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Understanding Agressive Driving & Road Rage – Aug. 20, 2013

It is estimated that at least 1500 people are seriously injured or killed each year as a result of aggressive driving and “road rage.”  An interesting article in The Guardian this past week, regarding a crackdown by the British government on unsafe driving, highlighted some of the human and environmental factors that lead to these senseless tragedies.

A specialized discipline of psychology, known as “traffic psychology,” studies the relationship between psychological processes and the behavior of road users.  While we may naturally just assume that these aggressive driving or road rage incidents are limited to a few “problem” drivers, research in traffic psychology suggests that all drivers are subject to certain biases and cognitive errors that occur when we get behind the wheel.   Some of these lead to aggressive driving which the NHTSA defines as “The operation of motor vehicle in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger persons or property.” “Road Rage” is the angry and violent behavior at the extreme of the aggressive driving scale and is often escalated by these cognitive errors.

Following is a summary of a few of these biases and errors listed in the article. I encourage you to read the article for additional detail.

  • Drivers often fail to realize that they are being aggressive while driving, behaving in ways they would never do in a face to face situation such as standing in line.
  • Driving requires predicting the actions of other drivers. This can lead to the illusion that they are in control.  For example, drivers often believe they are safer than they are by “predicting” others behaviors – such as underestimating minimal safe braking distance.
  • Insulation within the physical vehicle tends to cause a dehumanization of other drivers and pedestrians in a way that is quite different from bumping into or invading the personal space of an individual in a face to face encounter.
  • Studies indicate that there is a social status associated with vehicles, with drivers sometimes acting more aggressively to those of “lower status.” A recently read an article about a study that suggested that BMW drivers were less courteous to pedestrians in crosswalks for example.
  • A major cognitive error is that we believe we can see everything happening around us when in fact we are receiving far more information when driving than we can possible process at once. This leads to a false sense of security and sometimes a distorted view of events.

Additional biases and cognitive errors while driving and more information can be found at this link: http://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2013/aug/19/driving-road-neuroscience-psychology   

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