The Psychology of Aggressive Driving Behaviour – Tom Harrington LL B M Inst. MTD (June 2018)

The Psychology of Aggressive Driving Behaviour


Harrington Driver Training Services     

While the media tends to portray aggressive driving as an outward expression of anger – anything from flipping the bird or shaking a fist to an actual violent assault – research has found that many people identify aggressive driving or road rage as a feeling they experience even if they don’t act upon it. Traffic, long commutes and the anxiety of running late can all contribute to driving frustration and risky, aggressive behavior.  Traffic psychology is a discipline that studies the relationship between psychological processes and the behaviour of road users. Getting a richer and deeper understanding of psychology can help people achieve insights into their own actions as well as a better understanding of others, especially when behind the wheel. Driver behavior is frequently studied in conjunction with accident research in order to assess causes and differences in accident involvement. Research has indicated that a person’s car is used as an instrument of dominance, symbolizing power, and that the road then becomes an arena for competition and control. It has been ascertained, as mentioned in previous research and publications, that traffic safety depends on the integrated and complex relationship between various components: the psychology of the vehicle driver, the traffic, the vehicle, the environment and the road infrastructure. The component that, according to statistics, would appear to be the most important, since it is responsible for the majority of accidents (crashes), is the behavior and therefore the psychology of the vehicle’s driver. Traffic, in its complexity, is undeniably conditioned by vehicles, but also by drivers who have different psychological characteristics with multiform objectives and purposes.

Consequently, situations of imbalance can occur in which driving behavior can become irrational. The complexity of the interactions that occur in traffic alters the specific behaviors of various players. In order to have safe circulation that respects traffic, each driver must participate considering the behavior of the others and is willing to observe common safety needs without attempting to impose his own behavior.

 

To conclude, today, psychology has taken on a considerable scientific importance and it has become a fundamental instrument for becoming familiar with and interpreting the behavior of the individual in a single social setting. Consequently the accreditation of people to be drivers on the road should also include a psychological test aimed at assessing the person’s ability to adopt behaviors that form the basis of safe driving. It appears obvious that to approve an individual as being fit to drive in conditions of circulation safety, it is not sufficient to consider merely the theoretical  and experimental content currently required to obtain a driver’s license. We also need to perform a behavioral or attitudinal evaluation, using current psychological methods to determine the potential driver’s suitability for undertaking the complex task of driving, understanding and dealing with the mistakes of other road users on today’s challenging and overcrowded highways.

 

“The fights with his machine often lead a motorist to bitter anger and sorrow. But the good side is that this creates precious qualities like patience, skill, inventiveness and courage. Our motorist will therefore accept all adversities of the road without despair but with laughter: for the automobile bestows strength of will”. [1] [2]

 

Introduction

Mass motoring is arguably one of the crowning achievements of the 20th century. Never have so many been able to move so rapidly towards destinations particular to their wants or needs. In 1903 the Motor Act resulted in the licensing of UK drivers and vehicles for the first time. At the time, (Gazeley & Newell (2007) [3] reported that some 75 per cent of workers earned between £1 and £2 per week.

Licensing a vehicle cost £1.00 and a driver’s license a quarter of this. Initial licensing of approximately 5,000 licensed drivers, suggests that considerably less than 0.5 per cent of the adult population could drive. Now the UK has about 34 million licensed drivers among a population of 62 million. Of this 62 million about 25 per cent are too young to be legally licensed. In just over a century, then, driving has gone from a very unusual activity, performed by the few, to one in which 75 per cent of UK adults engage. With it brings driver behavior which sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.  Anger, frustration, aggression, ‘road rage’ and irritation are frequently experienced by many drivers and have prompted traffic psychologists to investigate the human elements of driving. Also, obvious lane cutters, tailgaters, speed demons and mobile phone users can make anyone’s blood boil. But next time you might want to take a breather before losing your cool. According to a new Australian study, the stress associated with aggressive traffic behaviour could have adverse health effects. [4]

So, are you an aggressive driver or road rage connoisseur whose disposition is unsuitable for safe driving and has this dangerous activity been around since the introduction of the Model T? In this article, the author analyses the interaction of road-safety factors to identify personality, attitude, ability and the reliability of the driver as it relates to traffic psychology.

