Although aggressive driving is a significant contributor to traffic fatalities, attempts to address this problem have not led to a significant reduction in aggressive driving-related fatalities. Understanding the reasons of aggressive driving and how to stop this could help increase traffic safety.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines aggressive driving as occurring when “an individual commits a combination of moving traffic offenses so as to endanger other persons or property.” Most people drive aggressively from time to time and many drivers are not even aware they are doing it.
Approximately 6.8 million crashes occur in the United States each year, and a substantial number are estimated to be caused by aggressive driving. Even minor accidents can cause long-term anxiety as well as fears and phobias about driving or riding in a car. The latest study by British researchers suggests that at least one-third of all people involved in nonfatal accidents have post-traumatic stress disorder, persistent anxiety, depression, and phobias one year after the incident.
Aggressive driving is also bad for the environment. Researchers at the Flemish Institute for Technological Research has shown that aggressive driving during heavy traffic conditions can guzzle up to 40 percent more fuel. The exhaust gases from the aggressively driven cars contained considerably more polluting chemicals and in the case of carbon monoxide the increase was as much eight times greater than normal.
Many psychological factors are at play in aggressive driving. Human beings are naturally prone to territoriality and have the tendency to view their vehicle as an extension of their personal domain. They feel threatened by other vehicles and respond aggressively or out of an instinct to self-protection.
Driving may also lead some to feel a sense of power behind the wheel. Someone normally courteous and polite might become aggressive when driving.
Our natural competitive instinct can also be a factor in aggressive driving. Some drivers respond to being overtaken by another vehicle as a challenge. This, in turn may lead drivers to make risky overtaking maneuvers.
More serious still are drivers who try to threaten or punish others for a particular driving behavior that displeases them. They tend to drive too close to the vehicle in front, braking suddenly as a warning to the vehicle behind, deliberately blocking the passing lane, using headlights on full beam to punish other drivers, and shouting or making obscene gestures to other drivers.
Increasingly crowded and congested roads also lead to feelings of frustration and are responsible for cases of aggressive driving, such as illegal use of a hard shoulder, changing lanes without indicating, forgetting to turn off the indicator after the change, and preventing other drivers from entering a traffic lane.
Research shows that people who are experiencing aggressive/emotional or angry feelings before entering their vehicles are more likely to continue this behavior behind the wheel. A Los Angeles police psychologist said, “People are beginning to lose control… they get frustrated at the stack-ups on our freeways, they get angry at other inconsiderate drivers, and their tolerance level overflows. They explode. Their car becomes a weapon, and they strike out.”
Because of the extent of the problem of aggressive driving, increased enforcement and other external measures will only have a relatively limited effect. What is needed is the recognition by ordinary drivers of the problem and their resolve to try to curb their own aggressive driving and to show more respect for other drivers. Each of us in our daily lives can help by recognizing our own aggressive driving behavior and correcting it and by setting a good example of respect for other road users.
What can I do as a driver? Show courtesy to other drivers and avoid actions likely to provoke. Make sure that your driving does not upset others. Always indicate before changing lanes and turn indicator off when done, dip your bright headlights for oncoming vehicles at night, and do not block the passing lane for faster drivers.
Try to avoid driving when you are feeling stressful, emotional or angry. Relax behind the wheel and be patient. Try to be more tolerant to other drivers. Aggressive use of the horn can aggravate others. Do not assume that aggressive driving by others is aimed at you.
Plan ahead and allow plenty of time for your trip. Avoid getting into a situation where you are driving aggressively to get to an important meeting and risking your life and others just to gain a few minutes.
Do not react to other drivers who are looking for conflict or challenging you. Get out of the way without acknowledging the other drivers. Do not engage in eye contact and do not make hand or other gestures that may show your irritation or frustration with their behavior.
Do not tailgate. Riding the bumper of the vehicle in front of you is both annoying and unsafe. Honking the horn to express anger is aggravating.
We all make mistakes. Do not assume that all unsafe driving actions are intentional or personal. Be polite and courteous, even if the other driver isn’t. Before reacting to another driver’s mistake, ask yourself, “How many times have I made the same mistake?”
Do not let your phone or any other devices distract you while driving. Cell phone users are perceived as being poor drivers and presenting a traffic hazard.
Aggressive driving is a learned behavior. Children learn about aggressive driving from their parents. When parents drive aggressively with children in the vehicle, they teach them to drive like they do, even before they have a driver’s license. Kids learn by example. They’re always watching and learning.
Before initiating or responding violently to a traffic situation, ask yourself, “Is it worth being paralyzed or killed?” Remember, split-second impulsive actions can ruin the rest of your life and your family’s. Therefore, B-SAFE (Buckle up. Slow down. Always drive sober. Focus. Everyone share the road.)
— Iqbal Hossain is a transportation engineer with the Arizona Department of Transportation.