, moved through the waza as best I could, and then waited. Iwakabe Sensei shuffled up to me, smirked, and said:
“Good, but next time don’t walk like an old Japanese man.”
You see, after decades of training Iwakabe Sensei has developed a subtle gait to his walk, taking careful steps so as not to find himself off-balance or tweak any pre-existing injuries. These adjustments over the years were born of necessity and a desire to continue training despite the natural effects of both age and hard exercise.
I was watching Iwakabe Sensei as closely as possible, and while I was focusing on the technique I was inadvertently absorbing everything else. In order to make myself perform like him, somewhere my mind and body decided I needed to walk like him too. This was in no way an actual conscious decision. It was astute of Iwakabe Sensei to catch me on that and correct me ASAP before it became a habit of muscle memory.
The Natural Evolution of Kojin Kata
We often think of kata as these unchanging obelisks of technique, handed down throughout the centuries. Of course, we all do our best to live up to that lofty standard of “unchanging-ness” but never truly achieve it (nor, as it turns out, would we want to).
As a person grows in their understanding of a form it naturally takes on subtleties that the performer may or may not realize they are imbuing into the performance. These nuances can come from mindset, understanding, visualization, and favored ways of moving the body. Another way nuance develops is through age. The combination of mental growth as well as physical aging turns into something known as “kojin kata“, roughly translated as an “old man’s form”.
It sounds slightly derogatory, but kojin kata is far from it. As a martial artist grows they are better able to understand their own abilities (and eventually limitations). The end result is economy of movement and clarity of purpose. Unlike sports competition, classical “do” (“the way”) martial arts are designed to enhance a person’s life, increase longevity, and give a sense of purpose.
For example, this performance by Higa Yuchoku Sensei occured just a year before his passing. You can tell the limitations he has but also his strength of spirit:
Higa Yuchoku is forced to perform his version of Passai in a way that suits his understanding and capabilities. It would NOT be suitable for a young practitioner in their 20s or 30s to move in such a way. This was the point Iwakabe Sensei was trying to get across to me. At my age, I need to move in a way that is either natural for my body type or constructive for body development.
Naturalness vs Body Development
One of the biggest lessons to be learned in traditional martial arts is how to be natural vs how to develop body conditioning. Every style emphasizes both things to a different extent. For example, Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Seitei Waza emphasizes a lot of body development in terms of flexibility, strength, and balance. The stances used in these forms are long and deep, the movements big and smooth. Old (koryu) styles like Muso Shinden Ryu or Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu tend to have a more combative focus and thus the stances are higher, natural, and mobile. The cutting and sheathing motions tend to be sharp and quick.
In karatedo, the mix of naturalness vs body development is just as pronounced. Some styles like Shotokan feature many deep stances and large movements ideal for body development. Old Okinawan styles like Matsumura Seito feature body movement that is higher and smaller for combative engagement. This comparison can be done with almost any style, and most styles have elements of both to different degrees.
Back to Kojin…
Connecting all this back to the original point of kojin kata – it’s important to look down the road when practicing your style. Take note of how your instructor trained and how it eventually affected his/her body. Heed their advice in terms of things to do and NOT to do. Most of all, don’t be overly focused on mimicking individuals who teach you at the expense of what they are trying to tell you. Also, remember that arts inevitably grow over time. The only way this becomes detrimental is if those teaching and passing the art along don’t fully understand what they are doing and how it is changing while in their care.