Finally, some archaic and humorous motoring laws (and a few not associated with driving) will be explored for the reader’s enjoyment and titillation. This article also attempts to understand the common phenomenon experienced by thousands of motorists who experience hostile behaviour on their daily commute and to try and understand it better by looking at the discipline of traffic psychology.

 

What is Aggressive Driving Behaviour

Aggressive driving takes many forms. Typical driving behaviours include speeding, tailgating, ignoring traffic signs and regulations, dangerous lane changing, undertaking and preventing another vehicle from overtaking. The list goes on. Many people drive aggressively from time to time and are not even aware when they’re doing it. Aggressive driving is difficult to define because there are so many different manifestations, but having clear definition is important for police and legal action against it to succeed.

A Global Web Conference on Aggressive Driving issues organised in Canada in October 2000 offered the following definition: “A driving behaviour is aggressive if it is deliberate, likely to increase the risk of a collision and is motivated by impatience, annoyance, hostility and/or an attempt to save time.” A shorter and simpler definition might be: “Aggressive driving is ‘committing unprovoked attacks on other drivers’ such as not yielding to other vehicles wishing to overtake.” Man’s natural competitive instinct can also be a factor in aggressive driving. Some drivers respond to being overtaken by another vehicle as a challenge e.g. by speeding up, especially if they’re exceeding the posted speed limit. This, in turn may lead to showing off and racing at dangerous speeds. Another example of competition on the road is drivers who race to get away faster from traffic lights.

More serious still are drivers who try to threaten or punish others for a particular behaviour which displeases them. This is also referred to a ‘vigilante’ attitude and includes such behaviour as driving too close to the vehicle in front, braking suddenly, blocking the overtaking lane, (a very frequent occurrence on motorways Ed) using headlights on full beam to punish other drivers, and shouting or making obscene gestures to other drivers. On top of all this, we are bombarded by media portrayals of aggressive driving shown in a fun context, such as car chases in films and in children’s video games. Aggressive driving is a learned behaviour and children learn a lot about aggressive driving from their parents.

Aggressive driving is not quite the same as ‘road rage’. Cases of ‘road rage’ are relatively few but many result in extreme violence such as assaults, shootings and vehicle damage. [5]

 

Three Motivations

Traffic psychology is a discipline of psychology that studies the relationship between psychological processes and the behaviour of road users. In general, traffic psychology aims to apply theoretical aspects of psychology in order to improve traffic mobility by helping to develop and apply incident countermeasures, as well as by guiding desired behaviours through education and the motivation of road users. [6]

Traffic psychology distinguishes three motivations of driver behaviour: reasoned or planned behaviour; impulsive or emotional behaviour and habitual behaviour. [7] Getting a richer and deeper understanding of psychology can help people achieve insights into their own actions as well as a better understanding of others.Traffic psychology is a discipline of psychology that studies the relationship between psychological processes and the behavior of road users. In general, traffic psychology aims to apply theoretical aspects of psychology in order to improve traffic mobility by helping to develop and apply accident countermeasures, as well as by guiding desired behaviors through education and the motivation of road users. [8]

 

The Car – A Private Room

During the summer of 1979, the US suffered a fuel shortage that provoked a number of widely reported and angry incidents involving motorists who had to wait in long queues to obtain fuel for their cars. This was reminiscent of the earlier fuel crisis in Europe in 1973 when during the car-free Sunday’s imposed by some legislations, many drivers displayed highly unusual behavior e.g. Fris (1974) [9] reported a higher number of quarrels in Amsterdam and many other jurisdictions, which he attributed to frustration and fuel shortage. Such instances show just how important the car has become in peoples everyday life, in which it performs a role that transcends its functions as a means of transportation.

 

To some, the car seems to be viewed as a private room in which a person can express his private emotions without inhibitions and among such emotions, aggression seems to be prominent. Behavior is frequently studied in conjunction with accident research in order to assess causes and differences in accident involvement. As already mentioned, traffic psychologists distinguish three motivations of driver behavior: reasoned or planned behavior, impulsive or emotional behavior, and habitual behavior.

Additionally, social and cognitive applications of psychology are used, such as enforcement, road safety education campaigns, and also therapeutic and rehabilitation programs. [10] Broad theories of cognition, sensory-motor and neurological aspects psychology are also applied to the field of traffic psychology. Studies of factors such as attentionmemoryspatial cognition, inexperience, stress, inebriation, distracting/ambiguous stimuli, fatigue, and secondary tasks such as phone conversations are used to understand and investigate the experience and actions of road users. In just over a century, then, driving has gone from a very unusual activity, performed by the few, to one in which 75 per cent of Irish and UK adults engage in.

 

Immense Social Importance

Although there are no statistics to support the claim, it seems reasonable to assume that a century ago, when the age of legal licensing was also 17, there were few if any drivers younger than 20 years of age, and none in their eighties or older. At present, the UK has about 750,000 licensed teenage drivers, and 3,500,000 aged 70 years and over. When the distance motorists in these age groups drive is taken into account, the risk of death and serious injury both to themselves and other road users is far higher than for motorists in any other age group, and is remarkably similar in both the younger and older groups. [11]

Because of this, discussions regarding driver training, restrictions on driving and driver assessment are not only themes in driver behavior research, but of immense societal importance. The environmental impact of so many vehicles being driven and the need to re-balance the health impacts of the remarkable mobility and freedom the car has provided with is a far newer, but no less important concern for researchers and policy makers. Psychologists make a vital and highly valued contribution to these debates. However, driving research can also be of far more importance to our discipline beyond providing yet more evidence of the practical importance of psychology and its relevance to society.

 

As the anger and irritation that is evident during any snails-paced trip through congested rush-hour traffic will readily confirm, it is far from clear that driving has delivered the bonanza for the character of humanity that the above quote anticipated. What it has done, however, is to provide yet another example of the remarkable adaptability of our species. The tragedy and trauma associated with mass motoring can sometimes make driving seem among the more regrettable developments over the last century, but we need to set it against the almost inestimable contribution mass motoring has made to wealth creation, independent mobility and personal freedom.  Do the cognitive skills we have developed and honed in order to meet the previously unknown challenges driving has posed for us has benefited us in other areas of human endeavor?

All the Rage

Many people suffer from “it’s the other driver’s fault” syndrome and fail to recognize their own aggressive behavior. Another definition of aggressive driving can be defined as:

“Aggressive driving is an on-road behavior adopted by a driver that is intended to cause physical or psychological harm to another road user and is associated with feelings of frustration, anger or threat”. [12]

Aggressive driving and road rage actually predates roads. As the English nobleman Lord Byron wrote to Thomas Moore in 1817:

“Last week I had a row with a fellow carriage that was impudent to my horse. I gave him a swinging box on the ear, which sent him to the police, who dismissed his complaint” and said, that if I had not thumped him, they would have trounced him for being impertinent.… much blasphemy ensued and some menace, which I stopped by dismounting and opening the carriage door, and ultimately with an intention of mending the road with his immediate remains, if he did not hold his tongue. He held it. [13]

There are three typical routes to road- rage; threats, injustice and frustration.

  • Threats which may include physical threats, threats to your vehicle or threats to your ego.
  • Injustice or feelings outraged by another driver’s ineptitude along with your own obsession to be right.
  • Frustration of being thwarted by distracted drivers who are texting, eating, drinking, and shaving etc. [14]

In the US, there have been many instances of violence on freeways, including shootings causing death and injury. The number of fatal accidents involving enraged drivers has increased 10-fold since 2004, according to data compiled by the National Transport Highway Safety Association. (NTHSA).[15] Some researchers have suggested that this perceived increase in aggressive driving may be due to increasing number of vehicles competing for limited road infrastructure, which results in an increase in congestion and competition for road space and a sense of pressure for the greater economic use of time impacting on driver frustration levels. [16]

A popular opinion is that driving transforms the person, someone who outside the car is very pleasant and placid but who turns into a violent person when sitting behind the wheel. (See previous article Road Rage- The “Jekyll & Hyde Syndrome”) A car is like a second home and motorists and tends to respond to perceived threats in a territorial fashion. Unfortunately, when another driver makes a mistake, it is often difficult for him to apologize or to signal “sorry, excuse me” in a way that can be readily understood. (Would raising the hand–similar to acknowledging a courtesy suffice? Ed.)

By contrast, cars provide an environment in which individuals may feel safe to display hostility. A car gives the motorist power, protection, easy escape and anonymity. Not surprisingly, hostile behavior is relatively common. [17] Whilst the prevalence of the behavior is difficult to reliably identify, the consequences of on-road aggression can be severe, with extreme cases resulting in property damage, injury or even death. Getting cut off is one thing, but when a huge gas guzzler whips in front of you, it seems to make the situation worse.

Angry Road Warriors

Indiana University Psychologist, Raymond Novaco, would argue that a person’s car is used as an instrument of dominance, symbolizing power, and that the road then becomes an arena for competition and control (Novaco, 1989; [18] Whitlock, 1971).[19] So remember, that the driver in the large SUV who just cut you off is probably diminutive in other areas. Also, one of the most discouraging aspects of driving is the prevalence of angry drivers. Of course, no one likes it when they are cut off, or when someone weaves through traffic, cruises in the overtaking lane or undertakes on the hard shoulder and while some people handle bad drivers’ actions with grace, others turn to more aggressive methods of expression.

The term “road rage” refers to violent behavior by a driver of a vehicle, which causes accidents or incidents on roadways. Common manifestations of road rage include swearing under one’s breath to deliberate acts of physical violence.  Acts of sudden acceleration, braking, close tailgating, sounding the vehicle’s horn or flashing lights excessively, and, of course, the classic one fingered salute. But, when obscenities start flying from the mouth of a parent, with children in tow, or a sweet looking older woman, that has to make you wonder what exactly makes level-headed people turn in to angry road warriors. Drivers may adopt on-road aggression in response to ‘other driver’ aggression.

Hence reporting an incident to the police may also require the reporting of one’s own on-road behavior, a risk that some drivers may not be willing to take. Perspective is an important part of road-rage prevention. You are you. The other driver is the other driver. Only you can let someone ruin your day or worse, or push your ‘hot buttons’.  Focus on being ‘relentlessly positive’ and realize you can’t control, coerce, or fix other people. You can only manage you. (Of course, you can set a good example). Practice courtesy and kindness, starting with you first. As humans’ beings, we need to assess whether anger has any value, it destroys our peace of mind. Compassion, on the other hand, brings optimism and hope.

How ‘PEST’ Can Help You

Before you sound that horn in an aggressive manner, remember the mnemonic PEST to help you keep calm, drive safely and avoid risky or aggressive driving behaviour.

Play it Safe. Do your best to keep your distance from an aggressive driver and move to a different lane if necessary.

Enjoy the Ride. No matter what other drivers do however, you can do certain things that will help you maintain a peaceful state of mind. Focus on the scenery, chat with your passengers or listen to relaxing music.

Step into the Other Driver’s Shoes. It’s all too easy to demonize the other driver as a Mad Max renegade purposely out to run you off the road. But in all likelihood, he’s just running late for work (you know like you were the other day) or perhaps he swerved to avoid a pothole. Also, consider, that maybe, just maybe, you did something to annoy him.

Take the High Road. In other words, let it go. Turn the other cheek. Looking at an aggressive driver is like a kid throwing a tantrum in a supermarket. You may not like the child’s behaviour, but you do not take it personally. Also, is it that big a deal to allow that silly driver to go ahead and merge into the traffic lane in front of you? [20]

Also, remember not to offend, be tolerant and forgiving – allow for other drivers mistakes, do not respond and don’t engage. The most important actions you can take to avoid aggressive driving take place inside your head. By changing your approach to driving you can make every trip more pleasant.

A Psychological Test

Various researches indicate that aggressive driving is a complex phenomenon. Driving is a social system in which it is still people who interacts with each other and not machines. Because psychologists are experts in what people experience and how they behave, it needs traffic psychologists to analyze this behavior in this social system and if necessary modify it, in order to improve safety for everyone on the roads. Psychology has taken on a considerable scientific importance and it has become a fundamental instrument for becoming familiar with and interpreting the behavior of the individual in a single social setting. Consequently, the accreditation of people to become drivers on the road should also include a psychological test or test of temperamental ability (as proposed by the EEC in 1974, but never implemented) aimed at assessing the driver’s ability to adopt behaviors that form the basis of safe driving. But at what point might someone be too disabled or too elderly to drive? Do psychologists know enough about driving and traffic psychology to make this decision? How do humans do something as complicated as driving, while appearing to devote so little attention to it? [21]

Law and Order

Lawmakers may be listening to researchers when creating driving-related legislation, but that doesn’t mean that they always listen to common sense. The law books are littered with ridiculous driving related laws. The first ever speed limit was set in the United Kingdom in 1865— 4 mph in the country and 2 mph in town. To make matters worse for these slow moving drivers, each vehicle was required to have three drivers, two that sat in the car and one to walk in front carrying a red flag to warn the horses and carriages which shared the road. Imagine that on your morning commute. But, funny laws are not restricted to those first automotive pioneers:

  • In modern day Florida, if you tie an elephant, goat or alligator to a parking meter, you must pay the fare as you would for a car.
  • In Tennessee, it is illegal to shoot game from your car, but a special exception is made for shooting whales.  (Lawmakers were obviously trying to keep the ballooning Tennessee whale population under control).
  • Stopping for ice cream on a hot day in Kentucky can turn sour if you are caught unlawfully transporting the cone in your back pocket while driving?
  • If your car breaks down in Detroit and you are waiting for assistance, be aware that sitting in the middle of the street to read a newspaper is illegal.
  • One of the most bizarre driving laws comes to us from Pennsylvania, where if you spy a team of approaching horses, you are required by law to pull to the side of the road and cover your car with a blanket or dust cover that has been painted or sewn to blend into the scenery. But, if the horses react skittishly to your efforts, you are then required to disassemble your car and hide the parts in the nearby underbrush.

Finally, the following are some of this writer’s favorites although not all are associated with driving:

  • In Ireland the punishment for suicide – hanging.
  • In the UK, a pregnant woman may relieve herself anywhere she wishes, even if that’s in a policeman’s helmet.
  • In the UK, you must carry a bale of hay in your car at all times, why, presumably to feed the horse/s.
  • In London, it is illegal for a person (knowingly) with the plague to flag down a taxi or try to ride on a bus.
  • In Alabama US, it is illegal to drive while blindfolded.
  • Under the Indian Motor Vehicle Act 1914, an inspector in Andhra-Pradesh must have well-brushed teeth, and will be disqualified if he has a pigeon chest, knock-knees, flat feet and hammer toes.

Conclusion

Many drivers are prone to anger, frustration, and downright rudeness while driving and therefore exposing themselves to accidents that affect not only themselves but other road users. While some people handle bad driver’s actions with grace, others turn to more aggressive methods of expression. A question one has to ask is:  are driver trainers contributing enough to assist their learners in dealing with the psychological aspects of driving and its associated behavioral problems.

Research has shown that a person’s car is an instrument of dominance, symbolizing power and the road becomes an arena for competition and control. Human behavior is notoriously difficult to change, and when driving, it often seems like it’s the other guy who needs to change. In the coming years technology may be able to provide some assistance. While legislation is an important step in discouraging some types of driving behavior, you can’t legislate behavior change. As we all know from experience with speed limits, enforcement is effective but the effects are often fleeting, lasting about as long as it takes to get through a speed trap or speed enforcement zone.  Although we humans may not want to change our driving behavior, technology could eventually force us all to be the safe drivers that we should be. Or that we at least want others to be.

Motoring has, since it began, been viewed with a mixture of suspicion, fear, excitement and promise, as the opening quote in this article shows from a German text early in the last century. Psychological perspectives on drivers and driving have been with us for since before the advent of mass motoring. The car’s unique potential to afford freedom and compromise safety has been a focus of formal psychological study for almost as long. This has resulted in a canon of excellent research, the shaping of interventions and legislation, and the saving and enhancement of lives. In seeking to prevent collisions, it has had quite an impact. At what point might someone be too disabled or too elderly to drive? Do psychologists know enough about driving and traffic psychology to make this decision? How do humans do something as complicated as driving, while appearing to devote so little attention to it? In the final analysis, perhaps the day is nigh when the accreditation of people to become drivers on the road should also include a psychological test or test of temperamental ability (as proposed by the EEC in 1974) aimed at assessing the driver’s ability to adopt behaviors that form the basis of safe driving.

 

Also, driver rehabilitation through psychological counseling and therapeutic programmes such as speed and drink awareness courses etc. needs to be considered for those drivers convicted by a court of on-road aggressive behaviors. (Some of these are already implemented) ergo, helping to reduce the existence of aggressive on-road driving behavior and improving the safety of all drivers who traverse our ever increasingly over – crowded roads. Remember, steer clear of aggressive driving – getting to your destination should be half the battle. Finally, what would the Dalai Lama say or do about aggressive driving behavior and road-rage:

 

“Go forth down the road and be yourself, with compassion towards others. Stop caring about your ‘space’. Tint your windows. Get a subscription to satellite radio and enjoy your music and commercials. Realize road-rage is ridiculous, life-threatening, and not something you have to participate in, ever”.

 

[1]  (In Allgemeines uber denAutomobilismus Stein dwr Weisen, XXVII, 1901, cited by Moser, 2003).

[2] Gazeley, I.S. & Hewell, A.T. (2007) Poverty in Britain in 1904. An early social survey rediscovered. Retrieved 30   May 2012 – from tinyurl.com/byppuy 4.

[3] Gazeley, I.S. & Hewell, A.T. (2007) Poverty in Britain in 1904. An early social survey rediscovered. Retrieved 30 May 2012 – from tinyurl.com/byppuy 4.

[4] Science Direct. Effort – reward imbalance at work and driving anger in an Australian community sample: Is there a link between work stress and road rage? https://sciencedirect.com

[5] United Nations Economic Forum (UNEF). Aggressive Driving  Behavior  4th Road Safety Week (5-11 April 2004) https://www.unef.org

[6] Rathengatter, T. (1997) “Psychological aspects of road user behaviour”, Applied Psychology: An International review. 46 (3):223-234.

[7] https://www.thepsychologist.bbs.org.uk

[8] Groeger, J. A. [2001] Understanding driving. Applying cognitive psychology to a complex everyday task. Hove.   Psychology Press.

[9] International Review of Applied Psychology. (SAGE London & Beverly Hills) vol29 (1980) 416-474

[10] Conkle, A. (2007) Decisions, Decisions. Observer 20, 27-28.

[11]  The Psychologist – The British Psychology Society. Psychology on the Road. Sept. 2012 – vol 25 – (pp.662-663).

[12] The Psychosocial Factors Influencing Aggressive Driving Behaviour. Sharon Rosemary O’Brien (Thesis).Bachelor of Social Science, Bachelor of Psychology (Hons.) Queensland University of technology (2011) http://eprints.gut.edu.au

[13] Letters & Journals of Lord Byron, with notices of his life, by Thomas Moore. Harpers Stereotype ed., vol2 183. https://booksgoogle.ie

[14] Road Rage. The fast and  very, very furious: why we get road rage and how we can stop it. https://melmagazine.com. Last accessed June 2018.

[15] Road-rage. The fast and very, very furious: why we get road-rage and how we can stop it.https://melmagazine.com

[16] Connell and Joint (1996), IIHS (1997), Lajunen, Parker and Summala, (1999, Mizell, (1997) and Shinar, (1998).

[17] Hemenway, David et al (2005). Is an armed society a polite society? Guns and road rage. Accident analysis and Angry Road Warriors Prevention. https://www.npr.org

[18] Novaco, R.N. Aggression on roadways.

[19] Whitlock, T. A. (1971). Death on the Road. Tavistock, London.

[20] Robert Nemerovski Psy.D. A San Francisco – based psychologist.

[21] Porter, B.E. [Ed.] [2011] Handbook of Traffic Psychology. New York. Academic Press. www.iaapsy.org/division13

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply